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Earlier in the week, Justin Verlander became only the 14th unanimous Cy Young selection in the 56-year history of the award. However, according to some prognosticators, that might just be the appetizer for the Tigers’ right hander.

Unanimous Cy Young Award Winners

Pitcher Years
Justin Verlander 2011
Roy Halladay 2010
Jake Peavy 2007
Johan Santana 2004, 2006
Pedro Martinez 1999, 2000
Roger Clemens 1986, 1998
Greg Maddux 1994, 1995
Orel Hershiser 1988
Rick Sutcliffe 1984
Ron Guidry 1978
Steve Carlton 1972, 1977
Denny McLain 1968
Bob Gibson 1968
Sandy Koufax 1963, 1965, 1966

Source: mlb.com

When the A.L. MVP is announced next Monday, many believe Verlander will add to his list of already impressive accomplishments by becoming the seventh starter (and 10th pitcher) to win both the Cy Young and MVP in one season. In addition, if the Tigers’ ace is given his second trophy, he’ll join the Brooklyn Dodgers Don Newcombe as the only player to be named Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP during his career. Throw in a pair of no hitters, and the list of accomplishments achieved by Verlander has Hall of Fame written all over it.

Although his credentials as an MVP candidate are beyond question, there is an element around the game, and within the BBWAA, that seems to think pitchers should not be eligible for the award. At the very least, a commonly held position is that if a pitcher is going to win the MVP, he must clear an extra hurdle. So, does Verlander’s 2011 campaign meet that higher standard?

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In what has likely been the most dismal season in the 128-year history of the Dodgers’ franchise (some older Brooklyn residents might dispute that assertion), there have been a few stars shining out in Hollywood. Amid the dark clouds of financial distress, fan violence, and dwindling attendance, the Dodgers’ have managed to maintain respectability on the field thanks in large part to three men who could be in line for off-season recognition.

Although it seems as if the Cy Young is already being engraved with Roy Halladay’s name on it, Clayton Kershaw remains within striking distance of claiming the award. In fact, Kershaw actually enjoys a slight advantage over the Phillies’ ace in traditional statistics like wins, innings pitched and ERA in addition to striking out an extra batter per game. Although Halladay rates better in ERA+ and both calculations of WAR, the difference isn’t insurmountable, nor likely meaningful enough to resonate with what is still more of an “old school” voting bloc.

Clayton Kershaw vs. Other Cy Young Contenders

Player Tm IP W L SO ERA ERA+ OPSa+  BWAR fWAR
Clayton Kershaw LAD 213.2 18 5 231 2.36 156 59 6.0 6.6
Roy Halladay PHI 210.2 17 5 204 2.44 159 62 6.5 7.7
Cliff Lee PHI 210.2 16 7 211 2.44 159 66 6.3 6.2
Cole Hamels PHI 194 14 7 171 2.60 149 57 5.4 5.0
Ian Kennedy ARI 202 19 4 178 2.90 135 82 4.9 4.2

Source: Baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

Matt Kemp has an outside chance at finishing the year as a 40/40 man and incredibly remains in the running for a triple crown. Normally, a player pursuing either accomplishment, not to mention both, would garner daily national attention, but because of all the distractions surrounding the Dodgers, the center fielder’s potentially historic season has gone largely unnoticed. In addition to ranking among the leaders in most traditional statistical categories, Kemp is also a darling of the sabermetric crowd. His average WAR (bWAR+fWAR/2) easily ranks as the best in the National League, while his OPS+ and wOBA are not far off the pace. All things considered, Kemp has been the best player in the National League, but too many will discount his MVP credentials because the Dodgers have never been in the pennant race. Unfortunately, that sentiment is likely to cost him any chance at winning the award even though there isn’t a player in the league who has provided more value to his team.

Matt Kemp vs. Other MVP Contenders

Player Tm PO PA HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS+ wOBA bWAR fWAR
Matt Kemp LAD CF 618 32 107 .317 .396 .561 165 .409 8.6 7.1
Ryan Braun MIL LF 573 27 96 .331 .398 .579 163 .427 6.8 6.5
Joey Votto CIN 1B 644 28 94 .320 .427 .553 165 .419 6.6 7.0
T. Tulowitzki COL SS 596 30 105 .306 .376 .552 135 .394 5.8 6.6
Justin Upton ARI RF 622 30 86 .299 .379 .551 150 .400 4.7 7.0

Source: Baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

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The American League Cy Young race was seen by many as a battleground between modern sabremetrics and old fashioned statistical analysis. As a result, the “controversial” selection of Felix Hernandez was heralded in some corners as the dawning of an age of enlightenment, while in others it was viewed as a turn to the “dark side”.

There’s no point in trying to settle that debate because both sides seem firmly entrenched in their positions. What is more interesting, however, is whether or not Hernandez’ selection represented much of a change in the thought process used by the BBWAA voters to elect the Cy Young.

As Tyler Kepner noted in the New York Times’ Bats Blog, one really didn’t need to delve too deeply in advanced metrics in order to appreciate Hernandez’ accomplishments in 2010. Even though he was a pedestrian 13-12, the Mariners’ ace led the league in ERA and placed second in strikeouts (only one behind the leader), two statistics that have factored into historical voting almost as much as wins.

