Trying to Vote for Dickey Over Kershaw

Later tonight, the National League Cy Young Award winner will be announced. My own fake awards picks have already been made public, and I am sure everyone was thrilled to read them. The NL Cy Young gave me the most trouble. I ended up voting for the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, but I really wanted to cast my non-ballot for the Mets’ R.A. Dickey.

What’s not to like about R.A. Dickey? He names his bats after fictional swords (only the master smiths of Gondolin could forge a weapon that enables a pitcher to rake to the tune of a career 6 wRC+). He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro during the off-season to raise money to combat human trafficking. He is trying to help others by sharing about being abused as as child. He writes children’s books. He makes an awesome face while pitching. Best of all (strictly from a purely baseball perspective), he is a knuckleballer. Oh, yeah, he also had an awesome season in 2012.

However, when I tried to justify voting for Dickey over Kershaw, I just could not do it. It was not for lack of trying, though.

(I realize that one could make Cy Young cases for other pitchers such as Gio Gonzalez or Johnny Cueto, but I am sticking with the players I think are the two best choices for the sake of simplicity.)

It might seem easy enough to look at the Wins Above Replacement leaderboard for NL pitchers and see that Kershaw was valued at 5.5 wins and Dickey at 4.6 wins in 2012. However, even for those of us who believe that a DIPS-based value metric is, in general, the best alternative, it is not that simple. “In general” is a qualification — although I think that FIP is generally better than RA, it may not work as well in some particular cases. My view is that FIP (and other DIPS metrics like xFIP, tRA, SIERA, and so on) should not be seen as perfect in all cases, but as provisionally better in most cases.

That sort of thing is discussed at length in other places, so I want to focus on how it is relevant in this case. While there are many elements about DIPS metrics that are widely debated, even DIPS’ firmer advocates acknowledge that it does not really work for knuckleballers. Metrics like FIP include a built-in assumption that all pitchers basically have the same amount of control over balls in play. We know this is false, but generally, FIP is seen as doing better because that assumption seems be closer to the truth than the assumption than that the contribution of balls in play to ERA reflects.

Knuckleballers historically have a lower BABIP than the league average, so they are a clear exception. Knuckleballers are, to a certain extent, a population unto themselves. In short, it would be unfair to judge Dickey by something based on FIP. As one would expect Dickey’s FIP is an excellent 3.27, but his ERA is an even better 2.73. Adjusting for league average and park, those are 87 FIP- and 72 ERA-.

However, basing one’s Cy Young vote for Dickey on ERA will not quite do the trick. (Dickey and Kershaw both pitched around 230 innings, so we do not have to worry about that factor.) Kershaw not only had a better FIP (2.89, 78 FIP-), but a better ERA (2.53, 67 ERA-), too. So that locks it up for Kershaw, right?

Not necessarily. Keep in mind what was said above: FIP and other DIPS-based metrics may not be perfect or universally applicable, but they do the work in most cases. If we should not use them for knuckleballers like Dickey, that does not necessarily mean that we should not still use them for a non-knuckleball pitcher like Kershaw. In other words, maybe one can make Dickey’s case by using ERA for him, and FIP for Kershaw. That would seem to put Dickey (72 ERA-) just ahead of Kershaw (78 FIP-). That might be close enough to go either way, but does give the edge to Dickey.

Can we really justify rigging the comparison in that way? Maybe with some non-knuckleballers, but probably not with Clayton Kershaw. We need to be careful about using a single-season ERA as the go-to metric for most non-knuckeball pitchers, but Kershaw is not most pitchers. If he had managed to outperform his FIP (which has just been used as a stand-in for DIPs metrics in general, going through them all would have made this post too long) via his low BABIP just this season, maybe we could dismiss it on what Phil Birnbaum calls Bayesian grounds. I do not think we can. Let’s compare the two pitchers.

