Thursday, November 29, 2012

Chapman to Rotation Makes Sabermetric Sense

The Cincinnati Reds' plan to move lefty power-closer Aroldis Chapman and his 100 mph fastball into the starting rotation has drawn the ire of many baseball analysts, including MLB Network's Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams.  For that reason alone, the decision makes sense, since the inaccuracy of "Wild Thing's" assessments and predictions is nearly 100%.

Aside from that compelling bit of logic, Chapman's transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation would potentially give Cincinnati around 200 innings pitched*, as opposed to the 71.2 he logged in 2012.  Those extra innings - assuming they are "quality innings" - would translate into more wins for Cincinnati; a scary thought for the rest of the NL Central, considering the Reds already won 97 games in 2012.

*UPDATE:  Word from the Reds' front office is that Chapman will be under an innings limit when he goes into the rotation.  No word on what that innings limit will be, however.

The saber-metric evidence is compelling:  Good starting pitchers are more valuable than even the elite relief specialists; sometimes, significantly more valuable.  Observe the disparity in the ERA+ of Chapman over the top four starting pitchers in the 2012 NL Cy Young Award voting; then observe the disparity in the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of the four starters over Chapman:

                  ERA+     WAR

Dickey -       140          5.6
Kershaw -    150          6.2
Gonzalez -   137          4.5
Cueto -        152          5.8

Chapman -   282          3.6

Chapman's ERA+ is roughly two times better than the four best starting pitchers in the National League; yet the limited use of his talents translates into fewer wins for his team than the other four.  As an aside, it appears that either Kershaw or Cueto might have a stronger case for the CYA than Dickey; however, somebody else can write about that.

Historically, even when relief specialists get the nod for either the Most Valuable Player Award and/or the Cy Young Award, they don't compare favorably to other players in the voting mix, from a purely saber-metric perspective.  Here's the evidence - the award winners who were strictly relief specialists - their WAR, their rank compared to other players receiving votes, and the player who actually had the highest WAR:

                                                           WAR     Rank     Highest    Player
1950 - NL MVP Jim Konstanty (PHI)      4.2      16th        7.8          Eddie Stanky (NYG)

1974 - NL CYA Mike Marshall (LAD)    2.9        5th        7.5         Phil Niekro (ATL)

1977 - AL CYA Sparky Lyle (NYY)        3.5       9th         8.0         Frank Tanana (CAA)

1979 - NL CYA Bruce Sutter (CHC)        4.9        3rd        7.0         Phil Niekro (ATL)

1981 - AL MVP Rollie Fingers (MIL)       4.1      10th        6.6         Rickey Henderson (OAK) &
                                                                                                            Dwight Evans (BOS)
1981 - AL CYA Rollie Fingers (MIL)       4.1        2nd       4.3          Steve McCatty (OAK)

1984 - AL MVP Willie Hernandez (DET)  4.6      14th        9.8         Cal Ripken (BAL)*
1984 - AL CYA Willie Hernandez (DET)  4.6        4th        7.6          Dave Stieb (TOR)

1987 - NL CYA Steve Bedrosian (PHI)      2.2        8th**    6.8         Bob Welch (LAD)

1992 - AL MVP Dennis Eckersley (OAK)  2.8       17th       8.4         Roger Clemens (BOS)
1992 - AL CYA Dennis Eckersley (OAK)  2.8         6th       8.4         Roger Clemens (BOS)

2003 - NL CYA Eric Gagne (LAD)            3.6        3rd        7.2          Mark Prior (CHC)

Notes:  *Despite having the highest WAR in the AL in 1984 (before WAR was even devised), Cal Ripken garnered the grand total of ONE POINT in the MVP vote!  **Steve Bedrosian (who saved 40 games) had the lowest WAR among all pitchers receiving NL CYA votes in 1987!  Surely, there were others not receiving votes that had a higher WAR than Bedrock's 2.2.

The impact on MLB history may not seem significant if the players with the highest WAR actually won these awards, but it surely would've gotten Phil Niekro in the HOF sooner had he won both the '74 and '79 NL Cy Young Awards!  Ironically, a knuckleball pitcher won the NL CYA this past season - RA Dickey - and it was the first time in MLB history that had happened; but it should've happened 38 years ago.

In the "borderline" case of Dwight Evans, perhaps winning the 1981 AL MVP Award would've put him over the top with the voters; he certainly belongs in Cooperstown.  Hopefully, as they become more saber-metrically informed, worthy players like Evans will finally get their just rewards.

Although some may disagree with the evidence, it seems apparent that a great starting pitcher is comparable to a great everyday player, in terms of the value they provide for their team.  The argument baseball analysts (like Mitch Williams) use when trying to dispel the notion that no pitcher should be considered for a Most Valuable Player Award - because they're not "everyday players" - is saber-metrically unfounded.  Some of the highest WAR totals over the years belong to starting pitchers; just not relief pitchers.

Another compelling piece of evidence:  The elite relief specialists obviously receive a lot of media attention for racking up a lot of saves; but it appears the "save" may be one of the most overrated statistics in MLB history.  That probably explains why a fairly mediocre relief pitcher like Steve Bedrosian - with those 40 saves in 1987 - was able to capture the NL Cy Young Award that year.  Strangely enough, the greatest closer ever - the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera - never won a CYA, although he finished second once and third twice.

It's also interesting to note that for whatever reasons, no team has ever won a World Series with a closer that has recorded 50 or more saves; it's happened on nine different occasions, but has yet to help produce a World Championship for any team.  Go figure.

That gets us back to the Aroldis Chapman debate.  Quite simply, if he's able to still pitch effectively as a starter and give the Reds somewhere around 200 IP next season (assuming he stays healthy), he'll be helping them win more games, and that seems to be a gamble worth taking; a no-brainer, especially for a team with no left-handed starters currently in the rotation.

Taking it one step further, if Chapman even comes close to matching the level of performance he produced in 2012, the next NL Cy Young Award winner may well be a former flame-throwing, somersaulting, left-handed relief specialist currently employed by the Cincinnati Reds; who were smart enough to put him in a role that made saber-metric sense.



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