Knuckleballs

Unpredictable, rare, and occasionally effective…but always entertaining.

Predicting Cy Young Award Winners

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Disclaimer: To this point, there’s been a lot of numbers and statistics and guessing about what will happen in 2010.  I’m sure there’s a segment of the readership that’s tired of all of the math already.  I ask for your patience, because nothing is happening on the field right now.  I don’t have access to the teams, am not at spring training to write stories like “Jeremy Sowers gained fifteen pounds of muscle (which would give him fifteen pounds of muscle)”, and don’t care about spring training results.  When games that count start being played, I promise there will be a lot more talk about that than this stuff.  Thanks.

In 2007, Cliff Lee was so bad in Cleveland that he was demoted to the minor leagues and left off the playoff roster, despite having a 49-28 record and a 4.39 ERA in his first five seasons in Cleveland.  In 2008, having won the last spot in the rotation in spring training, Lee went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and won the American League Cy Young Award.

Zack Greinke debuted for the Royals as a 20-year-old in 2004, going 8-11 with a 3.97 ERA.  He had a rough 2005, and left the team before the 2006 due to depression and social anxiety disorder.  When he returned, he pitched mostly in the minors; in 2007, he split time between the Kansas City rotation and bullpen, pitching effectively in both roles.  2008 found Greinke in the rotation for the entire season, and it appeared the ship had been righted.  He posted a 3.47 ERA in 32 starts and won 13 games.  Obviously talented, Greinke entered 2009 as the ace of the staff (as much for his own talent as for the lack from his teammates) and did he ever deliver.  Greinke had a league-leading 2.16 ERA and went 16-8, winning the Cy Young Award.

So what changed for these two?  Lee’s case is fairly simple – he cut both his walks and home runs allowed in half while continuing to strike out as many hitters as he had.  Lee’s home run rate in 2006 was worse than he’d ever done before, and in 2007 it was comically high.  49 percent of batted balls were flyballs, and of those about 9 percent were leaving the ball park.  In 2008, Lee’s flyball rate dropped to 35 percent, and his groundball rate rose 10 percent.  He threw the same pitches with roughly the same velocity in the same proportion as he’d done before.  He increased his first pitch strike percentage by 4 percent, and that may have helped him generate 8 percent more swings on pitches outside the strike zone.  The drop in flyball rate and the drop in walks leads me to believe he changed more about where he threw the ball, not how.  It seems that by keeping the ball down in the zone, he generated more groundballs and was able to throw more strikes.  Conversely, maybe by throwing more strikes, particularly to being at-bats, he was able to keep the ball down in the zone.

For Greinke, the change was even easier – he stopped allowing home runs.  He walked 20 percent fewer batters and saw his strikeout rate rise by the same proportion, but more importantly, he cut his already good home run rate in half, allowing only 0.43 home runs per nine innings.  In 2008, Greinke generated 10 percent more groundballs than he had previously in his career; in 2009, the flyball and groundball rates were exactly the same.  He’s been relying increasing more on his curveball and less on his fastball, and he did this while throwing 5 percent FEWER strikes than he did in 2008.  Hitters swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone against Greinke and were actually more patient with pitches in the strike zone.  One thing to note here is that the Royals are a terrible defensive team, but Greinke didn’t seem to suffer from it; if anything, the numbers show that the Royals were a decent defensive club while Greinke was on the bump.

One thing in common between the two pitchers is the increased groundball rates.  There have been studies showing that pitchers with higher groundball rates also have lower home run rates per flyball, which flies in the face of the “unwritten book.”  The general thought used to be that when groundball pitchers allowed flyballs, they were more likely to be home runs because the pitch was most likely a “mistake.”  These studies show that if anything is true, it’s the inverse.  Also, neither of these guys show any of the symptoms of being particularly lucky, overall or in clutch situations.

The title of this post is somewhat misleading.  I’m not trying to predict Cy Young winners; I’m trying to find some names that we might not expect to win, but who could find themselves in the conversation at the end of the year with a little luck or a small change.  It’s easy to say Verlander and Halladay, Felix Hernandez and Lincecum, etc.  It’s harder to see someone like Lee or Greinke coming.  To try to find these potential Cy Young winners, I searched for a couple things.  Guys with absurdly high home run rates, groundball rates trending up, and increasing strikeout-to-walk ratios were the key factors I looked for.  I also wanted to make sure there was still room for improvement in these categories; it didn’t hurt if they were a bit unlucky either.  The following is a list of a couple guys in each league to keep an eye on; we’ll see how I did in November.

American League

  • James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays: Last year Shields saw his strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate all head in the wrong direction.  I know that this is the exact opposite of what I just said I was looking for, but these all are out of whack with his 2006-2008 seasons, and I don’t see any reason for these changes.  I think he had a season of bad luck and will bounce back in a big way in 2010.
  • Matt Garza, Tampa Bay Rays: Garza increased his strikeout rate by two batters per nine innings last year, while increasing his walk and home run rates only slightly.  His groundball rate also decreased, and while this might be the result of striking out more hitters, I think it’s a blip, and Garza should be able to build on a strong 2009.
  • Scott Baker, Minnesota Twins: A darkhorse candidate, he increased his strikeout rate in 2008 and 2009.  He is a flyball pitcher, and his new home park is an unknown, but he’s a guy to watch out for if he can get some more groundballs like Lee or Greinke.  He probably isn’t as good as was in 2008 or as bad as he was last year, but he’s someone to watch.

National League (I promise these choices make more sense)

  • Josh Johnson, Florida Marlins: Johnson kept his (very good) strikeout almost exactly the same, but cut down on walks and home runs allowed.  He’s a groundball pitcher in a pitcher’s park; his defense hurts him, but they’re the same guys scoring him a bunch of runs.
  • Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins: He’s kept his strikeout rate high, while cutting down on walks and home runs.  There’s still some room for him to improve his control, but hopefully it doesn’t take away from his ability to miss bats.  He was also horribly unlucky last year (again, possibly attributed to the glorified sieve Florida defense behind him).
  • Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers: Gallardo’s numbers are hard to make sense of, given that he missed almost all of the 2008 season after his rookie year.  He strikes out a lot of guys and doesn’t give up too many home runs.  Again, issuing fewer free passes would be a great next step.
  • Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies: He pitches half of his games in a bandbox but has managed to increase his strikeout rate every year to this point.  He’s given up just 0.52 home runs per nine innings over the last two seasons, and is an extreme groundball pitcher.  Like a broken record, if he could harness the walk rate a little bit, he could vault into the very best in the league.
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Written by Dan Hennessey

March 17, 2010 at 9:49 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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