Cliff, Roy… and the Rest

With only a week or so remaining in the regular season, the performance lines for starting pitchers are largely complete, as each will only take one more trip to the hill.  Barring a Brett Myers vs. the Marlins performance from last Friday, Cliff Lee is going to finish an absolutely remarkable season by adding the AL Cy Young Award to his resume.  His closest competition is Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays, but, while Halladay is putting the finishing touches on the best season in his fantastic career, and while he is definitely the better bet moving forward, Lee is technically still having the better season.  He isn’t blowing Halladay away, by any means, as the gap between the two is pretty steep and they are 1-2 in just about every pertinent category, but Lee is more often than not the 1 to Doc Halladay’s 2.
This post is not about Cliff vs. Roy, however, but rather about the rest of the pack.  Sky Kalkman brought up this point on my Fangraphs post regarding Halladay’s unnoticed season, in that Cliff and Roy are neck and neck, but after that, the gap vastly widens before we see the next best starting pitcher in the junior circuit.  As in, Lee and Halladay have both been so good that they are not only making others in the midst of great seasons appear not as great, but have seriously distanced themselves from the rest of the pack.
Now, WPA/LI might not be the greatest metric for pitchers, as TangoTiger pointed out–the stat treats each plate appearance as one plate appearance, which is great for hitters, but not as solid for pitchers.  Certain PAs should be counted as more important for pitchers.  Still, I am a fan of the metric, and when you look at AL starters, the following will be seen:

