On Wednesday night, Boston SP Rick Porcello was announced as the 2016 AL Cy Young winner. Shortly after the announcement, folks on twitter, most notably Kate Upton (warning: NSFW language), who happens to be Detroit Tigers SP and Cy Young finalist Justin Verlander’s fiancée, let the Baseball Writer’s Association of America know that the Cy Young winner they selected was the wrong choice. After any award announcement people will voice their displeasure on Twitter, but the hate for the BBWAA was well-deserved after they greatly botched this vote.
The writers of the BBWAA are notorious for putting too much stock into stats which either don’t give us an accurate representation of the skill of a pitcher (Earned Run Average) or are simply archaic and not useful in any regard (Win-Loss record). ERA isn’t as terrible a metric as W-L, but there are a lot of aspects of a pitcher’s performance for which it does not account. The main aspect is the quality of the fielders behind the pitcher. If there are two pitchers with the exact same abilities, the pitcher with a better defensive alignment behind him will naturally give up fewer runs than the pitcher with the worse defense. My preferred pitching metric is SIERA, or Skill-Interactive ERA. SIERA is a useful statistic but it’s fairly complex in relation to ERA and WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched), so I’ll spare you the intricacies of the metric and try to explain it briefly (although if you want, you can read more about it here). SIERA operates on three main ideas:
- Strikeouts are extremely valuable, since they are guaranteed outs that do not advance runners, and high-K pitchers tend to get weaker contact out of hitters, which means more ground balls and infield pop-ups (grounders result in outs about 76% of the time, and infield pop-ups result in outs nearly 100% of the time).
- Walks aren’t that bad if the pitcher doesn’t allow many of them.
- After a pitcher’s pitch is put in play, the result is generally out of their control, but they can typically control whether the hit results in a grounder, fly ball or liner.
SIERA essentially factors in a multitude of aspects of a pitcher, not just how many runs they allow to cross the plate, and this, in my eyes, gives a more complete and accurate view of the pitcher. It doesn’t have much predictive value (although it does have far more predictive value than ERA), but it gives a good idea of how a pitcher performed in relation to their ERA; if a pitcher’s SIERA is below his ERA, he was a victim of bad luck, and if his SIERA is higher than his ERA he got lucky.
I could write an entire 3000-word blog entry about my issue with W-L record (and I probably will at some point during this offseason), but I’ll try to shorten my hatred for that statistic into two sentences. The skill-level of a pitcher has a minimal impact on the stat, because pitchers can only get a W if their team wins, so the stat is largely based on run support, not whether the pitcher actually earned a win for their team (an example of this is Collin McHugh, who in 2015 had 19 wins, but wasn’t even the best pitcher on his team.) Additionally, pitchers have to exit the game with a lead, so even if they leave in the seventh inning having allowed zero runs and a minimal number of hits, if their offense couldn’t get it done then tough luck for the pitcher.
We can see the BBWAA’s bias immediately in this year’s results (I’ve included Indians’ SP Corey Kluber, the #3 overall vote-getter, for comparison):
I’ve definitely left off some categories but I’ve captured everything that I think is important to include in the table. Porcello leads in only Wins, Losses, Walks, BB/9 and CG. Obviously it’s better to walk fewer hitters, but one of the central ideas of SIERA is that walks don’t hurt you as long as you don’t give up a ton of them. Porcello’s walk rate is phenomenal, amounting to just over 1 walk per start, but Verlander’s walk rate isn’t bad by any means, averaging out to just over 1.6 walks per start. However, Verlander’s immensely higher strikeout rate allows for him to correct for those walks, because if he’s striking out a little over one batter per inning, on average, it limits the number of runners that can advance after being put on base. Admittedly the last stat is a bit contrived, but it demonstrates Verlander’s consistency throughout the entire season; Verlander gave up two ER or fewer in 67% of his starts, while Porcello didn’t even get to 50% in that category.
You may now be asking: “How can you talk Verlander up so much and then say he shouldn’t be winning either?” Verlander was certainly the best AL starter in 2016, but there was one reliever who rose above all other pitchers in the Junior Circuit. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Orioles’ RP Zach Britton.
