Here's Your Cy: Why Chris Carpenter Is the NL Cy Young

Lewie PollisSenior Analyst IIINovember 11, 2009

KANSAS CITY, MO - JUNE 20:  Starting pitcher Chris Carpenter #29 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches just prior to the start of the game against the Kansas City Royals on June 20, 2009 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

For the most part, the 2009 MLB Awards Season will be a snoozefest.

Sure, there will be some debate over secondary awards like Rookie of the Year, but for the most part, the major hardware is spoken for.

Zack Greinke appears to have a well-deserved stranglehold on the AL Cy Young. Joe Mauer is the clear choice for AL Most Valuable Player, except to a few fringe Yankee fans and Harold Reynolds. And if Albert Pujols is not the unanimous choice for NL MVP, it will be because one of the voters was being difficult for the sake of being difficult.

The only category in which there has been much serious debate is the NL Cy Young. The front-runners, ESPN tells us, are Chris Carpenter, Tim Lincecum, and Adam Wainwright.

Wainwright should not be a serious candidate for the award. While he pitched a good season, the only category in which he holds an advantage is Wins. You don’t need Bill James to tell you that Wins are an absurd way to measure a pitcher’s performance (when I was four, I asked my dad why anyone cared about them, he had no answer).

That leaves Carpenter and Lincecum.

Lincecum supporters can point to a number of statistics to show how great their boy is. He’s got more innings pitched (225.1 to 192.2) and strikeouts (261 to 144), a lower BAA (.206 to .226) and OPSA (.561 to .581), and a higher K/9 rate (10.4 to 6.7).

That’s all well and good, but Carpenter has the advantage in the most important aspect of a pitcher’s game: preventing runs. With an ERA of 2.24, Carpenter beat Lincecum (2.48) by nearly a quarter-run per game. And while unearned runs are generally poor indicators of pitching performance, isn’t it somewhat noteworthy that Lincecum allowed seven while Carpenter gave up just one?

On top of that, Carpenter had a lower WHIP (1.02 to 1.04) and a much better BB/9 rate (1.8 to 2.7). So there.

But the Freak’s fans are a crafty bunch and refuse to go down that easily. They say that Carpenter pitched too few innings to be declared better than Lincecum, and the extended time on the mound meant that the Freak had actually saved more runs. They contend that Carpenter’s ERA was deflated by an easier schedule. And they declare that Lincecum’s dominance in other categories proves that he is the better pitcher.

All of the above are reasonable arguments, but far from irrefutable. It’s true that Lincecum pitched more, but 192.2 innings is certainly a sufficient sample size. Anyway, the disparity exists not because Carpenter got tired or shut down, but because was hurt for much of the beginning of the season (which, to me, makes his performance that much more impressive).

There’s no question that Carpenter faced an easier set of opponents. Giants fan Andrew Nuschler posted a great article breaking down both pitchers’ performances against each team. However, the statistics only further Carpenter’s case; Lincecum’s ERA and WHIP against the weakest 15 offenses in baseball are both higher than Carpenter’s overall numbers. In other words, if he faced only teams like the Royals and Pirates, his ERA and WHIP would be still worse than Carpenter’s.

As for the other statistics, do they really matter? Sure, a strikeout pitcher like Lincecum is more likely to pitch well than a contact pitcher like Carpenter. But ultimately, what counts is what happens, not what is likely to happen. Whether because he had the skill to induce weak contact, the ability to maintain concentration with runners on, or an entire season of excellent luck, Carpenter was more effective at stopping runners from crossing the plate.

Finally, for all you sabermeticians who feel dirty reading about ERA and WHIP, may I present the pièce de résistance : WPA.

For those of you unfamiliar with sabermetrics, Win Probability Average is the estimated amount of games that a team has won because of the contributions of a certain player. As FanGraphs describes it:

"In Game Four of the 2007 World Series, the WE for the Rockies started out at 50 percent. When Jacoby Ellsbury doubled off Aaron Cook in the very first at-bat in the game, the Rockies WE declined to 44.2 percent. The difference or WPA was .058 wins (5.8 percent).Ellsbury was credited +.058 wins and Aaron Cook credited with -.058 wins."

In other words, while it is not a reflection of skill sets or predictor of future performance, WPA is the best available way to measure the impact of a player over the course of the season.

As is to be expected, Lincecum’s contributions were highly valuable; his 4.26 WPA ranked third among MLB pitchers and was tied for 12th overall.

Unfortunately for the Freak, Carpenter’s WPA was far better. FanGraphs estimates that his presence in St. Louis’ rotation gave the Cardinals 5.41 extra wins. That was the sixth-best number in baseball, and better than that of any pitcher not named Zack Greinke.

Despite having fewer strikeouts, Carpenter had a bigger impact on his team. Despite being an heretical contact pitcher, Carpenter had a bigger impact on his team. Despite pitching 33 fewer innings, Carpenter had a bigger impact on his team.

Don’t think 5.41 wins is a lot? If the Giants had won 5.41 more games, they would have earned a playoff spot. And if you have any doubt about the significance of the difference between Carpenter and Lincecum, ask a Tigers fan what an extra 1.15 wins would have meant to them.

Tim Lincecum is an outstanding pitcher. Even disregarding the age discrepancy, I would confidently pick him to outperform Carpenter next year and beyond. If I were a manager, I would much rather face a contact pitcher like Carpenter than a strikeout machine like the Freak.

But there’s a difference between what could happen and what did happen.

Given all this, is there really any doubt that Carpenter should take home the trophy?

When Bill Engvall hears people ask questions with obvious answers, he remarks, “Here’s your sign.”

Well, baseball fans: here’s your Cy.



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