  1. Cliff Lee, 5.02
  2. Roy Halladay, 4.99
  3. Ervin Santana, 3.31
  4. John Danks, 2.86
  5. Josh Beckett, 2.47

Now raise your hand if you predicted prior to the season that Cliff Lee, Ervin Santana, and John Danks would comprise arguably three of the top five pitchers in the American League.  Okay, lower your hand, and please put out the flame that just engulfed your pants, because you are a liar.  Halladay is within .003 of Lee, but after that, next closest is Santana, who has had a great season, but has been over 1.5 wins less effective than both Lee and Doc.  Danks, who seemingly came out of nowhere to have this great campaign, is almost two and a quarter wins less effective, and Beckett, who usually gets brushed aside from his own team due to Jon Lester’s season and Dice-K’s gaudy W-L record, is 2.5 wins less effective on the season.
That is pretty drastic, especially when compared to the National League, where numbers one through six in context-neutral wins range from 3.83 to 3.03, a mere 0.8 wins separating these six pitchers.  Let’s take a look at the five AL starters a bit more in-depth.
Cliff Lee: 30 GS, 216.1 IP, 205 H, 11 HR, 31 BB, 162 K, 2.41 ERA, 2.78 FIP, 5.23 K/BB, .302 BABIP, 78.9% LOB, 4.9% HR/FB
Roy Halladay: 32 GS (33 G), 237 IP, 214 H, 18 HR, 38 BB, 201 K, 2.81 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 5.29 K/BB, .295 BABIP, 74.5% LOB, 9.5% HR/FB
Ervin Santana: 30 GS, 205.1 IP, 183 H, 21 HR, 46 BB, 200 K, 3.33 ERA, 3.28 FIP, 4.35 K/BB, .299 BABIP, 75.5% LOB, 9.2% HR/FB
John Danks: 31 GS, 183 IP, 173 H, 13 HR, 53 BB, 150 K, 3.20 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 2.83 K/BB, .304 BABIP, 77.0% LOB, 6.9% HR/FB
Josh Beckett: 26 GS, 168.1 IP, 166 H, 18 HR, 33 BB, 166 K, 3.96 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 5.03 K/BB, .324 BABIP, 71.8% LOB, 10.8% HR/FB
When we look at FIP this year, Lee is at 2.78, Halladay at 3.04, Ervin at 3.27, Danks at 3.33, and Beckett at 3.23.  The first four have ERAs very close to these marks, but Josh Beckett has a 3.96 ERA, three-quarters of a run higher.  Additionally, the first four all have sustainable, and “normal” BABIPs, while Beckett is much higher at .324.  Given that his LOB% and HR/FB are right around average, but his BABIP is higher, Beckett seems to be in the midst of an unlucky season, making him look less effective than he is.  Jon Lester may be the hot starter for the Red Sox this year, but make no mistake, Beckett is your #2, not Dice-K.
Lee’s LOB% is rather high and his HR/FB is very, very low, but his BABIP is right around the average, at .302, so it is very possible he can sustain some semblance of this in the years to come.  It won’t be the Lee we witnessed this season, but he could still be a very good pitcher if he manages to keep the ball on the ground like he has this season. 
All of Halladay’s numbers are in order, right around the averages in BABIP, LOB, and HR/FB, so he has not been as “lucky” as Lee, or Danks.  I use quotes because I am not referring to luck in the same sense as a fielder diving and having a look-what-I-found moment, but rather in the sense that Lee and Danks have lines built on some likely unsustainable numbers.  For Lee, the LOB and HR/FB are red flags.  For Danks, the same two.  With just a 6.9% HR/FB and a very high 77% LOB, as well as the highest walks, hits, and HBP per innings pitched of these five pitchers, Danks has had a great season but his skillset will need to improve for this success to continue.
Ervin, like Halladay, seems to be completely “in order” as he has a .299 BABIP, a 9.2% HR/FB, and a 75.5% LOB.  Many analysts kept waiting for him to falter, as well as teammate Joe Saunders, but Santana has been a rock for that Angels squad.
Generally speaking, FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching, is a better indicator of current success than ERA, since it measures the controllable skills, while xFIP is a better indicator of future success than FIP.  xFIP, kept at The Hardball Times, normalizes the home runs component of FIP, since some pitchers may post very unsustainable HR/FB percentages.  The league average is around 11%, so when we see Cliff Lee posting a 4.9% HR/FB, we know that this has been a major part of his success. 
With xFIP thrown in the mix, we get the following: Halladay (3.22), Beckett (3.28), Lee (3.66), Santana (3.68), Danks (3.92).  This tells us that if everyone gave up the average home run rate, with their current BB/K numbers, their FIPs would be these aforementioned numbers, which is what we would expect.  Adding 5-6% to Lee and Danks would increase both their ERAs and FIPs, while lowering their win-based metrics.  This is purely for moving forward, however, and not meant to knock anything either has done this season.
 Moving forward, we would expect someone with numbers similar to Lee’s, but a HR/FB closer to 11% to be more likely to sustain this performance as we move forward.  Again, keep in mind that I am not knocking Lee in any way, because there is a difference between current success and success moving forward.  Lee is having a better season than any of these others right now, but next year, or the year after, I would be more inclined to say that Halladay, Santana, or Beckett, may be more likely to sustain this year’s performance.
The gap between Cliff and Roy and the rest of the AL pack of starters may be quite impressive, but moving forward it should lessen quite a bit, assuming regression runs its natural course.

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2 Responses to Cliff, Roy… and the Rest

  1. Colin Wyers says:

    My position on FIP/xFIP in circumstances like this:
    A pitcher shouldn’t recieve undue credit for the contributions of his fielders in awards balloting. But he should certain recieve credit for what he did himself – keep the ball in the yard, pitch better with men on base – even if he very likely got “lucky” in either regard.
    The reason is because we want to know who gave the best performance, not who has the best true talent level. “Luck” is really just random variation around true talent. The quality of fielding behind a pitcher, on the other hand, is an environemental issue, like park factors or quality of opponents faced.

  2. Yeah, none of this really has to do with award balloting, as I agree with you. It’s the same reason I don’t like using something like VORP when discussing MVP. MVPs and Cy Youngs are awards based on W-L, ERA, etc, BA, HR, RBI. They might not be great, but it is what it is.

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