I don’t like saves as a statistic; I think they are equally as contrived as wins and losses and that the best pitcher in a bullpen should be used in the highest-leverage situation, not whenever a “save situation” arises. However, for those of you that like saves, Britton led the AL with 47, which would have tied for second in the NL with current free-agent closers Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon. The difference between Britton and the other closers who finished with 47+ saves (Jansen, Melancon and Jeurys Familia) is that the other closers blew at least four saves apiece. Britton blew zero. I don’t want to give him credit for not blowing saves, though, considering it’s pretty easy for an average MLB pitcher to get three outs and not blow the lead with a three-run lead and nobody on base. Britton entered 41 games where the score was either tied or the Orioles led by 1 or 2 runs, and not a single one of those times did he cough up the lead. Basically, when Britton entered in a tight game, he was money in the bank. But the dominance doesn’t stop there.
Britton had a 0.54 ERA this season over 67 IP. Yeah, go ahead and read that again because that’s a serious stat. He gave up seven runs all season, only four of which were earned, and had a streak of 43 straight appearances (from May 5 to August 22) where he didn’t allow a single earned run. That’s 41.1 consecutive innings. In that same time period he gave up a paltry 19 hits and 14 walks (good for a 0.800 WHIP) and added 48 Ks (10.5 K/9). The dude was literally unstoppable this season. He didn’t give up a single lead all year, and after April (I know it’s an arbitrary cutoff date) he allowed only one earned run. In five months. That’s a 0.16 ERA. But the incredible dominance doesn’t stop there.
Britton had an 80% ground ball rate, good for first among pitchers with a minimum of 60 IP in 2016. The difference between Britton’s ground ball rate and the next-highest ground ball rate (Sam Dyson, 65.9%) is greater than the difference between the second and fiftieth best (Francisco Liriano, 52.0%) ground ball rate. As I mentioned earlier in the article, ground balls result in outs about 75% of the time. Of course there’s going to be the occasional grounder that sneaks through for a single, but that means that on average, 60% of the time an opposing batter puts the ball in play, it’s a ground out. This is also very useful in inducing double plays, which Britton got four of on the entire season, although you don’t need a ton of double plays when you don’t allow many baserunners in the first place.
There’s also the fact that Britton only allowed 14 fly balls all season. There were 159 instances of a ball put in play against him, and only 14 of those resulted in a fly ball. Only one of those fly balls left the yard. He also only allowed one line drive for every 9 balls put in play against him, and considering that liners result in hits about 70% of the time, that’s an extremely effective way to limit baserunners. Britton was basically unhittable this year, but if an opposing batter managed to put the ball in play against him, it was most likely a ground ball out.
It’s tough to compare relief pitchers and starters, but when comparing Britton to every other reliever since 2010, we see that Britton’s 2016 was the 22nd-best season in terms of WAR. If we’re strictly comparing him to other relievers this year, only St. Louis Cardinals rookie Seung-Hwan Oh had more WAR than Britton as a reliever. It’s hard to compare starters and relievers with WAR because it’s a counting stat, but if we compare WAR200 (how much WAR the player would produce with their stat line extrapolated to 200 innings pitched), Britton checks in at 7.5 WAR over 200 IP while Verlander and Porcello end up with only 5 WAR. It’s a little nonsensical to extrapolate WAR for relievers because they pitch in smaller intervals and WAR is a counting stat, so relievers are supposed to have lower WAR. Also, relievers tend to have higher strikeout rates, better ground ball rates and lower ERAs than starters because they are able to focus maximum effort into 20 pitches as opposed to conserving their energy over the course of 100 pitches. With that in mind, Britton’s 7.5 WAR200 is supposed to give an idea of just how dominant Britton was this past season.
The last reliever to win the Cy Young in either league was Éric Gagné in 2003, when he saved 44 games and had a K/9 of 15.0 for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Since the inception of the Cy Young award in 1956 it has been given out 111 times (from 1956-1966 there was one winner for both leagues, and only in 1967 did they start giving awards to each individual league) and there have only been 9 instances of a reliever winning. Britton capturing the Cy Young crown would have certainly been a surprise, but relievers have won before, and I think Britton was the most deserving of the award in 2016 based on his sheer dominance and the lack of a standout starting pitcher.
(Image credit: Getty Images)