As one would expect from a knuckleballer, Dickey is a low-BABIP pitcher. From 2010 to 2012, his seasonal BABIPs are .276, .278, and .275, respectively. However check out Kershaw’s over the same seasons: .275, .269, .262. It goes back even further for Kershaw, in 2009, his BABIP-against was .269. For his career as a professional, Kershaw’s BABIP is .275 in 944 innings — the same BABIP as Dickey this season. So while there is still uncertainty and a margin of error with Kershaw’s “true” BABIP, there is a strong body of evidence that, despite not being a knuckleballer, Kershaw may be a low-BABIP pitcher whose contribution is not adequately captured by DIPS-metrics, either. So in this case, it would not really be fair to use FIP to evaluate Kershaw and ERA to evaluate Dickey.

While I suppose there are other ways one could try to justify make an objective choice for Dickey over Kershaw, I just do not see it working. I really tried. I even looked up the relative quality of the hitters they faced, and that favored Kershaw, too. I will not insult your intelligence by making something out of Dickey having six more pitcher wins (20) than Kershaw (14).

I will not be upset if R.A. Dickey wins the Cy Young this year. For reasons outlined at the beginning of this post, I actually would be very happy for him. But I think that Clayton Kershaw outpitched Dickey this year, and thus deserves the honor more. Shucks.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

30 Responses to “Trying to Vote for Dickey Over Kershaw”

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  1. Garrett says:

    I’m statistics until I die, but when it comes to season awards, all that matters to me are the results, not what the predicted results should have been. I don’t know why FIP should be used in this sort of context at all. We aren’t predicting who the better pitcher will be for 2013, we want to know who had the better season in 2012.

    While I support a guy like Felix Hernandez getting the Cy Young when he blows away the competition in ERA, to me, in a race as tight as this one was – Dickey was 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and Kershaw was 14-9 with a 2.53 ERA – goes to the guy with the better win total, especially when their HR/BB/K splits are relatively similar (Dickey trails Kershaw in HR by 8, a significant number but not earthshattering).

    That may be the only time I ever advocate wins as an important statistic, but I think it matters here. I can see votes for both sides, but I think if anything it’s a toss up, not a Kershaw victory.

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    • FIP, wOBA, and UZR says:

      We’re statistics too!

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    • Kogoruhn says:

      FIP is not meant to be predictive. FIP tells us what happened if you strip out components that DIPS theory tells us is out of the pitchers control.

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      • Garrett says:

        A good point. I guess I meant predictive in the sense that, “we knew X pitcher was better than Y pitcher by his bottom line results this year, so we have a better grasp on which may be better going forward.” Not that cut and dry obviously. Maybe I need to think of the Cy Young the way I do the MVP (RBIs being irrelevant), but I can’t get past the idea that the pitcher’s/team’s record in his games started should matter for that one award when the ERAs are similar.

        That being said, I went back and forth in my head on which side I was taking as I wrote this, so who knows. :)

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      • Bip says:

        It is predictive. In some cases it is more predictive than an expressly predictive stat such as xFIP, such as when a pitcher has a consistently below average HR/FB rate.

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    • Joe says:

      Wins are influenced even more by the offense and bullpen that by what the pitcher actually does. I understand wanting to look at what actually happened rather than what really should have happened in terms of DIPS, but wins just don’t have that much to do with the pitcher. This line of thinking seems to make more sense with stats like ERA, WHIP, BABIP, or HR/FB where the pitcher can have fluky numbers due to luck but they are still things that his pitching limited.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        To me, this is a great example of when people take the “I’m smarter than you!” attitude too far. Instead of saying pitcher wins are overrated, you’re saying they don’t have that much to do with the pitcher. That’s absurd. Look at the top-10 Wins leaderboard over the last few years, and you’ll see a list that consists primarily of some of the best starters in the league. Look at the top winning % of all-time, and you’ll see a list of great starters. Don’t act like that doesn’t have much to do with the pitcher.

        Yes, you’ll see some fluky years where a decent (but not great) starter wins 18 or 20 games, and you’ll see the reverse (like Cliff Lee this year, with only 6 wins), but by and large, the Wins-leaderboard is filled with some mighty fine pitchers.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      I’m with you. Both pitchers were very similar this year, and I have no problem giving it to the pitcher who went 20-6 over the pitcher who went 14-9. I realize that pitcher wins aren’t nearly as important as people thought they were 20 years ago, but I disagree that they’re completely irrelevant, and I have no issues using it to tip the scales in Dickey’s direction.

