It’s probably a bit soon to be diagnosing who was that National League’s Best Pitcher in 2009, what with the post-season yet to be played and so far in advance of the Cy Young voting. As a Giants fan, though, I’ve been watching Tim Lincecum all year to see how well he’d do relative to the senior circuit’s other top pitchers the year after winning his first Cy Young Award. Now that the regular season is over, I can finally take a look and see what I think.
I decided that what I would do is look at what the NL’s top starters did in six statistical categories that I decided were the most important (to me at least): Innings pitched, wins, winning percentage, ERA, strikeouts, and opponents’ OPS. I’m sure that you are familiar with the first five of these categories. I decided to add the sixth, opponents’ OPS, because this stat is now available on ESPN’s website, and since the purpose of pitching is to prevent offense, looking at opponents’ offensive production would be useful. Also, ERA isn’t necessarily the most accurate statistic, in and of itself, because it doesn’t take into account all runs allowed, even though the pitcher on the hill usually had as much to do with the unearned run(s) ultimately scoring as the error(s) behind him.
I didn’t bother to carefully examine the NL’s top relief pitchers, because I think that top closers almost never have the same value as top starters, because the latter pitch so many more innings. For example, of the top ten closers in the NL this year in terms of saves, only two, Jonathon Broxton (76 IP) and Rafael Soriano (75.2 IP) managed to pitch even 75 innings, which is roughly a third of what each of the NL top five starters threw.
There are exceptions, of course (like Dennis Eckersley in 1990 when he had an 0.61 ERA), when a closer is so over-powering that he deserves Cy Young consideration, but seasons like that are truly few and far between. This year, Trevor Hoffman had the lowest ERA of any closer in the NL (1.83), and he just signed a contract extension to pitch for the Brewers next year for $8 million, less than half what the highest paid starters make. That tells you something right there.
I then decided that I would use a point system which only awarded points to the top five starters in each of the six categories, for the obvious reason that it’s hard to be the top pitcher if you aren’t at least in the league’s top five. Here are the lists of the top five in each category:
IP: (1) Adam Wainwright 233; (2) Dan Haren 229.1; (3) Tim Lincecum 225.1; (4) Bronson Arroyo 220.1; and (5) Javier Vazquez 219.1.
Wins: (1) Adam Wainwright 19; (2) Chris Carpenter 17; (3) Jorge De La Rosa 16; (4) Jason Marquis, Joel Pineiro, Josh Johnson, Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Bronson Arroyo, Ubaldo Jiminez, Tim Lincecum 15.
Winning Percentage: (1) Chris Carpenter .810; (2) J.A. Happ, Josh Johnson .750; (4) Adam Wainwright .704; (5) Tim Lincecum .682.
ERA: (1) Chris Carpenter 2.24; (2) Tim Lincecum 2.48; (3) Jair Jurrgens 2.60; (4) Adam Wainwright 2.63; (5) Clayton Kershaw 2.79.
Strikeouts: (1) Tim Lincecum 261; (2) Javier Vasquez 238; (3) Dan Haren 223; (4) Adam Wainwright 212; (5) Yovani Gallardo 204.
Opponents’ OPS: (1) Tim Lincecum .561; (2) Chris Carpenter .581; (3) Clayton Kershaw .588; (4) Javier Vazquez .612; (5) Josh Johnson .626.
One thing to note about Lincecum and his fine opponents’ OPS. Of the League’s top ten in this category, Lincecum allowed the most stolen bases (20) and had the lowest caught-stealing rate (20%). Lincecum has a long and unique motion which probably makes it hard for the hitters to see the ball well coming out his hand, but he’s also easy for baserunners to steal against, like a lot of power pitchers. The trouble holding runners is probably part of the reason why his ERA is relatively high considering how poorly his opponents did at the plate against him.
Back to the scoring. First, I tried a point system where the winner in each category got one extra point for leading the league, but then using straight numbers. In other words, a 6-4-3-2-1 system for one through five in each category. Under this scoring regime, I got the following results:
(1) Tim Lincecum 22; (2) Chris Carpenter 20; (3) Adam Wainwright 18; (4) Javier Vasquez 9; (5) Dan Haren, Josh Johnson 7; (7) Clayton Kershaw, J.A. Happ, Bronson Arroyo 4.
