All anyone wants to talk about is whether or not CC Sabathia or David Price deserves the Cy Young award, and a significant reason for that is their win totals. Felix Hernandez continues to enter the discussion on the strength of his season, which, if not for a Mariners’ offense that is arguably the worst of the entire Wild Card era if not longer, would be opening the eyes of those with more old-school inclinations, but very often the response to bringing up King Felix is that the AL East is the tougher division to pitch in.
Generally, that is true–the East is the toughest division in baseball, as any Oriole starter will tell you. In the case of Sabathia vs. Felix specifically, it doesn’t fit. First off, Sabathia doesn’t have to face the Yankees, which reduces the quality of the competition enormously. Second, he’s had a soft schedule this year, especially relative to Hernandez, who doesn’t get to face the above horrific lineup he tries to help win every five nights like every other team in the AL. Sabathia isn’t a terrible choice for the Cy Young award, but, wins be damned, he’s not the best choice. There’s something that has been bothering me though, and it’s the lack of discussion surrounding another AL East hurler. Whither Jon Lester in the Cy Young discussion? Why is it that Sabathia and Price get all the kudos for pitching in the East, but Lester has seen little love in this regard?
Lester has worked himself right back into the discussion with four straight starts with 10 punch outs or more. He now has 208 whiffs in 190 innings pitched, which gives him more strikeouts than both pitchers and a far superior K/9 to either of them as well, thanks to averaging over one per inning. His ERA is the highest of the three at 3.17, but he also has the smallest disconnect between actual ERA and adjusted ERA–via SIERA, which gives you a better indication of what a pitcher has done on the mound than ERA, Lester is at 3.07, Sabathia 3.77 and Price 3.86. That 3.07 mark puts Lester third in the AL amongst pitchers with 100 innings under their belts.
Price has no advantages over Lester outside of his ERA, and as we just saw, it isn’t as legitimate as Lester’s anyways. He’s faced stiffer competition (he has to face the Red Sox–Lester does not) but the difference isn’t enough to combat the huge gap in SIERA. The debate comes down to Sabathia versus Lester, and unlike all those performances against lesser teams this season, this isn’t a match-up Sabathia can win easily.
Sabathia’s lone advantage over Lester is win total, but that’s not an advantage so much as leaning on an outdated statistic that tells us far less than we need to know to differentiate between the two pitchers. If you want to use something more advanced–say, WARP–you will see that the two are even at 6.1 each. But, a number like this isn’t the end of the line either, as colleague Colin Wyers demonstrated today over at Baseball Prospectus–we’ll have to look deeper to see how they got there in order to see which is more deserving.
We already mentioned the significant gap in SIERA and the enormous difference in whiffs for the two, and even if you want to discount the former, the difference in ERA between the two is so slim as to be almost meaningless in a discussion of who is better. Lester has faced tougher competition–if you look at quality of opponent OPS, which tells you how good the lineups a pitcher has faced are based on their performances against everyone, Lester sits at #19 amongst AL pitchers with 100 innings or more on the season at 728. Sabathia has had it the easiest of any pitcher within those same qualifications at .715, despite pitching in the AL East.
Not that I mind a defense saving a pitcher–these awards are based off of results, after all–but Sabathia has had more help from the players behind him than Lester, as the Yankees are #2 in Defensive Efficiency while the Red Sox are #11, and that’s reflected in their BABIP (.283 for Sabathia, a more average .299 for Lester). It’s not crucial to the argument, but if you’re looking for a reason as to why there’s a gap between CC’s ERA and his SIERA, you can start digging for evidence in that statistical mine.
Sabathia has pitched more innings than Lester, but that’s where WARP can come in handy–despite an innings gap of 27, in favor of Sabathia, they have the same (or nearly equal) value on the season. Sabathia staying in longer doesn’t mean he’s been better, because if Lester has put together the same kind of season value wise in 3-4 starts fewer time, that’s just impressive, and I don’t mean in favor of Sabathia.
The purpose of this piece is not to say “Jon Lester deserves the Cy Young award”. The purpose is for those who think that CC Sabathia or David Price are deserving of the hardware–they may be the best pitchers on their respective clubs, but they aren’t the best in their own division, never mind the league as a whole. That distinction goes to Jon Lester, who still has a handful of starts to make a case for himself and close the gap with those who should be in the Cy discussion, not those who are.