Clayton Kershaw received 27 of the 32 first place votes in the 2011 NL Cy Young Award balloting en route to his first major league award. He beat out all three of the Phillies horses — Roy Halladay finished second, with Cliff Lee third and Cole Hamels fifth — and Ian Kennedy to officially go down in the book as the best the National League had to offer this past season. But that isn’t necessarily true, and his case isn’t as shut and dry as all those first place votes make it seem.
It’s plausible to suggest that Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were, at worst, Kershaw’s equals, and more likely than that his superiors. His winning the award is in no way a mockery, like it was when Bartolo Colon beat Johan in 2005, but it does feel like somewhat of a step back in the voting process. After Felix Hernandez won his award it sure seemed the voting body grasped that team context is important when evaluating players.
His wins total wasn’t up to par with traditional candidates, but voters understood that the Mariners offense was out of Felix’s control. He wasn’t penalized for perceived poor performance in a common performance indicator.
In the case of Kershaw v. Halladay v. Lee, a similar understanding wasn’t extended to strength of schedule and park effects. Kershaw deserves hearty congratulations, but his Cy Young Award win again illustrates the importance and utility of normalizing numbers. When adjusted numbers enter the fray, Lee emerges as a very viable candidate. Halladay steps forward as the best pitcher in the league, and by a long-shot. In our staff awards ballot, I did vote for Kershaw, but my stance has since changed. No matter how one chooses to slice it — unless they like slicing “it” incorrectly — Halladay was the best pitcher in the senior circuit this past season.
Kershaw pitched tremendously in 2011, but we’re at the point where it should go without saying that underlying factors influencing the numbers provide the appropriate context to properly analyze the numbers. Kershaw’s numbers were shinier from a raw perspective, and his pitching triple crown — he led the league in wins (21), ERA (2.28) and strikeouts (248) — put his candidacy over the top. Add in his gaudy innings total — 233.1, one out behind Halladay and two outs ahead of Lee — and it’s very easy to see why he won.
But everyone needs to look deeper than that. Kershaw led with a 2.28 ERA, but Halladay wasn’t far behind at 2.35, and Halladay didn’t have the benefit of facing the Giants and Padres a combined nine times. Lee finished the season with a 2.40 ERA, barely behind Halladay, and the same disclaimer applies. Facing two of the worst offenses for almost 25 percent of his starts has a material impact on Kershaw’s seasonal numbers.
Not to mention that all three of the Dodgers, Giants and Padres stadiums greatly favor the pitcher. Kershaw made 19 of his 32 starts in those three stadiums. Pitching in venues where run-scoring is tougher, and facing teams that frankly stink at scoring runs to begin with, goes a long way towards explaining Kershaw’s success this season.
Kershaw finished the season with a .269 BABIP, with Doc and Lee posting respective rates of .298 and .291. Dig a little deeper and we discover that Kershaw’s BABIP split was .249 at home and .288 on the road. For his career, he has a .271 home BABIP and a .287 mark on the road. While his skill-set may lend itself to weaker contact, it’s simply unknown right now if his hit prevention is more contingent on his repertoire or his home park. Believing that Kershaw was a true 2.28 ERA pitcher and the best pitcher in the league is to believe that he was fully responsible for the low BABIP.
In the end, Kershaw fell behind both Halladay and Lee in more telling areas. Halladay finished with 8.2 WAR, a full win and a half more than Kershaw. Both Doc and Lee posted lower xFIPs and SIERAs and higher K/BB ratios. And, perhaps most importantly, the luck-based metrics suggest that Doc and Lee were well-represented by their numbers. It’s understandable why voters would opt for Kershaw over Halladay and Lee, but the end result didn’t do either member of the latter pair justice.
Halladay was the best pitcher in the National League for the second-straight season, and Lee was right on par with Kershaw. It’s unfortunate that one of those Phillies pitchers lost because of unadjusted numbers and them “splitting” votes with one another.
He pitched very well, and nobody should forget that. When discussing who should win this award we’re arguing over who the top two or three were in the league. However, it amounts to more than splitting hairs because raw numbers dominated the vote. Kershaw pitched very well, but wasn’t as dominant relative to the league as 27 of 32 first place votes makes it seem.