It’s that time of the year again, folks. Time for MLB’s post-season awards. Yesterday, the finalist for the Cy Young and MVP awards in each league were released, and the results are as follows:
Some of these finalists could have been chosen before spring training began. Now that the baseball year has ended, the ultimate victors (not Martinez) of those races are even easier to predict. However, as with any good awards season, there remains room for argument and discussion in a couple of spots. Let’s take a quick look at each award, and see which baseballer is most deserving and why they are so.
Mike Trout is going to win the American League MVP award, just like he should have in both 2012 and 2013. Honestly, this one should be a unanimous choice. I could spend some time talking about how great he is, but most of you already know. Anybody who doesn’t, can easily use this internet to look up Trout’s Fangraphs page. Regardless of how you choose to evaluate players these days, Mike Trout is the best.
Brantley is an obvious second place candidate. Though his defense may be suspect, he was a top 5 hitter in his league last season while also being the 3rd most valuable baserunner. Brantley only made 5 outs on the base paths; thrown out 3 times, caught stealing once, and picked off once. Ol’ VMart is the only one in the top three that I roll my eyes at. Yes, he was an absolute monster at the plate in 2014–posting both the lowest strikeout percentage and 8th best isolated power numbers in the AL. But he was also the third worst baserunner in the league while adding absolutely zero defensive value in the DH role. You’ve got to put up 2001 Barry Bonds numbers if you want me to even consider you as a top 5 MVP pick as a DH, which Martinez clearly didn’t do. A remarkable season, but not an MVP one.
AL Cy Young
This one is actually my favorite debate of the 2014 awards season. First off, let’s just get Chris Sale out of the way. He was good, but he appeared in eight less games than the other two guys and was not particularly better than them in the games he pitched. He averaged less innings per start than the others while putting up very similar rate stats. I’m sure some reasonable human beings can and will put up some arguments for Sale, but even the greatest thinkers in history said some pretty stupid things.
The fun debate comes when picking between Kluber and Felix, as this is invariably a debate over how much a pitcher can influence the results of batted balls hit against him. The “traditional” line of thought is that, unless there is an error on the play, pitchers should be given full credit for batted ball results against them. This is what gave birth to Earned Run Average (ERA), the statistic of choice for many player comparisons over the last few decades. More recently it has been realized that for the vast majority of pitchers, a batted ball becoming a hit or not is a product of luck and the defense behind him. This gave rise to the Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) statistic, which assumes the pitcher deserves no credit or blame for anything other than strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Clearly these are both extreme views to take. The answer to how much a pitcher can control is likely somewhere in the middle of the argument. Thus, ERA and FIP should be boundaries for a discussion, and not endpoints in and of themselves.
Using these boundaries as our guide, we see that Felix has the edge in ERA, while Kluber has an almost equal edge in FIP. Since they both had equal numbers of innings pitched in the same number of games, picking between the two will come down to describing the gap between the boundary points for both guys. For Kluber, his advantage in FIP is thanks to his greater number of strikeouts, fewer number of home runs allowed, and roughly equal number of walks. These can be influenced by the quality of the batters he faced, the ballpark he threw in, and the catcher who received for him. In each category Kluber was at a disadvantage. In terms of batters faced, Kluber’s competition average a .716 OPS, while Felix’s averaged 0.704. In terms of ballpark, the Indians’ stadium has a home run park factor of 101, while Safeco Field’s is 98. And in terms of catchers, Yan Gomes of the Indians was worth 2.7 framing runs, while Mike Zunino of the Mariners was worth 16.1. So for their FIP results, I believe it’s safe to say Kluber’s advantage is slightly underrated.
Looking at the ERA side of things, we find that the gap in their performance is largely driven by the difference in each pitcher’s Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP): 0.258 for Felix, versus .316 for Kluber. There are three easy ways we can determine if a pitcher’s BABIP was a product of him controlling the quality of contact against him or if it was just because of luck.
