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Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Verlander deserved to win Cy Young Award

By David Schoenfield


Two pitchers. You may be able to figure out who they are without too much work:


Both pitchers are Justin Verlander. The top line is from his 2011 Cy Young and MVP campaign; the second line is 2012. There is very little difference in the seasons, other than one statistic I didn't include: the 24-5 record in 2011 versus 17-8 in 2012. Win-loss record isn't actually a statistic, of course; it's a tabulation, a mark of performance that sometimes reflects a pitcher's performance in an individual game and sometimes doesn't. Verlander's impressive record led to his being the unanimous Cy Young winner last season and the first starting pitcher to win the MVP Award since Roger Clemens in 1986. But it seemed the biggest headlines for Verlander this season (until the playoffs, at least) registered during his All-Star Game flop and not for his season-long dominance.

With seven fewer wins in 2012, Verlander lacked the storyline to push him to a second consecutive Cy Young, even though I suspect most and maybe all of the voters in the Baseball Writers' Association of America would still say he's the best pitcher in the American League. Instead, David Price -- he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA and 205 strikeouts in 211 innings -- won the award in one of the closest votes ever, 153 points to 149 (Price collected 14 first-place votes to Verlander’s 13; Rays reliever Fernando Rodney got the other first-place vote).

Detroit's Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander got 13 first-place votes in the Cy Young award voting, just one fewer first-place vote than David Price received.
It's not exactly a surprising result. As Jayson Stark wrote in his Cy Young preview, 19 of the last 20 pitchers to lead their league in wins and ERA, as Price did, won the Cy Young Award, the exception being Mike Boddicker in 1984 (who lost to reliever Willie Hernandez).

While I believe Verlander had the best season, this certainly isn't a Bartolo Colon situation. This isn't a bad choice or a wrong choice. Price had a terrific season, and when we leave out unearned runs, he allowed 2.69 runs per nine innings versus Verlander's 3.06. There are two main issues of debate between the two, however: Verlander pitched 27 more innings; Price supporters would argue he faced a tougher level of competition since he played in a better division.

The first point is a huge advantage for Verlander and the primary reason he rates higher than Price in Baseball-Reference WAR, 7.6 to 6.4. Verlander made two more starts than Price, and that added workload also meant fewer innings the Tigers needed from their bullpen or from other starters, a hidden value of sorts. View it this way: If you have two pitchers who are essentially the same and one pitches 27 more innings, isn't it pretty clear who had the more valuable season?

The second argument doesn't hold up upon closer scrutiny. Baseball-Reference calculates average opponents' runs per nine innings, adjusting for park factor. According to this metric, the slate of opponents Verlander and Price faced was virtually identical: Verlander's opponents averaged 4.48 runs per nine innings, Price's 4.47. The raw numbers also support this conclusion: the average OPS of batters Price faced was .763; the average OPS for batters Verlander faced was .758 (tip to Dave Cameron at FanGraphs for pointing this out). You just can't argue Price faced tougher lineups. Better teams? Yes. Better hitters? No.

The defensive differences between the Rays and Tigers also make for a minor discussion point. Using defensive runs saved, Price's defense saved him about two runs; Verlander's defense cost him about five runs.

Hey, I'm happy Price won -- it's the one prediction I got right this season. When Felix Hernandez won the award a couple of seasons ago with a 13-12 record, everybody wrote that advanced metrics had made an impact and voters finally realized win-loss record can be misleading. I suspect that's essentially true; but I also suspect that 20 wins still means something.

* * * *

As for the National League, R.A. Dickey’s dream season ends with him becoming one of the most improbable Cy Young Award winners ever. Just think where Dickey’s career was in spring training in 2010: A 35-year-old non-roster invitee with a 5.43 career ERA and the hope of a knuckleball.

Three seasons later, he goes 20-6, 2.73 while leading the NL in innings pitched and strikeouts, throws back-to-back one-hitters, dominates with a 32 2/3 scoreless innings streak -- which ended only in the ninth inning of a game on an unearned run -- and outpoints Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to become the first Mets Cy Young winner since Dwight Gooden in 1985.

Much like the AL vote, the NL vote pitted two pitchers with similar stats other than their win-loss records. Kershaw had six fewer innings and one less strikeout than Dickey but a league-leading 2.53 ERA while holding opponents to a .210 average compared to Dickey’s .226 mark. Without run much run support, however, Kershaw went just 14-9. It should have been a close vote, but Dickey won in a landslide, collecting 27 of the 30 first-place votes.

The advanced metrics slightly favored Kershaw -- 6.2 Baseball-Reference WAR to Dickey’s 5.6 (Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto actually ranked second at 5.8). Part of Kershaw’s advantage there comes from tougher competition – using the park-factored average runs per nine innings mentioned above, Kershaw’s opponents averaged 4.52 runs per nine innings, Dickey’s 4.23.

One aspect of Dickey’s season that I liked was his number of dominant performances. Game Score adds up a pitcher’s outs, runs and hits allowed, strikeouts and walks to derive a “Game Score” – 50 is about average. There were just 150 starts in the majors in 2012 where a pitcher registered a Game Score of 80 or higher – Dickey had seven such starts compared to Kershaw’s two. The only other starter with more than five was Felix Hernandez (also with seven). When Dickey was on, he was unhittable -- or at least nearly so.

In the end, of course, Dickey won because he had the better story and more wins. While I predict Kershaw will add another Cy Young trophy or two in the future to the one he won in 2011, but you get the feeling few pitchers will appreciate an award more than Dickey will this one.