Monday, October 12, 2015

NL Awards Preview: Can Kershaw Repeat?

Who deserves the NL MVP? That's a clown question, bro (CBS Sports)
First let me apologize, for the title and picture above are a little misleading. While technically an awards (plural) preview, 90 percent of this piece is devoted to the controversial Cy Young race. Whereas all three AL races are virtual toss-ups, the only tight one in the NL is for the Cy Young award, though it might be the closest I've ever seen. The MVP award has belonged to Bryce Harper since May, and Kris Bryant pulled ahead of Joc Pederson for rookie of the year honors months ago. That leaves us with the NL Cy Young, which could go to one of three candidates, two of whom are teammates.

You could argue any of them for MVP as well, but you really have to bend over backwards to find a way not to elect Bryce Harper. Because let's face it; Harper has been the league's undisputed MVP since Memorial Day. Head over to the NL leaderboards, and you'll see Harper's name in numerous top spots. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs both rated him as the most valuable player in baseball per wins above replacement, which you might have figured based on his major league-leading .460 OBP, .649 slugging, 1.109 OPS, and 195 OPS+. The Nats were massive busts, they don't stay in contention into September without Harper's monster season.

The Rookie of the Year is also a foregone conclusion, having been Kris Bryant's to lose since his big league debut. Joc Pederson hung with him throughout the first half, only to tail off after the All-Star Break as his flaws became exposed. His 26 home runs, .346 OBP, and .206 ISO are nothing to sneeze at for a rookie center fielder, but his defense leaves a lot to be desired and he doesn't have make an impact with his legs the way most center fielders do (Mike Trout he is not).

Bryant's OPS was nearly 100 points higher than Pederson's, still a sizable advantage even after accounting for their home parks. Like Pederson he struck out a lot, but unlike Pederson he did more than just hit home runs when he made contact. He would have knocked in 100 runs had he been given his rightful place on the Opening Day roster, played a solid third base, and was actually a really good baserunner--with 13 steals and nearly a win's worth of value on the basespaths. More than just a slugger, he turned out to be a well-rounded player.

So yeah, if you choose anyone other than Harper and Bryant for these two awards, then you need to have your head examined. But the NL Cy Young race is the closest one in recent memory. Often times two candidates have very similar numbers, as Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber did last year or Clayton Kershaw and R.A. Dickey did in 2012, but it's quite rare that a trio of pitchers post nearly identical stat lines, as Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Jake Arrieta did this year. They finished top-three in WAR, ERA, and WHIP, among several other advanced stats. How on earth do you choose?

Joe Posnanski's right; I think who you vote for here says something about what you value in pitchers. If you value wins and strong second half performances, then Arrieta's your guy. If you stress run prevention and keeping runners off the bases, then you go Greinke. If you're all about defense-independent metrics, i.e. strikeouts and FIP, then awarding Kershaw his third straight Cy.

Wins are a garbage stat, so while it's cool that Arrieta racked up 22 of them, that honestly doesn't mean a thing to me. He could have won 12 and his candidacy wouldn't change in my eyes. I also don't buy into the whole reward someone for a big second half thing, since every game counts the same regardless of when it's played (in the regular season, that is). So while it's neat that he had the lowest second-half ERA ever, that doesn't strengthen his case in my eyes.

Where I do think Arrieta's being underrated is that he had the lowest hit and home run rate in the majors despite contending with Wrigley's friendly confines in half his starts. That's damn impressive given the way the ball flies there during the summer. It's equally impressive that his ERA was virtually identical to Greinke's, considering that a) Greinke calls Dodger Stadium home and b) the NL Central was the toughest division in baseball this year with three 90 win teams. Arrieta's environment was much more conducive to offense, and yet he allowed runs at nearly the same rate as Greinke. Arrieta also logged more innings, racked up more strikeouts, and compiled a lower FIP.
Still the best pitcher on the planet, Kershaw deserves his fourth Cy (My Weekly Sports)
According to FanGraphs, the only pitcher more valuable than Arrieta was Greinke's teammate Kershaw. That's because FG makes pitcher valuations based off DIPS, whereas B-R assesses pitchers based on how well they prevented runs. Since we know the latter is largely beyond a pitcher's control, influenced by a multitude of factors such as the weather, ballpark, hit sequencing, bad hops, defense behind him, and relievers that come in after him, I don't feel comfortable relying on ERA as a guide. I give more weight to stats like FIP and xFIP, which judge pitchers based on things they have more (but not total) control over; home runs, walks, and strikeouts.

By those measures, Kershaw comes out on top. His 1.99 FIP was the best in the majors, and his xFIP was right in line with last year's. Part of the reason both were so good was that he struck out 301 batters, becoming the first pitcher since 2002 to exceed 300 K's in a season. He also led the majors in innings pitched--an underrated stat--as well as complete games and shutouts, which I value because those are almost always wins.

As Jonah Keri wrote yesterday, the most useful stat in settling this whole debate is probably Deserved Run Average (DRA), created by the folks over at Baseball Prospectus. An all-encompassing stat similar to pitcher WAR (but better), DRA captures a pitcher's overall contribution to his team. By that metric, Kershaw is number one, though it's awfully close.

No matter how you slice it, it's a ridiculously tough call. There really should be a three-way tie, because they're all equally worthy. To pick one you have to split hairs, and depending on which hairs you split you'll get your answer. Mine is Kershaw, but yours probably isn't, and that's okay. I'm not trying to tell you why Greinke and Arrieta are the wrong choices, because they're not. There is no wrong choice. I just happen to think Kershaw's the best choice, and only by the slimmest of margins.

1 comment:

  1. I think a couple of voters might notice that according to Baseball-Reference, Bryce Harper and Zack Greinke are tied at 9.9 WAR and use it as an excuse to sneak a couple of MVP votes to Greinke, but I still agree that Harper definitely deserves the award outright.