First, we can look at the BABIP numbers he’s put up over his career. For Kluber, 2014 looks like a pretty normal season. Granted, he has not been pitching in the Majors for long, but his career BABIP of 0.326 isn’t far off from that of an average pitcher. For Felix on the other hand, 2014 looks like an outlier. In only one other season–his brilliant, Cy Young winning 2010 season–did he post a BABIP even close to as low as in 2014. Over the course of his career he’s averaged 0.295 in this category. There is a chance that Felix has fundamentally changed the way he approached batters this year, but it’s more likely that he was just the benefactor of some extremely good luck. This becomes increasingly convincing when looking at our next metric; batted ball rates.
The biggest factor which determines a pitcher’s BABIP is Batted Ball Rates against him (i.e. fly ball percentage, groundball percentage, etc.). Using these numbers for each pitcher, along with a handy-dandy expected-BABIP (xBABIP) calculator, we can get a rough idea of what a pitcher’s BABIP should be were luck not involved. Kluber gave up a higher percentage of line drives than did Felix. (Line drives naturally fall for hits more often than any other type of batted ball.) But Kluber also had more fly balls relative to ground balls than Felix and induced twice as many pop-ups. Because of these trade offs, they had almost exactly equal xBABIPs last season: 0.321 for Kluber versus 0.323 for Felix.
Lastly, we can consider team defense. The Indians defense in 2014 was the absolute worst in baseball. They managed a grand total of -75 Defensive Runs Saved over the course of the season. While the Mariners defense wasn’t anything particularly special, it was worth only -11 runs. That is a gap of 64 runs between the two teams; a difference of 0.3 runs per 7 innings, which is equal to the gap in the ERAs of the two pitchers.
So we’ve got one pitcher whose FIP advantage may be slightly underrated and another whose ERA advantage can be almost completely explained by luck and team defense. For me, this makes it pretty convincing that Corey Kluber was the better pitcher in 2014, and worthy of the AL Cy Young Award.
The NL MVP decision largely comes down to your thoughts on whether or not an elite pitcher deserves to win the award over a position player. Looking at the two position player finalists, McCutchen seems like the clear victor. I’d say it’s too close to call on who was worth more on defense, but McCutchen was more valuable both at the plate and on the bases. Yeah, Stanton hit a ton of #dingers, drew more walks, and had a slightly better slugging percentage; but Cutch had more total hits–including more doubles and triples–which led to him having the better batting average, on base percentage, and weighted on base average. Things get a lot more complicated, though when we start comparing Cutch to Kershaw.
The main argument against pitchers winning the MVP award is that they play in a lot less games. However, every baseball fan understands that a pitcher has a larger influence over each individual game than a position player. The reason is a pitcher has a lot more Opportunity To Perform (OTP; yes, I invented that just now) than a position player. For this article–and all future articles–I’m going to define OTP for batters as their plate appearances plus their defensive plays. For pitchers, it will be their total batters faced plus their defensive plays. When looking at this, we see the gap in playing time between the two players shrink considerably, with Cutch having 891 OTP versus 789 OTP for Kershaw. That’s 13 percent more opportunities for Cutch to impact the game compared to Kershaw. In order for Kershaw to have been more valuable, he needed to be 13 percent more valuable than Andrew in each opportunity. Was he? That’s difficult to say, but consider this.
In terms of weighted on base average, Andrew McCutchen was 2 percent better than the next best hitter in the NL. In terms of wRC+, he was 6 percent better. But in terms of ERA, Kershaw was 22 percent better than the next best pitcher in the NL. In terms of FIP, he was an incredible 32 percent better than the next best pitcher. While there were a few position players who were nearly as valuable as McCutchen, there was absolutely no one else who was playing anywhere close to as good as Kershaw. The gap between Kershaw and the next best pitcher in baseball is about the same as the gap between Madison Bumgarner and Mike Leake. Because of this, I’ve got to give the advantage to Clayton. McCutchen’s season was incredible, but Kershaw’s was historic.
NL Cy Young
There is no conclusion. I already talked about everything I wanted to talk about. With this as your guide, go forth and bicker until the awards are announced!