Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cubs Cleaning Up

Arrieta rode a historic second half to his first Cy Young award (
2015 was a pretty good year for the Cubs. Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber had outstanding debuts, Jake Arrieta evolved into one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Joe Maddon worked his usual magic from the dugout, guiding Chicago to 97 wins and the World Series championship that Back to the Future II predicted 26 years ago a postseason berth.

One would think the Cubbies won it all this year, based on how they've fared in the BBWAA awards thus far. On Monday it was announced that Bryant won NL Rookie of the Year unanimously. Tuesday brought the news that Joe Maddon had been named NL Manager of the Year, and Wednesday made it a three-peat when Jake Arrieta was voted NL Cy Young over Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. That streak will end today, however, as Anthony Rizzo doesn't stand a chance against Bryce Harper for NL MVP honors.

As I wrote yesterday, Bryant was an easy choice based on the way he dominated this year's rookie leaderboards. Maddon was also an obvious pick after helming the Cubs--a last place team the last two years--to its first playoff appearance of the Obama administration. 

But Arrieta, as many have written, was not an obvious choice by any stretch. In fact, I'm pretty sure he was the wrong one.

Let me backtrack a bit. There really was no wrong choice for this year's NL Cy Young, as Arrieta, Greinke, and Kershaw were all equally worthy. They all had different things going for them. Arrieta led the majors in wins, complete games, shutouts, hit rate, and home run rate, plus enjoyed the best second half any pitcher has ever had. Greinke was tops in winning percentage, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and pitcher bWAR. Kershaw tied Arrieta for most complete games and shutouts while registering the most innings, strikeouts, and pitcher fWAR. He also had the major's lowest FIP and National League's best strikeout rate. In the end, who you voted for was a matter of personal taste. 

Since I'm on board with the whole sabermetrics thing, I prefer FIP to ERA. I like lots of strikeouts and few walks. I want to see a low WHIP. And I want to see all of those things sustained over a large workload.

I think you see where I'm going with this. Nobody combined quantity with quality this year like Kershaw. He was the best pitcher in baseball based on things pitchers can control (though I still don't buy the idea that pitchers can control home runs, as that's heavily influenced by weather and ballpark) and threw more innings than anyone else. No pitcher was more valuable, in my eyes, at least. 

I don't mean to take anything away from Arrieta, because he had a Cy-worthy season as well. I just can't help but wonder how the voting would have played out had the Cubs finished last again, or had Greinke not split the vote with his rotationmate (Kershaw wins if you give him half of Greinke's point total). Since it was pretty much impossible to tell which Dodger pitcher was better, that all but guaranteed the award would go to Arrieta--Chicago's clear ace.

I also think it's funny that for the second year in a row, a pitcher rode a big second half to Cy Young glory over a pitcher who I thought was more deserving. Last year saw Corey Kluber edge out Felix Hernandez, and this year Arrieta won despite having a 3.40 ERA through mid-June. It's also interesting that Kluber and Arrieta were both first-time winners who were rewarded for their first season of dominance, whereas Hernandez and Kershaw had both won before with superior seasons. I'm sure there are some voters out there who'd rather not vote for the same guy year after year, who instead try to pick the player with the better narrative. That's why Josh Donaldson will beat out Mike Trout for AL MVP, even though Trout's numbers are better than Donaldson's as well as the ones he posted during his MVP campaign last year.
Keuchel shut out the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game (
While big second halves helped Kluber and Arrieta capture their first Cy Young awards, a strong finishing kick did not help David Price secure his second.

I was both surprised and happy to see Dallas Keuchel eek by David Price in the American League. I thought Price would win after sparking Toronto's second-half turnaround, essentially pitching them to the postseason the way CC Sabathia did Milwaukee in 2008. I guess that's karma for Price stealing the 2012 Cy Young that Justin Verlander deserved

Of course, Keuchel was every bit as instrumental as Price in helping his team reach the playoffs. He was the American League's most valuable pitcher per bWAR (FanGraphs had Chris Sale, which I don't buy considering he threw 23 fewer innings with an ERA nearly a full run higher) and led the league in a host of categories, including innings, shutouts, ERA+, WHIP, and wins. 

Keuchel "won" 20 regular season games--the only AL starter to do so--but that total doesn't include Houston's most important game of the season--a do-or-die, single elimination game at Yankee Stadium for the right to advance to the ALDS. Keuchel was masterful, spinning six shutout innings and limiting the Bombers to just three hits in his first-ever postseason start. He was equally dominant in his lone ALDS turn, stifling the Royals to one run over seven frames as he helped Houston come within one win of the ALCS. That proved to be Keuchel's last start of 2015, as the Astros never got that last win.

I don't mean to say that Price would have been a poor pick. His numbers were nearly identical to Keuchel's, so as in the NL it was a toss-up. For me it was innings--Keuchel threw 11 and 2/3 more, or about a start and a half--that made Keuchel the superior candidate. That doesn't sound like much over the course of a season, but when you consider that Houston won the second wild card by one game over the Angels, those dozen innings might have been the difference. No American League starter had more of an impact than Keuchel, who led the loop in batters faced, and nobody was definitively better. Price was just as good, but he simply wasn't as dominant; the only stat he led in was ERA--by 0.03 over Keuchel, which of course means nothing over 162 games.

In both leagues the voters had to split hairs. I think they split the right ones in the AL but the wrong ones in the NL. 

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