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Cy Weaver? Breaking Down The Race For Top Pitching Honors

Jered Weaver is, like, really good, man. It's possible that not even you realize just how good he is. You might remember Zack Greinke, he won the award last year? Well, if you squint your eyes a little you might see that Jered looks more like Zack Greinke than Greinke himself does these days. He's doing so well that we can even realistically discuss the possibility of an American League Cy Young award. While he is certainly a longshot for reasons beyond his control, Weaver still has to be considered as a serious contender for the annual top pitching honor. Obligatory Old Media bashing after the jump.

A few years ago, Bill James and Rob Neyer invented a toy metric called the CY Predictor. The purpose isn't to measure who is actually the best pitcher in each league, but rather to guess who the Baseball Writers Association of America, a tired oligarchy of baseball beat reporters and journalists, will declare to be the best pitcher in each league based on its previous voting habits. Here are the current AL standings:
1 CC Sabathia NYY 110.1 20 20 138.0 48 110 0 0 12-3 3.13 6
2 David Price TB 104.9 18 18 120.1 38 103 0 1 12-5 2.84 4
3 Andy Pettitte NYY 103.0 18 18 115.2 37 90 0 0 11-2 2.88 6
4 Jon Lester BOS 101.3 19 19 128.0 40 130 0 0 11-4 2.81 1
5 Mariano Rivera NYY 90.9 37 0 36.2 4 35 20 0 3-1 0.98 6
6 Rafael Soriano TB 87.7 36 0 35.2 8 31 24 0 2-0 2.02 4
7 Carl Pavano MIN 87.7 19 19 134.2 52 77 0 1 11-6 3.48 3
8 Phil Hughes NYY 85.9 17 17 106.0 47 93 0 0 11-3 3.99 6
9 Clay Buchholz BOS 85.8 16 16 96.0 30 66 0 1 10-5 2.81 1
10 Jered Weaver LAA 85.7 20 20 128.0 45 142 0 0 9-5 3.16 4

CYP stands for "Cy Young points," an arbitrary number used to gauge the voters' similarly arbitrary whims. VB is the "victory bonus," a 12-point boost for pitchers on division-winning teams (mid-season scores are interpolated from the standings). The rest of the columns are all standard categories (a SHO is a complete-game shutout).

For those of you who like to add and multiply things, this is the formula:

CYP = 6*W - 2*L + 5*(IP/9) - ER + 2.5*SV + K/12 + SHO + VB

Now a few observations:

  1. For teh winz!!! That coefficient of 6 means that the majority of a pitcher's score requires the cooperation of the offense, which kind of defeats the purpose of recognizing the game's best pitcher. But conventional baseball wisdom still dictates that good pitchers "know how to win," although you'd think that would also mean that bad pitchers "know how to lose," and yet total losses are relatively unimportant in the above formula.
  2. ERA, ERA, ERA. But you knew this already, right?
  3. "Real men finish what they start." The voters still get off on the "workhorse," the "innings-eater," the "guy who doesn't want to come out of the game," and so on till nausea. A complete game worth of innings is worth 5 points, almost as many as a win. But you also got the decision since you pitched to the end of the game, which is obviously a win, because that's what you know how to do. That's 6 more points, or make it 7 if it was a shutout.
  4. Strikeout totals are minor. They get divided by 12. As I pointed out above, a complete-game shutout is worth 12 points, the equivalent of 144 strikeouts. Over a full season that's about the difference between a whiff machine like Justin Verlander and a human tee like Jon Garland. Alternatively, 12 points is also the equivalent of two wins or having your team make the playoffs. So don't expect to win any Cy Youngs just by striking guys out.
  5. Saves? Really? Only two relievers have won a Cy Young since the invention of the modern bullpen, so it seems like too freak of an occurrence to predict. However, the James-Neyer system missed the call on Eric Gagne's award in 2003 by just a tenth of a point. It also ranked Mariano Rivera #1 in 2005 when he finished second, and K-Rod ranked #2 in 2008 and was third in the actual voting. I guess the voters are nothing if not...predictable.
  6. There's no bonus for good command. The only good not walking people will do for you comes indirectly from allowing fewer runs, assuming your team scores enough for a win.

