Yesterday, we rolled out Fielding Dependent Pitching in an effort to provide a more thorough evaluation of pitching and run prevention. Today, I want to talk about how FDP can be used to examine the Cy Young races, and specifically, why it illustrates that Johnny Cueto should be the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award.
Let’s just start by looking at the value stats of the top five candidates, side by side.
You could make a case for some other guys on the periphery, including somewhat shocking entries from guys Kyle Lohse and Wade Miley, but in terms of people I think actually have a chance to win, it’s probably one of these five. Kershaw and Cueto grade out best in terms of WAR, but their lead over Dickey and Cain is slight, and of course both of them are known for being pitchers who outperform their FIP anyway. Chapman’s in the mix because he’s having one of the great relief seasons of all time, but I’m not going to spend too much time talking about him in this post because he doesn’t really have much of a case, given what his own teammate is doing in the rotation. So, really, let’s focus on the four starters.
WAR suggests its a pretty close race, with Kershaw and Cueto out in front. However, we’ve never intended for WAR to be a discussion-ender, with the leaderboards of that one stat being the standard for handing out awards, and there is no question that you should dive deeper into the issue that simply saying “Kershaw has the highest WAR, therefore he’s been the best.” And now, with FDP, we can more easily look at the differences in run prevention that aren’t so clearly the result of the pitcher, and decide how much credit we want to give them for those runs saved.
So, if you re-sort the table above by FDP, you’ll note that Cueto has produced the most extra wins above and beyond his FIP, coming in at +1.6 LOB-wins and +0.2 BIP-wins. Cain and his normal low-BABIP ways add +1.5 BIP-wins and +0.1 Lob-wins, while Dickey’s knuckler gets him +0.9 BIP-wins and +0.1 LOB-wins. With both Cain and Dickey, we have legitimate reasons to believe that their below average BABIPs are a direct result of a skill they possess, and so they likely should be given a large majority of the credit for their FDPs, which would push both of their adjusted WARs up around +5.0 wins.
With Kershaw, the story is more interesting, and forces us to look deeper into the causes of runner stranding. While Kershaw is also likely a lower BABIP guy — high strikeout flyball lefties do well in hit prevention historically — his BIP-wins and LOB-wins nearly offset, and Kershaw’s total FDP is just +0.4. In other words, it’s hard to make a case that Kershaw has performed significantly better than his FIP, even though he has one of the lowest BABIPs in the league.
Cueto, on the other hand, is essentially Kershaw’s equal in wins based on FIP, but has racked up +1.8 FDP-wins, and has done it in the exact opposite way of everyone else we’ve discussed. His +1.6 LOB-wins lead the National League, and suggests that Cueto may deserve more credit than his WAR suggests. But, before we just hand him that extra credit, we’ll want to know how he’s keeping opposing baserunners from scoring. In looking through his splits, the answer doesn’t immediately jump out at you.
Bases Empty: .235/.270/.317, .259 wOBA
Men On Base: .245/.338/.369, .294 wOBA
RISP: .246/.357/.371, .311 wOBA
Unlike with Jordan Zimmerman (#2 in the NL in LOB-wins), Cueto’s performance against hitters has not taken a significant uptick once he allows a baserunner. In fact, he gets quite a bit worse, as his FIP rises from 2.44 with the bases empty up to 4.63 with men in scoring position. And, his BABIPs are essentially even in all three situations, so we can’t explain his stranded runners through the sequencing of hit prevention.
However, there’s one thing that these splits don’t measure, and it happens to be the thing that Johnny Cueto is better at than anyone else in baseball – picking runners off.
Cueto’s pick-off move isn’t the stuff of legends yet, but it probably should be. The list of the top ten pickoffs by a pitcher this year includes nine left-handed pitchers and Johnny Cueto, and despite being right-handed, Cueto’s seven pickoffs are actually only one off the Major League lead (held by Kershaw and Ricky Romero). Cueto’s pick-off move is so good, he actually nailed two Giants in the same inning back in June, and because it’s fun, let’s take a look at those.
Buster Posey has stolen one base this year. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying for one there – Cueto just spun around so quickly he caught Posey off guard and didn’t give him a chance to get back to the bag. And so, despite the fact that the three batters he faced in that inning went single-walk-deep flyball to center field, it was actually a 1-2-3 inning for Cueto, and no one even got into scoring position.
Cueto’s been doing this kind of thing all year long, and it’s gotten to the point where there’s no real point even trying to get much of a lead off first base, much less think about taking second. Opposing baserunners have managed one steal off Cueto all season, matching the same number of stolen bases that he allowed in 2011. In fact, for his career, opposing base stealers are just 14 for 41 against Cueto, an astounding 34% success rate. 28 major league pitchers have allowed more stolen bases this year than Cueto has in his entire career.
How big of a deal can holding runners on actually be? Well, consider a guy like Tim Lincecum, a right-hander with a lousy pickoff move who doesn’t hold runners all that well. Would-be basestealers are a perfect 18-for-18 off of him this year, and surprise surprise, he’s posted -1.2 LOB-wins this year. Not all of that can be attributed to his inability to hold runners, but even if we just take the linear weight value of those steals, that’s 17 extra bases advanced at 0.25 runs apiece, and eight fewer outs made on the bases against him at 0.50 runs apiece, so the gap between Cueto and Lincecum’s value simply on SB/CS is over eight runs, or nearly an entire win. And that presumes that the only value to be had from holding runners is through controlling steals or picking runners off, but it’s certainly possible that batters get better jumps off Lincecum than they do off Cueto, which could influence the frequency of double plays turned or their ability to go first to third on a base hit.
While Cueto’s never stranded runners at this level before, and it’s unlikely that his LOB-wins are entirely the result of his fearsome pickoff move, the reality is that he has demonstrated a real skill at runner stranding, and he’s been above average in LOB-wins every year of his career. Like we acknowledge that Dickey and Cain are likely influencing a decent amount of their hit prevention, we should also acknowledge that Cueto is influencing a large part of his runner stranding, and given that he also leads both of them in FIP, we should give Cueto enough credit for his FDP that he returns to the top of the heap in the Cy Young race once again.
While things can certainly change over the final month of the season, Cueto has established himself as the frontrunner, and should be the guy to beat at this point. His skills as a pitcher — and perhaps the best right-handed pickoff move we’ve seen in a very long time — have elevated him into the top tier of the National League hurlers, and unless Dickey or Cain close with a great final month, the Cy Young Award should end up in Cincinnati. It just belongs to their ace starter, not their ace reliever.