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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Don't Anoint The "King" Too Quickly (A Derailed Postulate)

The SABR community gained a new posterboy for their assault on conventional stats this season in the form of Felix Hernandez.  Rob Neyer, Jason Rosenberg, and Jack Moore all took up the argument this week, following a start in which Hernandez threw eight shutout innings, but took another no-decision.  They argue that Hernandez is, literally, "King of the AL."  He leads the AL in innings, strikeouts, and QS%.  He's second in ERA and third in WHIP.  He's also third in Defensive Independent ERA, a new hot-button stat.  But somehow, despite indisputably being one of the top pitchers in the league, he's managed only 11 wins.

The reason for this is simple enough.  The Mariners are the lowest-scoring team in baseball, by a long shot (they've scored 32 fewer runs than the Pirates, 76 fewer runs than the next lowest AL franchise, the Orioles).  So, even though in 90% of his 30 starts Felix has allowed three or fewer runs and gone six or more innings, he's got ten losses and nine no-decisions.

Several pitchers have suffered from their lineup's futility in recent years.  Matt Cain and Zack Greinke come quickly to mind.  But if Hernandez concludes the season with more than 250 innings and an ERA under 2.50 (he's currently on pace to achieve both marks with ease), yet somehow finishes with fewer than 15 wins, it will be only the fifth time that has happened since integration in 1947 and the first time since 1993, when Jose Rijo went 14-9 with a 2.48 ERA and 257 IP for the Reds.  If Felix's ERA stays below 2.40, he will join Dave Roberts of the 1971 Padres in infamy.  Roberts posted a 2.10 ERA and 170 IP, but somehow managed a record of just 14-17.

Clearly what is happening to Hernandez is deeply unjust and he should obviously be considered among the premier pitchers in the AL, regardless of his record.  However, the tendency has been, in these diatribes on Felix's behalf, to diminish the statistics of C. C. Sabathia, the current MLB leader in wins, in an effort to elevate King Felix.  Here are their respective lines for 2010:

Felix Hernandez (Seattle): 11-10, 2.30 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 209 K, 60 BB, 219 IP, 3.25 xFIP, 5.9 WAR
C. C. Sabathia (New York): 19-5, 3.02 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 165 K, 65 BB, 203 IP, 3.85 xFIP, 3.9 WAR

As you can see, in every major statistical metric, excepting record, Hernandez is better than Sabathia, sometime by a long-shot.

What's absolutely certain is that their situations couldn't be more different.  Sabathia's team has the best record in baseball.  Hernandez's has the second-worst.  The Yankees have scored the most runs.  The Mariners have scored the least.  However, not everything works in Sabathia's favor.

Let's start with defense.  Both Hernandez and Sabathia rank in the top ten in the AL in inducing groundballs.  Felix at 52.9% and C. C. at 51.0%.  Yet, here's how their respective infielders rate in terms of getting to those grounders and converting them into outs (rankings based on players with 800+ innings):
Mark Teixeira (New York) -5.7 UZR (#17/21), .997 FLD% (#5/21)
Casey Kotchman (Seattle) 0.6 UZR (#11/21), .999 FLD% (#1/21)

Robinson Cano (New York) 1.5 (#6/16), .996 (#2/16)
Chone Figgins (Seattle) -9.0 (#15/16), .974 (#15/16)

Alex Rodriguez (New York) -1.7 (#14/21), .976 (#5/21)
Jose Lopez (Seattle) 6.0 (#7/21), .957 (#14/21)

Derek Jeter (New York) -6.8 (#20/22), .989 (#1/22)
Jack Wilson/Josh Wilson (Seattle) 1.3 (#11/22), .966 (#18/22)

Total Infield UZR:
Yankees -12.7
Mariners -1.1

The Mariners are significantly more rangy at every infield position except second-base.  Considering that 60% of the batters King Felix has faced this year have yielded either a groundball or a strikeout (56% for Sabathia), his infielders' ability to get to those balls (even if they boot them) has a very tangible effect on his ERA and WHIP numbers (remember, the fact that the Yankees infielders don't make errors at the same rate as the Mariners is of no help to Sabathia's ERA).  Theoretically, that xFIP compensates for the differences in defense and we do see their ERAs creeping toward each other (by 0.12) in that metric.  However, I expect a more substantial narrowing when we combine defense with other factors...

The single biggest difference in their situation may not be the lineup that supports them or the defense that plays behind them.  It may be the ballpark that acts as their home.  So far this season, Yankee Stadium is the #2 ballpark for run-scoring, trailing only Coors Field, as the Yankees and their opponents score 20.5% more runs at home than on the road.  Safeco Field, on the other hand, ranks dead last, as the Mariners than their opponents score 20.4% less runs in Seattle than on the road.  One would expect that a pitcher who throws approximately half his game in an extreme hitter's park would have substantially higher rate splits than a pitcher who throws half his games in an extreme pitcher's park.

But, SURPRISE!, the stats don't bear that out...

Sabathia is actually a spectacular 11-0 with a 2.27 ERA and 1.02 WHIP at Yankee Stadium, compared to 8-5 with a 3.75 ERA and 1.37 WHIP on the road.

And, while King Felix is better at Safeco, the difference is not that dramatic.  He's 7-4 witha 2.13 ERA and 1.00 WHIP at home, 4-6 with a 2.47 ERA and 1.17 WHIP on the road.

Well, that sort of cockblocks my whole thesis, doesn't it?

To some extent, yes.  But it also demonstrates the extent of Sabathia's domination, as he stands alone in his ability to dominate in the bombers new monstrosity of a ballpark.  In 30 career starts at Yankee Stadium III, The Big Sleep is 18-3 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.  No other pitcher who's made more than four starts in the Bronx, including notable Yanks like Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes, has maintained an ERA under 4.00.  Of those that have made three or four starts, only Brian Matusz (2.10) has managed an ERA as low as Sabathia's.

Neyer, Rosenberg, and the rest are right to commend King Felix and to attack Cy Young voters who rely too heavily on any one statistical metric, especially one as flawed as wins, but when Neyer anoints Hernandez "king of the american league" based on his last two seasons, he is overlooking the extraordinary sustained performance of Sabathia, which may not surpass King Felix, but at least comes very close to making Sabathia his equal.  C. C.'s situation gives him an advantage in getting victories, but it puts him at a disadvantage in terms of run prevention and as a result it more frequently tests his durability.  Isn't their room for two at the top?


Matt said...

Nice article. I'll still take The King over CC anyday (even if salary was not a factor).

Hippeaux said...

Obviously, if age and current salary are factors, it isn't even a contest and, as you can see, I had a hard time making a rational argument for C. C. as this year's Cy Young. However, if 2011 exists alone in a vacuum, I'm not sure I prefer Felix. Sabathia is still very much in his prime and has proven he can hold up and perform at a high level even with a consistently heavy workload. King Felix will be in new territory in terms of innings this season. I expect he'll be just fine, but it wouldn't be unusual to see a slight regression, even for a pitcher of his caliber, following three consecutive seasons of increasing workload.