Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Re-thinking the Pitching Triple Crown

It's well know that Justin Verlamder is closing in on the traditional pitching triple crown.  He is leading the American League in Wins, ERA and strikeouts.  The current leaders are shown below:

Verlander, DET 24
Sabathia, NY 19
Weaver, LA 18

Verlandr, DET2.29
Sabathia, NY 2.41
Beckett, BOS 2.50

Verlander, DET 244
Sabathia, NY 224
Hernandez, SEA 220

Verlander is a lock to lead in both wins and strikeouts.  If he does fairly well in his final start, he'll also get the ERA title.  This is a great feat accomplished only 15 times in American League history, most recently by Johan Santana of the Twins in 2006.  The only Tiger before Verlander to lead the league in this statistical trio was Hal Newhouser in 1945.  Like the batters triple crown though, the pitching crown is comprised of a rather arbitrary set of metrics.

I think most readers of this blog understand the limitations of wins for pitchers.  It is very dependent on what your teammates do - the batters, the fielders and the relievers.  All you need to do is look at the win totals of two Tigers this year to see why it's a very suspect measure.  Few savvy fans would assert that Rick Porcello has outpitched Dout Fister in 2011, but Porcello has 14 wins and Fister has only 9.  The reason is because Porcello has received an average of about three more runs of support per game than Fister (5.9 versus 2.8).  Thus, I consider wins to be a team statistic rather than an individual statistic and it's not going to be part of my triple crown  

ERA is also influenced by other players beyond the pitcher, but pitchers are generally more responsible for their ERA than their wins.  So, I'll keep that in my triple crown with one change: I'll include Run Average (RA) instead of ERA.  RA is the same as ERA except that runs are used instead of earned runs.  There are a few problems with earned runs:
  • They are subject to potential official scorer bias.
  • There can be a situation where a pitcher pitches poorly and allows a bunch of runs in one inning, but doesn't get charged with any of them because of one fielding error (perhaps his own).
  • Earned run totals may be biased against ground ball pitchers because ground balls are more likely to result in errors than fly balls.
In the end, RA is cleaner and simpler bottom line results statistic than ERA.

My second triple crown number is simply innings pitched.  When a pitcher has a high innings pitched total, he saves his bullpen and assures that fewer innings are thrown by the team's inferior pitchers.  As such, innings should carry a lot of weight in any evaluation of starting pitchers 

My third statistic is strikeout/walk ratio (K/BB). Strikeouts are good, but they are even better if they are paired with good control.  Thus, I think K/BB is a better performance statistic than just strikeouts.

We could get more complex here, but I wanted to keep it simple.  To review, our three numbers are RA IP and K/BB which measure results, endurance and dominance respectively.

The leaders for these three metrics are shown below:

Weaver, LA 2.45
Verlander, DET 2.51
Beckett, BOS 2.65

Verlander, DET 244
Shields, TB 233
Hernadez, SEA 230
Sabathia, NY 230

Haren, LA 6.00
McCarthy, OAK 4.64
Verlander, DET 4.36

You can see that Verlander only leads in innings pitched, but is still in the top three in all three. 

Historically, it has proven to be more difficult to win this new triple crown than the traditional one.  It is has been attained only four times in American League history: Walter Johnson in 1913 and 1915, Bob Feller in 1940 and Brett Saberhagen in 1989.  This makes it even rarer than the traditional hitters triple crown which has been achieved nine times.

Statistics for this post were gathered from Baseball-Reference.

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