This tells us pretty much what we all knew already: Lincecum, Carpenter and Wainwright were far and away the NL’s three best pitchers this year. However, the numbers are awfully close, so I tried another scoring system, this one 10-7-5-3-1, which is more weighted to favor the top three in each category, to see if it made much of a difference. Here are the results of this second scoring system:
(1) Tim Lincecum 36; (2) Chris Carpenter 34; (3) Adam Wainwright 29; (4) Javier Vasquez 14; (5) Dan Haren 12; (6) Josh Johnson 11; (7) J.A. Happ 7; (8) Bronson Arroyo, Clayton Kershaw 6; (10) Jair Jurrgens, Jorge De La Rosa 5.
This second scoring system pushes Wainwright down a little, but he, Lincecum and Carpenter are all pretty close. My system doesn’t weigh the six categories against one another, so doing so could move the numbers around, based on whichever stats you think are the most important. Any way you slice it, however, there’s a lot to be said for each of Lincecum, Carpenter and Wainwright as the National League’s best pitcher.
One thing I thought I’d look at to see if I could distinguish the three was how they did on the road. It’s one thing for a pitcher to dominate at home, especially if he pitches in a pitchers’ park, with the home fans cheering him on and the pitcher knowing how the ball carries to the different parts of the yard, etc. Here are Lincecum’s, Carpenter’s and Wainwright’s home/road splits in terms of won-loss record and ERA:
Tim Lincecum — Home: 10-2, 1.88 ERA; Road: 5-5, 3.21 ERA.
Chris Carpenter — Home: 8-2, 2.49 ERA; Road: 9-2, 2.05 ERA.
Adam Wainwright — Home: 7-7, 2.05 ERA; Road: 12-1, 3.39.
The numbers for Wainwright are correct: his ERA was one-and-a-third runs better per nine innings at home than on the road, but his record was far better on the road. This just goes to show that won-loss record in any one season doesn’t mean all that much. You can pitch much worse, as Wainwright did on the road, but still win a lot more games and lose a lot fewer if your team happens to score a lot of runs on the days you pitch.
It’s clear from these numbers that Carpenter was the best pitcher home and away of the three. The problem with Carpenter is that both his strikeout total (144) and innings pitched total (192.2) are way below both Lincecum and Wainwright. Do these deficits overcome just how great Carpenter pitched when he did pitch? I’ll leave that analysis to some other statistician.
Generally, AT&T Park in San Francisco has a reputation as being a better pitchers’ park than Busch Stadium in St. Louis. I thought I would check to see if Lincecum was, in fact, benefiting unduly by making half his starts at AT&T Park.
It doesn’t look like it. The Giants and their opponents scored 650 runs at AT&T Park this year, and only 618 runs in all the League’s other parks combined. This is a surprising outcome, which I attribute to a small sample size (one year), the fact that the Giants’ pitching was exceptionally good on the road, and the fact that the Giants have a lot of gap hitters who can take advantage of the deep power alleys in SF but don’t have enough power to hit homeruns in smaller parks.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals and their opponents scored 656 runs at Busch Stadium this year and 714 runs in all the other parks in the League combined. In 2009, at least, Busch Stadium was a better pitchers’ park than AT&T. Of course, that does not explain why Tim Lincecum was nearly a run and half better per nine innings at AT&T than he was elsewhere this year. Word around the League, however, is that the slight-of-stature Lincecum wilts in the hot weather.
After all of the foregoing, the race for NL Cy Young Award winner looks to like a beauty pageant to me. In other words, the “best” pitcher among Lincecum, Wainwright and Carpenter is going to be a decision where personal preferences and biases come into play.
I would certainly be happy if Lincecum won, and the rating system I used has him slightly ahead. However, crunching the numbers in different ways will, I suspect, lead to different results. However, I certainly won’t feel that Lincecum got cheated if either Carpenter or Wainwright come out on top.
It will be interesting to see how those subjective factors play out in the voting. Lincecum won last year in another close race, so voters may throw their first place votes to Carpenter or Wainwright, who both have the advantage of playing on a playoff team. However, Carpenter and Wainwright may see their votes split because they play on the same team.