Now that the MLB regular season has concluded, the season we've all waited for finally begins. No, not the postseason — award season! As ten clubs duke it out for the title, much of the baseball blogosphere will devote itself to determining who should take home individual hardware. Which player (read: hitter) topped all others in overall value? Which players set themselves apart with the glove? And perhaps most importantly, which pitcher reigned supreme?
Last year's American League Cy Young could have gone a few different ways. In the end, the voters selected Corey Kluber over Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez, in a case where all three could make an argument for the honor. This year, the electorate will again encounter a dilemma, as several Junior Circuit hurlers have distinguished themselves. By a couple flavors of WAR, though, one seems to stand apart:
|Pitcher||RA9-WAR||AL Rank||FIP-WAR||AL Rank|
This table, showing five-win pitchers, makes a convincing case for Keuchel. His run prevention set him a full win apart from the rest of the league; in terms of the three true outcomes, he falls back two slots, but not to a statistically significant degree. Since the voters tend to value the former over the latter, this probably means he'll take home the Cy Young.
Of course, we don't especially care about the "will" side of the argument — the voters have chosen poorly before, and they could certainly do so again. We want to evaluate the "should" side: Which pitcher truly deserves the award? This requires looking beyond simplistic measures of player value, to understand the factors that allowed these pitchers to post such outstanding results.
First, let's narrow our focus. After giving up 20 runs in 26.1 September innings, Gray has all but exited the running; Sale's similarly subpar finish has also effectively ruled him out. While Kluber and Archer have each compiled magnificent 2015 campaigns, their overall performance ultimately doesn't lead the American League. We'll thus look solely at Keuchel and Price, both of whom separated themselves from their colleagues.
By this point, everyone familiar with sabermetrics knows about pitch framing. It's immeasurably broadened our analysis of the game, while changing the image of guys like Jose Molina from replacement-level scrub to legitimate major-leaguer (until this year, at least). Of course, the catchers are only half the equation — the guys throwing to them also see their output shift based on framing. If a top-notch receiver plays behind the plate, the pitcher will garner more strikes than usual, meaning he'll issue fewer walks and rack up more strikeouts; the inverse applies as well. This should color our decision for the Cy Young, since the award goes to the best pitcher, not the best battery.
When trying to discern the effects of framing, many people compare a pitcher's actual rate of strikes with his "expected" strike rate. The latter mark comes from the PITCHf/x plate discipline statistics that FanGraphs provides; if we know how often a pitcher threw in the strike zone and how often batters swung when he didn't, we can easily calculate this metric. So, with that exposition out of the way, let's examine Keuchel and Price through this lens. There appears to be a slight disparity between the two:
My, what a difference a backstop makes. Keuchel threw to two primary catchers all year: Jason Castro and Hank Conger. Out of 109 qualifiers, those two ranked fifth and 20th, respectively, in framing ability. Their proficiency allowed him to lead the American League in strike differential (John Danks placed a distant second, with a gap of 2.6 percentage points). By contrast, Price paired with Alex Avila and James McCann for the first half of the season; those two finished in the bottom six among qualified catchers. Despite Russell Martin's best efforts in the year's second half, Price couldn't steal many strikes.
This certainly dings Keuchel's sterling case for the Cy Young. But to what degree? Jeff Sullivan wrote in July about Keuchel's location tendencies, which would appear to give him borderline calls; in that same month, I observed that Price had thrown fewer pitches on the edge than ever before. Just as catchers can help pitchers, pitchers can help catchers, throwing pitches that will more easily dupe the umpire. Without isolating the contributions of the catchers, we can't really know how much to debit Keuchel.
Deserved Run Average, or DRA, provides some answers. Among a host of other advanced elements (which we'll get to in a moment), this metric includes Called Strikes Above Average — the best way to gauge the role that outside factors play on a pitcher. According to Baseball Prospectus's CSAA data, Keuchel gained 2.41 runs from called strikes, while Price lost 2.64 runs. With concrete numbers such as these, we can adjust our metrics accordingly.
DRA doesn't stop with framing, though. It incorporates an unfathomable amount of information to come up with the most accurate possible estimate of how many runs a pitcher should have allowed — in other words, his value. And interestingly enough, Keuchel tops Price again by DRA:
A few other elements of the game favor Keuchel: He pitched in easier ballparks (gaining 9.7 Stadium runs to Price's 1.7), against marginally easier competition (1.6 Opp Bat runs, compared to 0.8 for Price). Despite all of this, however, Keuchel still emerges the clear victor. In the end, he simply outpitched Price, for which DRA rewards him accordingly.
Using a sole metric to appraise a player can lead to some issues, since few statistics take in enough background data to reach an authoritative conclusion. With that said, DRA seems to be one of those statistics. Unlike RA9-WAR or FIP-WAR, DRA-WARP incorporates minutiae such as framing and opponent quality, which combine with its more advanced measuring system to accurately measure a pitcher's contributions. In other words, if DRA says Keuchel beats Price by 0.6 wins, Keuchel is the clear-cut better of the two.
In the end, Price and Keuchel both dominated the American league this year, to such an extent that one could reasonably argue in favor of either. Those in Price's camp will likely cite the benefits that Keuchel's catchers have bestowed upon him, but even when taking into account his comrades, we can still see that Keuchel is superior. In a just world, the Cy Young would go to Keuchel; the voters will likely reach the correct conclusion in this regard.
Last night, Keuchel helped the Astros best the Yankees and move ahead to the divisional series. Throughout the contest, he received borderline strike calls — some of which enraged Brian McCann — but even without those in his favor, he presumably would have flattened the Bombers. While whatever happens in the postseason won't impact the outcome of the Cy Young race, it will add to the much-deserved fame that Keuchel has acquired. Hopefully, he'll receive something a little better than fame in a few weeks.
. . .