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AL Cy Young 2011

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Does Justin Verlander have a chance?

Lately I’ve been working on my predictions for what you might call our MCB office pool for the 2011 season, and one of the questions to answer is who will win the Cy Young award next year.  The AL field seems somewhat diminished…  Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke are all National Leaguers now.  Who exactly is stepping up to take their places?  At the moment, it looks a bit like ‘no-one’.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t good young pitchers in the AL, who wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar, really, in 2009.  Of course there are.  They just aren’t as good as what the league has lost.

Felix Hernandez won the award last year despite a so-so win-loss record pitching for one of the worst teams in the American league.  His ERA sparkled, but his WAR total didn’t.  Why?  One of the reasons that his team gave him so little run support is that Seattle plays in a cool, damp stadium right at sea level that is among the most difficult to hit in.  Any measure (like WAR) worth it’s salt would punish him for those favorable conditions.  His WAR total of 6.0 (according to Baseball-Reference.com) was the lowest by an AL Cy Young winner since Bert Blyleven (4.9)  in 1981, and they only played 109 games that year.  That’s right:  even in the strike-shortened 1994 season, Cy Young winner David Cone managed 6.1 WAR – and NL winner Greg Maddux put up 7.8!  The last full season with an AL Cy Young with less than 6 WAR was 1967, where Minnesota’s Jim Merritt put up only 5.4.  Merritt still led the league in WAR, as did Blyleven in 1981 and Hernandez in 2010.  He deserved that award in 2010, but this should still serve as an indication that the field is weak.

So… 6 WAR isn’t that spectacular for a Cy Young winner (though it’s an awfully good performance for a pitcher in general) but it will probably be enough to lead the AL in 2011.  Would it lead the NL?  I doubt it.  Remember, in 2009 Greinke gave the Royals 9.0.  But, that leaves a number of guys in the NL who don’t look like first ballot hall-of-famers with an opportunity.  I can count at least 10 players who could be the one to put together a career year a 6+ WAR to take home the trophy, and Justin Verlander is one of them.  The favorites, of course, have to be C.C. Sabathia and Felix Hernandez himself.  Sabathia has only broken 6 WAR once, in 2007 when he actually won the Cy Young with the Indians, but last year’s 5.4 was second-best in the AL and second-best for Sabathia over his career.  However, his strikeout rate was down a bit last year, his walk rate and WHIP were up (giving him by some measures his worst season since 2005) making his high WAR total more a function of his durability and efficiency.  Those shouldn’t be underemphasized, though.  He led the league in starts and stayed close to the top in innings pitched with 237 2/3, and of course he pitches for a great offensive team which enabled him to lead the league in wins again with 21.  Hernandez, of course, also made 34 starts but led the league in innings pitched with 249.  King Felix will be all of 25 in 2011 and has steadily improved his numbers in every peripheral statistic for the past 5 years.  His WAR total in 2010 was his career best, as was his BABIP – .265 compared to his career average of .297.  Part of that might be luck, but part of it is the Mariners’ excellent defense, part of it is playing in a park where balls fly off the bat with all the speed of waffles and part of it is probably genuine skill.  After all, in 2010 his home BABIP was a bit worse than his BABIP on the road.  I don’t know if Hernandez is going to take another big leap next year, but it’s a bit hard for me to imagine him (barring injury, of course) with a WAR below 5.5.

It’s not a two-horse race, though.  Which is fortunate, since neither of those two horses looks all that spectacular.  It is possible, however, that 2011 could be another 1967 – where a mediocre pitcher wins the award, because he’s head and shoulders above the rest.  You could easily argue that we saw exactly that in 2010.  Who else looks to be in the running?  In no particular order:  Francisco Liriano, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, David Price, and if you want a long-shot Gio Gonzalez (or basically any other member of the rotation) from Oakland.  None of these guys have ever broken the 6 WAR mark before, but all are theoretically capable of it.

We Tigers fans don’t care much about Tim Lester and Clay Buchholz.  We know they’re good, that’s about it.  We don’t really care about Francisco Liriano either, unless we’re actively wishing him harm.  We can probably say that for any on the above list it would take a career year to best Sabathia & Hernandez, post 6+ WAR and take home the trophy.  Only one of them, if that, is likely to do it next year.  All that means is that if any of them does, that will be all it takes.  Could that one be Justin Verlander?

Verlander has one of the top criteria for a Cy Young favorite:  a lot of strikeouts.  Any career year, as a starter, is going to require a fairly low average on balls in play, and probably more importantly a lower than average number of fly balls that turn into home runs.  If you get a lot of strikeouts, your BABIP doesn’t have to be so spectacularly low  to make your season something special.  Verlander is also durable, rarely missing starts and throwing deep into games.  Verlander’s career best thus far has been 2009, when he led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts and contributed 5.6 wAR to the Tigers’ ill-fated pennant quest.  That 5.6 fell far behind Greinke and Halladay, but trailed Hernandez by only 0.2 and trounced Sabathia despite his 19 wins.  So what exactly would it take for Verlander to get just a bit better, enough to clear the threshold?

For one thing:  He needs to stay healthy.  I don’t just mean nothing serious, I mean that he needs to make 34 or 35 starts as opposed to 31.  He cannot miss a day.  Maybe Greg Maddux could miss a start and stay head and shoulders above the pack, but Verlander can’t.   What made him stand out in 2009 was a career high (and league best) strikeout rate.  What dragged him back to earth was an unusually high BABIP of .319.  If he can combine 2009’s strikeout rate and 2010’s BABIP, he’ll simply run away with the Cy Young next year.  We probably shouldn’t quite expect that, though.  Something like his career strikeout rate, with his career BABIP, would leave him a bit short of 5 WAR even with 240 innings pitched.

Of course, maybe beating Hernandez in WAR isn’t as tricky as it sounds.  All we really need is a change in methodology.  As Fangraphs calculates WAR, Verlander not only beat Hernandez in 2009 (by a huge margin) he topped him last year as well.   If we don’t count guys like Greinke and Lee who have left the building, Verlander was the best in the league both years.  Maybe HE should be the front-runner…