The AL Walter Johnson Award


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Over at the Baseball Bloggers’ Alliance, we have been voting on our award winners for the regular season. Previously I have announced my votes for the Connie Mack awards (Best Manager of the Year), the Willie Mays awards (Top Rookie), and the Goose Gossage awards (Top Reliever). Now we’re starting to get down to the big boys, as I take a look at my vote for the American League’s top pitcher, the Walter Johnson award recipient.

2010 was definitely a season for top tier pitching, and the American League definitely had its’ share of excellent pitchers. The hard part for me is that there is no clear cut pitcher who is head and shoulders above the rest of his counterparts. Before going into the candidates themselves, let’s go over a bit of what I think the top pitcher should represent:

Wins, Losses, and Run Support

The top pitcher doesn’t necessarily need to lead the league in wins, as they are pretty clearly not a great indicator of how a pitcher actually fared. That said, they aren’t worthless either, and I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the goal of the game is to win. But with the shift to specialists out of the bullpen, I think that a pitcher has less control than he has ever had over wins. While we as baseball analysts try to find a way to establish what a pitcher is truly responsible for and what he is not, it is impossible to ignore that run support given to a pitcher also plays a key piece of wins. A pitcher could throw a perfect game, but if the team doesn’t score any runs for him in the game, he won’t necessarily still earn himself a win.

ERA, WHIP, FIP, SIERA, and WAR

I’ve discussed before why ERA is a deceiving statistic, and I think it will definitely show itself to be true as we review the cases for the top pitchers. But coupled with advanced statistics like FIP, SIERA, and WAR, I think we start to get an idea of whether or not a pitcher was truly dominant, a bit lucky, or somewhere in between. They provide value to look at, but can’t be the end all of statistics to look at. WHIP falls a bit in the same category for me as well.

Strikeouts, Walks, and Innings Pitched

Strikeouts and walks are really two of the few things that a pitcher can really exert control over. More strikeouts generally are a good thing, and less walks are always a good thing. They are also taken into the picture by me and are given weight along with the other statistics. Innings pitched to me represent not only the trust that the manager of their team places in their ability to get out of jams, but also their ability to get outs.

Intangibles

There’s always a little bit of the human element to pitching, and I think it’s important to look at some of the things that aren’t necessarily measurable. These can include, but are definitely not limited to: whether the pitcher is in the playoff race, what kind of stories are occurring around the team, and even the role that the pitcher is being asked to fill.

With all that (phew!), here’s my top candidates for the AL Walter Johnson award. Players are listed from east to west, and my vote will be at the bottom. For this award, it’s a 5 person ballot. Also, when you’re talking about the best of anything, it invariably ends up a bit nit-picky when it comes to differentiating candidates. Everyone on this list had a great season, and it just comes down to trying to determine small ways in which one was better than the rest. There’s not a whole lot to say about each player as a result, and so instead here are the statistics that I looked at for each player, and then I’ll go into my logic for my decision.

Name Team W-L ERA WHIP K BB IP SIERA FIP WAR
Jon Lester BOS 19-9 3.25 1.20 225 83 208 3.20 3.13 5.6
C.C. Sabathia NYY 21-7 3.18 1.19 197 74 237 2/3 3.75 3.54 5.1
David Price TAM 19-6 2.72 1.19 188 79 208 2/3 3.82 3.42 4.3
Justin Verlander DET 18-9 3.37 1.16 219 71 224 2/3 3.43 2.97 6.3
Francisco Liriano MIN 14-10 3.62 1.26 201 58 191 2/3 3.02 2.66 6.0
Cliff Lee SEA/TEX 12-9 3.18 1.00 185 18 212 1/3 3.03 3.06 7.0
Trevor Cahill OAK 18-8 2.97 1.11 118 63 196 2/3 4.16 4.19 2.2
Jered Weaver LAA 13-12 3.01 1.07 233 54 224 1/3 2.97 3.06 5.9
Felix Hernandez SEA 13-12 2.27 1.06 232 70 249 2/3 3.19 3.04 6.2