Without a doubt, wins have always played a role in selecting the Cy Young. In the American League, 26 of the 45 winners since 1967 (the first year a separate award was given in each league) led in wins, while 39 came within 10% of the league-leading total. After removing the four relief pitchers who won the award, the percentage increases to 63% and 95%, respectively. In the National League, 64% of non-reliever Cy Youngs finished first in wins, while 79% finished within 10% of the best total. Combined, the correlation between the Cy Young and win total is stronger than any other statistic.

Cy Youngs Who Have Not Finished Within 10% of League Leader in Wins

Note: Relievers excluded from consideration.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

When you consider that the last two AL Cy Youngs, Zack Greinke (84% of top win total) and Hernandez (62% of top win total), are the league’s only award winners to not finish within 10% of the leading win total, it does seem as if there has been a philosophical change among the voters. After taking a deeper look, however, it becomes clear that Cy Young voters have never lived by wins alone.

Cumulative Rankings of Cy Young Award Winners in Three Traditional Statistical Categories

 

Wins

ERA

SO

  Leader Within 10% Leader Within 10% Leader Within 10%
AL 63% 95% 44% 76% 22% 41%
NL 64% 79% 33% 85% 44% 59%

Note: Relievers excluded from calculation of percentages; the American League had two award winners in 1969.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

As illustrated in the chart above, both ERA and strikeouts have a strong relationship to winning the Cy Young. In fact, in the National League, a higher percentage of winners have come within 10% of leading in ERA than wins. Nonetheless, the correlation to wins is still significantly stronger, but a few caveats are in order. Because ERA is a rate statistic, there is not only more room for variance, but qualified pitchers with much fewer innings pitched are not disadvantaged as they would be with cumulative totals. Also, although strikeouts, like wins, are cumulative, the league leading total is often 10-15x more than the best win mark. Again, this introduces more variance among the leaders. After taking those two qualifications into account, it certainly seems as if voters have always given very careful consideration to both ERA and strikeouts.

Relative Performance of Cy Young Winners in Wins, Strikeouts and ERA

  Leader in all 3 categories Leader in at least 2 categories Leader in at least 1 category
AL 10% 37% 83%
NL 10% 38% 92%
       
  Top 10% in all 3 categories Top 10% in at least 2 categories Top 10% in at least 1 category
AL 29% 73% 100%
NL 28% 82% 100%

Note: Relievers excluded from calculation of percentages; the American League had two award winners in 1969.
Source: Baseball-reference.com

In the National League, only three Cy Young starters have failed to lead at least one of the three categories under consideration in this analysis, while seven have come up short in the AL. However, every award winner has at least finished among the top 10% in one category, with a large percentage achieving the feat in at least two. It should be noted, however, that among the 18 pitchers who only ranked in the top 10% of one category, 16 were listed among the leaders in wins (including 14 who actually led their league). Only Greinke in 2009 (led the league in ERA; 84% of wins leader; and shade below 90% of strikeout leader) and Rick Sutcliffe in 1984 (traded to NL on June13; only finished among top-10% in ERA, but went 16-1 for Cubs) were able to buck that trend. So, although it seems as if voters have always considered more than just wins, they have often allowed a leading total in that category to obscure other relative deficiencies.

An evolution in the criteria that beat writers use to vote on awards like the Cy Young certainly seems to be underway. However, it would be stretch to suggest that this gradual tidal shift is really a sea change. As startling as Felix Hernandez’ win total may be (at 62% of the leading total, it is the lowest among all non-relievers since 1967), he still led the league in ERA and strikeouts (he was actually one behind Jered Weaver, but based on rounded percentage was within 100% of the leading total), which has usually been good enough to win the Cy Young.

Pitchers Who Led Their League in Strikeouts and ERA, but Didn’t Win the Cy Young Award

Year ERA/K Leader Wins WAR Cy Young Wins WAR
1970 Tom Seaver 18 6 Bob Gibson 23 8.7
1971 Tom Seaver 20 9.2 Fergie Jenkins 24 9.2
1979 J.R. Richard 18 6 Bruce Sutter 6 4.6
1987 Nolan Ryan 8 5.5 Steve Bedrosian 5 2.6
2002 Pedro Martinez 20 5.7 Barry Zito 23 6.5

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Of the five times (out of 21 cases) that the electorate turned away from the ERA/strikeout leader, it either awarded a reliever or the league leader in wins. Of the latter, however, each pitcher also happened to have a higher WAR: Jenkins and Gibson were the league leaders in their Cy Young season, while Zito finished a close third behind Roy Halladay (6.9) and Tim Hudson (6.6). Interestingly, the correlation to WAR doesn’t stop there. The baseball-reference.com blog ran a comparison of Cy Young winners to WAR and found that 46 of the 80 non-relievers (58%) actually led the league in the website’s calculation of the metric, which isn’t far from the 64% correlation to the stodgy old wins category. This really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, however, considering our previous discussion. As foreign and advanced as WAR may seem, common place metrics like strikeouts and those that influence ERA play a significant role in many sabremetric constructs.

So, let the philosophical battle rage on. Hernandez’ Cy Young victory doesn’t belong to either side.

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