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      • Bip says:

        The problem with pitcher wins is not that they are totally useless and unreliable. The problem is that they are a less reliable way of getting at the same information. If you want to compare two pitchers, you want to use a tool that most reliably measures their pure performance. If that tool doesn’t yield a winner, you wouldn’t then use another statistic that less reliably measures the same thing. That is the problem with wins. It measures the same thing as ERA, IP, FIP, WAR, SIERA and others, except with more confounding factors. So if those don’t give you a winner, then until you come up with a stat more reliable then those, then you may just have to settle for “too close to call” because you’ve already consulted the most reliable measurement of pitcher value.

        If you could somehow show that a pitcher has control of a game outcome outside of direct run prevention and that that ability is captured by wins, then wins now are a source of new information not measured by FIP or WAR, but that has not been demonstrated.

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      • vivaelpujols says:

        This is crap dude. I agree that wins are strongly correlated with pitcher talent, but once you already know a pitchers IP, ERA, FIP, etc. wins add absolutely zero value because all they are capturing are run support and bullpen effects. Maybe think a little before you rationalize.

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    • Haishan says:

      Okay, but let’s try and reductio that argument ad absurdum. If you’re really interested in results, or how a pitcher affected his team, shouldn’t you look first at something like pitcher wins, or W-L record in games started, or, probably the best option, WPA? I don’t think you would — essentially because none of those statistics are all that predictive or reliable. So already we’re striking a balance between reliability and actual results. ERA already adjusts for fielding, albeit in a 19th-century way, by discounting runs due to errors. Presumably you don’t think that adding those back into a pitcher’s run total would lead to a better statistic. So why not adjust for fielding in a much more statistically valid way? But that gives you FIP.

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  2. Ivdown says:

    I won’t be upset if Dickey wins, but Kershaw was the best pitcher in the NL this year and does deserve to win the NL Cy Young. Well, again, both guys deserve it, but one was better than the other. It would be awesome to see Kershaw win his second straight.

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  3. attgig says:

    I sometimes wonder if intangibles should be counted in baseball. All of the fangraphs statistics are about how good a player is individually, regardless of fielding behind him, batters getting on base ahead of him, etc. but baseball, is actually a team sport. it’s not golf or tennis.

    does having dickey on the mound get the players behind him to focus more and want to play better defensively? there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of that, especially when no-hitters are on the line. should we immediately discredit the pitcher for making his teamates better? with Dickey, he won close to 28% of the wins for the whole team. it would suggest to me that it would have to be a combination of dominating stuff, as well as his team-mates elevating their level of play when he starts – of course, no stats to back this up.

    other team sports have statistics surrounding this…assists, +/-, etc. can we put team back into baseball?

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    • Mike says:

      This seems to be difficult to prove in baseball though. In basketball or football, your teammates’ actions interact directly with yours, i.e. your teammate is directly throwing you a pass, so if you make the open basket, it was aided by your teammate. Baseball is different, in that when a groundball is hit to David Wright, R.A. Dickey doesn’t roll the ball to Wright or help him in any way. Wright makes the play on his own without any influence from Dickey. At least this what it seems to me.

      Also, is there any evidence that has shown that a pitcher has control over how the rest of his team plays? Everything I remember hearing or reading says that it’s pretty much random and doesn’t correlate from year to year.

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      • attgig says:

        there isn’t evidence over a point guard having control how the rest of the team plays, but some somehow seem to elevate their play when playing with them.

        take johan santana’s no-hitter for instance. Nobody would ever consider him a great defensive player, but he elevated his play to keep that no-hit bid going.
        Gregor Blanco did the same for Cain.

        could it be that in a year where the mets have nothing to play for, Dickey gave them something to play for and got the best out of his teammates? I guess that’s why it’s an intangible… you just don’t have a stat to back it up.