My Vote

  1. Felix Hernandez (SEA)
  2. C.C. Sabathia (NYY)
  3. Cliff Lee (SEA/TEX)
  4. Jered Weaver (LAA)
  5. Francisco Liriano (MIN)

For me, the thing that I really came to was just how many categories that Felix Hernandez dominated. He led the league in ERA, innings pitched, was 2nd in WHIP, strikeouts, and 3rd in WAR. The 13 wins definitely don’t do him any favors in terms of this award, but to me, the award is about who was the best pitcher in the league, and Hernandez sticks out to me as that person.  Hernandez just continued to pitch well despite it being abundantly clear that the Mariners were not only not good, but that they were pretty horrendous outside of Hernandez. Throw in the distractions during the season of an icon retiring (Griffey), the manager getting fired, and the team’s other ace being the subject of a massive amount of trade rumors (Lee), and there are any number of times that could have served to derail his season in small ways. Sabathia was clearly the best pitcher on the Yankees, and was probably the biggest workhorse outside of Hernandez, but one stat that wasn’t mentioned above really stuck out to me: run support. King Felix received 3.1 runs per start, and C.C. received 5.9 runs per start. Based on the other peripheral numbers, it seems likely to me that Hernandez would have won more games than Sabathia if run support were equal. Some other nuggets include that he struck out nearly 40 more batters and walked 4 while throwing 12 more innings than Sabathia . My thoughts about some of the other candidates:

  • It’s amazing just how good Cliff Lee really is. I don’t think I can remember seeing a walk total that was ever that low for a pitcher. Clearly it has happened before or we would be hearing about a record. Lee’s another pitcher who’s run support didn’t do him any favors (4.8 in Seattle, 3.8 in Texas), but ended up being the league leader in Wins Above Replacement.
  • I had not realized just how good of a season Justin Verlander had either, as the team fell out of contention pretty early after the All-Star break. but he finished 4th in the AL in strikeouts, 3rd in innings pitched, and 2nd in WAR as well. This wasn’t his season to win one, but he’s going to win one before the end of his career in my opinion.
  • Jered Weaver really came out of nowhere to be a dominant starter this season. He led the AL in strikeouts, had the 2nd lowest walk total in this group, and led the league in SIERA as well. The Angels are going to be extremely happy with their pair of aces for the next few seasons.
  • Trevor Cahill looks like a total mess when you look at his advanced stats, but I have to remember that he’s an extreme ground ball pitcher and his numbers won’t look as dominant as other pitchers. 118 strikeouts doesn’t scream Cy Young candidate, but he was definitely aided by the excellent defense in Oakland. As an A’s fan I really wanted to find a way to include him in my vote, but the pitchers I chose instead just had better seasons than him.
  • Francisco Liriano really looks like someone who was not helped at all by his defense. He had just 58 walks in his 191+ innings pitched, but somehow ended up with a 1.26 WHIP. Clearly, a lot of hits were falling in for him that may not have been for other pitchers.
  • David Price seems like another candidate who is helped more by his win total than some of his other numbers. He had a very nice season, but to me I think the players I voted for had better ones. I had him as my #7 pitcher out of this group.
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6 responses to “The AL Walter Johnson Award

  1. You’re right about Lee; his control is remarkable. Here are the walk numbers for four other pitchers, by way of comparison:

    1913 – Walter Johnson – 38 walks in 346 innings (134 more innings than Lee.)

    1994 – Bret Saberhagen – 13 walks on 177 innings (strike year)

    1997 – Greg Maddux – 20 walks in 232 innings

    2010 – Roy Halladay – 30 walks in 250 innings

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  3. Michael Poplawski

    Can I please ask where you’re getting your WAR?

    Cliff Lee made only 28 starts, and pitcher fewer innings, yet has nearly 1 WAR more than any of the other top candidates you listed. BB-REF has him more in line with what I would expect.


    Mike

    • I pulled it from Fangraphs. I actually thought it seemed really strange that his WAR would be higher than everyone else. I need to look at the formulas, but I bet it has something to do with having so few walks for Lee.

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