Sorry Sox—C.C. for Cy

Chris DuttonContributor IFebruary 18, 2008

    The Cy Young Award is presented annually to the best pitcher in each league, as voted upon by the Baseball Writers Association of America.  Recipients of the award have typically demonstrated outstanding seasons as measured by common box-score statistics such as ERA, win-loss record and strikeouts.  While these statistics certainly help to indicate how valuable a pitcher has been to his team, they also tell an incomplete story as far as inherent value and ability is concerned.  For example, ERA depends on the defensive capabilities of the team as well as park factors and batting average on balls in play (BABIP), all of which are out of the pitcher’s control.  Win-loss record can be misleading for pitchers with poor run support or simply bad timing; someone who throws eight starts of 7 IP, 1 ER baseball and earns a no-decision in every case might finish the season with a seemingly mediocre .500 win percentage.  Finally, strikeouts provide a better understanding of the pitcher’s inherent capabilities – K rates are highly correlated from year to year and are defense-independent – but should be analyzed in combination with other metrics such as walk rates (i.e. K/BB ratio) or homeruns in order to paint an accurate picture of true strike-zone command.  With these thoughts in mind, I will compare the seasons of C.C. Sabathia and Josh Beckett (arguably the top two contenders for the AL last season) in order to determine who I believe is most deserving of the 2007 Cy Young Award.



            Looking at win-loss record, ERA and strikeouts, Sabathia and Beckett seem to have near-identical numbers:















However, there is much more to the story.  Let’s begin by reconsidering the problems with taking win-loss record at face value.  First of all, it is crucial to understand the role of the rest of the team in determining win%.  A closer look reveals that while both pitchers recorded 7 losses, Sabathia also pitched 8 no-decisions compared to Beckett’s 3.  Furthermore, during those 8 starts Sabathia compiled a 2.89 ERA and gave up two or fewer runs through 5+ innings in 6 of them.  During his 7 losses Sabathia posted a 4.99 ERA compared to Beckett’s 5.40, suggesting that the Boston offense helped land Beckett more wins despite the higher ERA.  In fact, the Red Sox provided 6.42 runs of support per 9 innings while Cleveland only provided Sabathia with 5.1.  Over the course of 30 starts, this amounts to a season total of roughly 40 runs – certainly enough for Sabathia to pick up at least an extra win or two. 

            As for ERA, the difference cannot be attributed to team defense – Boston committed 81 errors with a .986 FPCT, Cleveland committed 92 errors with a .985 FPCT – or park factors, since both Progressive Field and Fenway Park favor hitters at a comparable level (1.120 and 1.177 runs, respectively).  However, there is some evidence that hitters simply created more hits on balls in play against Sabathia (BABIP = .316) than Beckett (BABIP=.307), although both were particularly unlucky and the difference is likely insignificant (league average BABIP=.290).  Finally, while the strikeout rates are comparable, there are some considerations to keep in mind.  First of all, Sabathia recorded more than 40 more innings than Beckett and therefore featured a lower K/9 rate (7.8 vs. 8.7).  Perhaps more importantly, despite the additional innings Sabathia collected only 37 walks compared to Beckett’s 40, resulting in a Major League-leading SO/BB ratio of 5.65 (Beckett came in at #3 with a ratio of 4.85).  At this point it should be clear that the numbers presented above only provide a glimpse of information about these pitchers, and that a closer inspection reveals that Sabathia in fact has a significant edge on Beckett in several important categories.

            Some advanced statistics can also be used to shed light on the difference between Sabathia and Beckett.  For example, we can look at pitching runs above average/replacement (PRAA/PRAR) in order to determine the number of runs the pitcher prevented in comparison to an average or replacement-level player.  Sabathia has the edge in these categories, with a 29 PRAA and 95 PRAR compared to Beckett’s 27 PRAA and 90 PRAR.  The same edge holds when considering value over a replacement player (VORP), with Sabathia at 63.6 (#3 among all pitchers) and Beckett at 57.3 (#10).  In terms of walks plus hits per inning pitched, both pitchers sported an impressive 1.141 WHIP.    

        Overall, the question boils down to what factors are most significant in determining a pitcher’s value.  Is the “best” pitcher the one with the best win%?  The lowest ERA?  As we have shown, these statistics can be valuable but also misleading.  After a closer look at the story behind these numbers, I have shown that the race really shouldn’t have been as close as it was.  Sabathia led the majors with 241 innings pitched, showing a level of consistency and durability that any team would value (he also threw 4 complete games to Beckett’s 1).  Also, he excelled at controlling the strike zone, posting a ML-leading SO/BB ratio of 5.65.  Advanced statistics show that he prevented nearly 30 runs above an average pitcher and posted a VORP of 63.6, which translates roughly to 6 wins for the team.  Had post-season performance played a role in the voting, this decision would have been a lot closer.  Games 1 and 5 of the ALCS made Sabathia look downright outmatched by Beckett, having given up 8 earned runs through 4.1 IP in Gm.1 and 4 ER through 6 IP in Gm.2 (compared to Beckett’s 2 ER in 6 IP and 1 ER in 8 IP, respectively).  However, considering the larger sample size of the regular season I have to give Sabathia the edge.  While both pitchers had tremendous years, Sabathia proved to be the more valuable of the two.