The CY Predictor is crude, but it actually does very well at reading the voters' minds. Of the 16 Cy Youngs handed out since 2002, 10 ranked first in CYP at the end of the season, and 5 ranked second. The sole outlier was Tim Lincecum in 2009, who finished 4th in the NL rankings. Last year was also the first time since 2003 that the Cy Young Predictor didn't get at least one of the awards right (although Gagne was as near a miss as you can get). From a sabermetric perspective, the BBWAA absolutely made the right choices last off-season.

Some have said that perhaps the BBWAA is finally getting with the times and more objectively evaluating performance, but I'll believe it when I see it. Zack Greinke received plenty of press as the feel-good comeback story of the year, while Tim Lincecum had the benefit of the 2008 award to raise his profile. In my opinion, the BBWAA is just as likely to reverse whatever progress they made last year by just rewarding their favorite Yankee as they are to make the right calls in a second consecutive year.

So where does that leave Jered Weaver? The smart-ass answer is "tenth place, look at the table, stupid." The first glance doesn't look good: he trails the leader, CC Sabathia, by a considerable margin. David Price has already won the equivalent of the mid-season Cy Young by being chosen to start the All-Star Game. To top it off, all but one of spots 1 through 9 are currently occupied by AL East All-Stars. Actually, Weaver and Carl Pavano (who isn't even the best pitcher on his team) are the only non-AL East starters on the list.

As I mentioned above, the voters favor wins over strikeouts. That's certainly not going to play to Jered's strengths, since he has a pedestrian 9-5 record despite leading the league in strikeouts. He "only" averages 6.4 innings per start because it actually takes a lot of pitches to get a strikeout, which means he likely won't win points for "finishing what he starts." He's also playing for a team that's just barely hanging on in a playoff race.

Frankly we have to consider Weaver a dark horse competitor at this point, but let's have a closer look at the CY Predictor rankings.

I think it's safe to throw out the relievers. There hasn't been a hype machine building behind either Mariano Rivera or Rafael Soriano. Andy Pettitte is going to miss his next 8-12 starts and the Yankees have capped Phil Hughes at 180 innings, so they're both probably out. Clay Buchholz has missed a lot of starters, and he's still in Lester's shadow anyways. I also highly doubt that Carl Pavano will be on anyone's Cy Young watch list in September. That leaves Sabathia, Price, Lester, and Weaver. Who else not currently in the top 10 might make a run?

Here are the current top 5 pitchers in the AL according to a metric called Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, or xFIP, along with their other peripheral pitching statistics:

F. Liriano 9.78 2.50 3.91 0.16 .258 1.26 .358 69.5% 3.76 2.16 2.92
Jered Weaver 9.98 1.97 5.07 1.05 .232 1.07 .300 75.0% 3.16 3.08 3.32
Cliff Lee 7.18 0.52 13.86 0.59 .238 0.94 .287 73.0% 2.59 2.55 3.37
Jon Lester 9.14 3.30 2.77 0.42 .210 1.12 .280 76.3% 2.81 2.97 3.40
Felix Hernandez 8.28 2.59 3.19 0.62 .236 1.16 .297 76.4% 2.90 3.16 3.46
CC Sabathia 7.17 2.93 2.44 0.78 .230 1.17 .271 76.3% 3.13 3.72 3.89
David Price 7.70 3.52 2.19 0.67 .231 1.24 .282 76.8% 2.84 3.63 4.09

I threw Sabathia and Price in as well to show that they trail the head of the pack. Sabathia is currently 12th, while Price is 21st. If you already know what xFIP means and why it's important, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.

Begin Sabermetrics 101 Lecture

The purpose of xFIP is to give pitchers credit only for those things that pitchers directly control. You may have heard of the "three true outcomes," the three ways a plate appearance can end without the defense getting involved: the strikeout, the walk, and the home run. It turns out that pitchers have a relatively high amount of control over how frequently these outcomes occur. However, they have very little control over what happens to a batted ball. Sometimes a screaming line-drive gets hit right at a fielder, and sometimes a 40-hopper up the middle leaks through for a two-run single. In other words, a pitcher doesn't have a lot of say over the outcome once the fielders get involved. But a strikeout is always an out (well, almost always), a walk is always a base runner, and a home run is always a run. So the best thing a pitcher can do is strike lots of guys out while walking as few as possible and preventing home runs. Simple enough?

