We've seen award discussions heat up earlier than usual this year. Probably because, for a while, it didn't look like we'd have much in the way of playoff-race drama. Now it looks like we could have some playoff-race drama, thanks to a few recent slumps and surges. That should mostly push the award discussion to the backburner for a little while.
But no matter what happens in the standings, the awards won't be ignored completely over the final couple weeks, and in fact I'm going to talk about one of them right now - the 2011 NL Cy Young. This is such a tight and fascinating race, and though I'm not writing a thesis on the subject, I do have a handful of thoughts to throw onto what's already a towering pile of thoughts.
Thought Number 1: forget about Ian Kennedy's 19-4 record. This is coming down to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw. And me, personally, I vote for Halladay without thinking twice. Now then, on we go.
There's been some talk about quality of opponents. Kershaw has gotten to face the Giants five times. Five times! In those five starts, Kershaw has allowed four earned runs. By comparison, Lee has faced the Giants once, while Halladay hasn't faced, and will not face, the Giants at all. Kershaw should get dinged, right? Because the Giants are so terrible?
By that measure, sure. But that isn't a real measure, and we have much better measures. Baseball Prospectus offers one of them. They keep track of a pitcher's average quality of opponent, by slash line. The current data:
The average batter that Roy Halladay has faced so far has posted a .742 OPS. For Clayton Kershaw, .743. For Cliff Lee, .754.
So it turns out that, at least by this measure, Kershaw hasn't actually had it any easier than Halladay at all. Both of them have had it easier than Lee, though, which matters to some small degree. This isn't a perfect measure of opponent quality, but it's a lot closer than just pointing out which guys have faced which good- and bad-hitting teams.
We can't just look at statistics and ignore the park factors at play. And I don't just mean the run-inflating or run-suppressing park factors, either. I mean the detailed park factors. All of the park factors.
Citizens Bank Park, for example, has historically been slightly hitter-friendly, reducing doubles and triples but boosting home runs. Dodger Stadium, meanwhile, has historically been slightly pitcher-friendly, reducing doubles, triples and walks, and increasing strikeouts. These things matter.
How much they matter, I can't say. I don't know how a park might've specifically affected Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, and I don't know how a park might've specifically affected Clayton Kershaw. But one must consider that Kershaw has made 14 of his 30 starts in a home park that, overall, improves the average pitcher's strikeout-to-walk ratio. This isn't worth nothing.
So often, when talking about the Cy Young, the focus is put on a pitcher's overall numbers. Which, obviously, is sensible. That captures the pitcher's entire body of work.
But sometimes it can be worth breaking things down on a game-by-game basis, especially in a tight race. And when you do that, you note that Roy Halladay has allowed more than three runs just four times this season. Cliff Lee has allowed more than three runs seven times. Clayton Kershaw has allowed more than three runs eight times.
That suggests - it does not prove, but suggests - that Halladay has been more consistently effective. Should we care about this? Should we care more about the fact that, 11 times, Lee has held the opponent scoreless? I don't know the answer right now, but Halladay, Lee and Kershaw have arrived at their similar numbers in different ways.
One year ago, Roy Halladay was the unanimous NL Cy Young. He picked up all 32 first-place votes, blowing Adam Wainwright, Ubaldo Jimenez and everybody else out of the water. It was not undeserved; according to FanGraphs, Halladay was the league's most productive starter.
Halladay has only gotten better. He's maintained his high ground-ball rate. He's maintained his tiny walk rate. He has allowed 15 fewer home runs than in last season. And he's improved his strikeout rate from 22 percent to 24 percent. If you look to the advanced numbers, Halladay has dropped his FIP from 3.01 to 2.11, and he's dropped his xFIP from 2.80 to 2.61.
So: one season's unanimous Cy Young performs considerably better the following season. Repeat unanimous Cy Young, right? Wrong. Or, probably wrong. I can't see Halladay taking this one in a clean sweep again. And that speaks volumes as to just how amazing Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw have also been. With Halladay pitching the way he has, you wouldn't think he could have legitimate competition, but here we are.