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.