That's what xFIP does: it awards points for strikeouts but deducts them for walks and home runs. The home runs are a little trickier, because homers are still batted balls and hence can have some of the same fluctuations as balls in the field of play. A pitcher who's logged a lot of innings in a small park, pitched in more day games, or made his starts in the warmest weather is probably going to see more balls go over the fence than the average guy. xFIP adjusts for this by guessing how many home runs the average guy would have given up, assuming he also allowed flyballs at the same rate. This is very important to understanding Jered Weaver.

The payoff of all of this is that xFIP is supposed to give a better estimate of a pitcher's actual skill than ERA. It's even "tuned" to look like ERA so that you can easily compare them. This isn't a projection, but usually you can assume that if a pitcher's xFIP is a lot less than his ERA, then his ERA is likely to improve, and vice versa. This is because the three true outcomes--strikeouts, walks, homers--fluctuate a lot less than ERA.

End Sabermetrics 101 Lecture

These top five guys are the most likely to continue to be successful in the second half. As you can see, Francisco Liriano is the clear "Saber Young" right now because his groundball rate is ridiculously high for a strikeout pitcher (he's allowed 2 home runs all year!). However, he's only worth 68.3 Cy Young points, which doesn't put him near the Top 10. He should be a lot more successful with ERA than he was in the first half, but he's probably doomed if the Twins don't win more games and a division title for him.

Coming up behind Liriano is a tight pack of legitimate contenders, with Jered Weaver holding a slim lead over the well-hyped Cliff Lee. Lee is striking out almost 14 guys for every walk, but his overall strikeout rate is relatively unimpressive. He's going to have a hard time continuing with his absurdly low walk rate, and his flyball tendencies are a liability in Texas. Keep in mind that he also missed his first five starts of the season. However, he's won a Cy Young before, he was the center of a high-profile trade, and his team currently leads the AL West. That would make him a tough contestant even if his numbers weren't really there.

Felix Hernandez is having a fine season as well, but he hasn't distinguished himself nearly enough to overcome his pathetic team. On the other hand, David Price might find his ERA closer to 4.00 by the end of the season than 3.00, and the same could be said for Sabathia. Still, the BBWAA might not be able to pass up a chance to reward someone who wins 20+ games as well as the AL East. That makes Jon Lester an interesting sleeper; the media could get behind him if the Red Sox make a late run at the wild card.

In other words, the winner will ultimately depend on how September plays out. Let's assume Jered Weaver keeps pitching remarkably well. I still think the only way he gets recognized for his accomplishments would be by winning something like 5 of his last 6 games, leading the Angels to a stunning upset over the Rangers. That's how Bartolo Colon did it, although ironically he wasn't nearly as deserving of recognition.

We can always hope, but that probably won't happen. In that case, the BBWAA will have to decide how much Cliff Lee's DL stint in April detracts from his overall performance. They probably won't even remember. But if it does come up, the fall-back position is to just reward the best pitcher on whatever team wins the AL East: Sabathia, Price, or Lester. If the vote is heavily contested, then Lee probably wins anyways.

It's bad news for Angels fans, but that's the way the system works. Before getting too bummed, I still have to support my claim that Weaver is about as good as Zack Greinke was last year. Here are their peripherals side-by-side:

Zack Greinke 9.50 2.00 4.75 0.43 .232 1.07 .313 79.3% 2.16 2.33 3.15
Jered Weaver 9.98 1.97 5.07 1.05 .232 1.07 .300 75.0% 3.16 3.08 3.32

Not bad, huh? Greinke got pretty fortunate with flyballs staying in the yard last year, but home runs have always been the chink in Jered's armor. In fact, 51% of his earned runs this year have come on home runs. If his current 9.1% HR/FB rate returns to its 8.1% career number, there's a good chance that Weaver finishes the year with a sub-3.00 ERA. He would be the first Angel starter to do so over a full season since Jim Abbott in 1991 (although John Lackey finished at 3.01 in 2007).

So whatever whims the BBWAA chooses to indulge during its voting process, and however the AL West division race plays out, Angels fans can still remember 2010 as the season of one of the best pitching performances in franchise history.