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      • attgig says:

        “take johan santana‚Äôs no-hitter for instance. Nobody would ever consider him a great defensive player, but he elevated his play to keep that no-hit bid going.” meaning mike baxter

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  4. bstar says:

    Johnny Cueto was clearly better than RA Dickey this year. To me, this race is about Cueto vs. Kershaw, although I do think Dickey still might win.

    Look at RA9 and RA9avg.

    RA9avg is the RA9 an average pitcher would produce given that specific pitcher’s defense, the strength of opposition he faced, and every single park that he pitched in this year, weighted to the exact number of batters faced in each park.

    The RA9s favor Kershaw, but this is before we consider the above factors:

    Kershaw RA9 2.77
    J Cueto RA9 3.03
    R Dickey RA9 3.00

    But look at the RA9avg metric that these pitchers are judged against.

    Kershaw RA9avg 4.46
    J Cueto RA9avg 4.70
    R Dickey RA9avg 4.44

    This is where Cueto overtakes Dickey significantly and almost closes the gap on Kershaw. Cueto pitched in a far tougher pitching environment than Kershaw or Dickey. FIP is not going to help you with that.

    All that’s left is to look at the difference between (RA9avg-RA9) and multiply by IP and you’ve got RAA. Personally, I don’t think anywhere from 0-20 IP difference is really significant at all for starting pitchers. This can be explained by one extra start(in Dickey’s case) and the difference between having a great bullpen(Dodgers), a great closer(Reds), and an awful bullpen(Mets). Looked at through this lens, it seems obvious to me that Dickey would lead the league in IP. Would you want to give the ball to Frank Francisco in a 2-1 nail-biter? Me neither. Anyway:

    Kershaw 1.69
    J Cueto 1.67
    R Dickey 1.44

    This is the most important metric to me. Clearly Kershaw and Cueto are almost identical and superior to Dickey.

    I’ll echo Garrett’s sentiment above that wins for a pitcher are not totally irrelevant, and I’ll take Cueto’s 19-9 slate over Kershaw’s 14-9 for the tiebreaker.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Your whole argument is based on a single stat (RA9), and the stat does not adjust for runners left on base after the pitcher leaves that subsequently score, which means the stat gives extra credit for teams with a great bullpen. Cueto had a terrific bullpen behind him while Dickey had a terrible bullpen behind him.

      If you think a lesser pitcher is ‘clearly better’ based on one metric, then I guess it makes sense to pick a metric that favors your pitcher and hurts the pitcher who was actually better.

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      • bstar says:

        Good point about bequeathed runners. But you’re dead wrong that I specifically picked “this one metric” to favor my choice. My analysis determined my choice.

        Dickey left 9 bequethed runners on and three scored. Cueto had 12 and 4 scored. That’s one-third for both. No difference.

        Kershaw was hurt the most. 9 bequeathed runners and six scored. That’s two more than Cueto. Hmm, yeah that might sway me to pick Kershaw, but again this does absolutely nothing to help Dickey’s case.

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      • bstar says:

        It’s not just one metric at all. There’s RA9, there’s a team defense adjustment, there’s a strength of opposition adjustment, there’s a park factor adjustment. That’s pretty thorough.

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      • vivaelpujols says:

        yeah RA-RA9 is basically WAR. I’m not sure why you decided to ingore innings though, that’s obviously wrong.

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  5. snack man says:

    So… Gio Gonzalez has WAR that ties him with Kershaw and puts him 1 up on Dickey, why is he someone you could argue for? 9.35 K/9 is pretty amazing too.

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  6. Keith says:

    How do we rectify, statistically, a Catfish Hunter?

    Take 1973: he was 21-5 with a 3.34 ERA, but a 4.40 FIP and just 0.9 WAR.

    When he had leads, he got complacent and gave up dingers (1.37/9)–or perhaps he went into a sort of pre-vent defense. Either way, isn’t it worth something that the great majority of the times he maintained the leads? And is there evidence in this kind of pitcher, like the boxer being killed on points but able to pull off a late-round KO, that the end result has more statistical merit than newer metrics take into consideration?

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  7. YanksFanInBeantown says:

    No mention that Dickey pitched with a torn oblique all year? That story alone helped put him over the edge.

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