The AL Cy Young Discussion

Last week, I addressed the Cy Young battle in the senior circuit and titled it “The NL Cy Young Showdown.” This time, it’s the AL’s turn — and “discussion” (as opposed to “showdown”) seems to be the proper way to characterize it. It’s been a low-key pitching season, comparatively, in the AL, with no one posting an ERA near Zack Greinke‘s, or pitching no-hitters or engaging in zany second-half shenanigans like Jake Arrieta. In fact, a general consensus seems to be building that the award is David Price’s to lose. Today, let’s have a full discussion, including utilization of batted-ball data, about the AL Cy Young and its three likely frontrunners, Price, Chris Sale and Dallas Keuchel.

Price, who turned 30 in late August, is the only one of the three with a Cy (2012) on his mantle, though he hasn’t finished above sixth in the annual voting since then. Sale has come progressively closer in the voting, checking in at sixth, fifth and third in the last three seasons, while this will be the first time on a ballot for Keuchel, 2015’s foremost pitching breakthrough.

The three hurlers’ pedigrees are as dissimilar as their award-voting histories. Price went 1-1 to the Rays out of Vanderbilt in 2007, and if you held a re-draft of all of the top overall picks of the 21st century, he’d go near the top. Sale, 26, drifted down in the first round to the 13th-overall pick in 2010; he should have gone at least five picks higher, though perhaps he was held back by the caliber of competition he faced at Florida Gulf Coast. Keuchel, 27, was a humble seventh-round selection out of Arkansas in 2009. I saw him on Cape Cod, and was impressed by his guile and pitchability, though I didn’t see how he was going to miss major league bats in the future.

Each year, I compile my own ordered minor league lists of top full-season-league position player and starting pitcher prospects based on performance and age relative to league and level. These basically serve as follow lists, with the orders then tweaked based on traditional scouting methods. Sale blitzed through the minor leagues so fast (recording just 14.1 career MiLB innings) that he didn’t have time to qualify for my lists. Price’s minor league career wasn’t much longer, though he did rank 32nd in 2008 when he tossed just enough innings to qualify. Keuchel’s minor league career was much longer, though he made my list only once, way down at #159 in 2010. His 1.95 ground out/air out ratio that year, however, was among the highest on my list. Interestingly, most of the guys on my 2010 list who had even higher grounder rates, like Zach Britton, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyler Chatwood, Rubby De La Rosa, Kyle Gibson, Jenrry Mejia, Tyson Ross, Zack Wheeler, Robbie Ross and Marc Rzepczynski, have gone on to make at least some sort of major league mark.

Let’s take a detailed look at the 2015 performance of these hurlers, through Sunday’s games, by examining their plate appearance frequency and production by ball-in-play (BIP) type data. First, the frequency information:

Frequency Data, 2015
Sale % REL PCT
K 32.3% 160 99
BB 5.0% 67 18
POP 3.6% 113 54
FLY 32.4% 106 61
LD 21.7% 103 60
GB 42.3% 93 40
———— ———— ———– ———–
D.Price % REL PCT
K 25.3% 125 89
BB 5.3% 71 25
POP 4.0% 125 69
FLY 32.4% 106 61
LD 23.1% 110 77
GB 40.4% 89 29
———— ———— ———– ———–
Keuchel % REL PCT
K 24.0% 119 87
BB 5.5% 73 30
POP 2.4% 75 25
FLY 16.9% 55 1
LD 18.4% 88 19
GB 62.3% 138 99

As with the three primary NL Cy Young contenders (Greinke, Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw), it is immediately clear that Sale, Price and even Keuchel derive a great deal of their success from their strikeout (K) and walk (BB) rates, their collective ability to maximize free outs and minimize free passes. Sale’s K rate is by far the best in the AL (99 percentile rank) and second only to Kershaw in the game. This is his second straight season with a K rate percentile rank of 99, and he has never posted a seasonal mark below 95. Price’s K rate percentile rank of 89 sits between 89 and 94 for the fourth time in five seasons, while, as you might expect, Keuchel’s K rate percentile rank of 87 represents a massive breakthrough, as his previous career best was 39.

Sale’s massive spread between his 99 K and 18 BB rate percentile ranks exactly matches Kershaw’s as the best in the game. Price’s BB rate percentile rank of 25 actually represents a fairly pronounced increase from 2013-14, when it resided in the single digits, while Keuchel’s 30 BB rate percentile rank matches his career best set in 2014.

Throughout most of his career and in 2015, Sale has exhibited a slight fly ball tendency; he set career highs in pop up (86 percentile rank) and fly ball (85) frequency in 2014, with those marks drifting down to 54 and 61, respectively, this season. His liner rate percentile rank (60 in 2015) has fluctuated quite wildly from season, as it does for most pitchers. Positive regression in this area should be expected in 2016.

For the most part, Price’s batted-ball frequencies are in line with his career norms. His 2014 pop up (69) and fly ball (61) percentile ranks are both one basis point off of career highs. Price’s 2015 liner rate percentile rank of 77 is a career high; in fact, it’s the first time in his career he’s produced a liner rate higher than MLB average. He, too, should expect positive regression in this area in 2016.

Keuchel is the clear batted-ball frequency star of this group. You have to begin with his 62.3% grounder rate, which laps the field of ERA-qualifying MLB starters, the true definition of a 99 percentile rank. Conversely, his fly ball rate is miniscule (1 percentile rank), but somehow he gets a representative amount of pop ups (25 percentile rank), too. On top of everything else, he has minimized line drives this season (19 percentile rank). Might he be one of the very few hurlers who can maintain low liner rates over the long haul? Quite possibly, as he has never posted an above-average liner rate, and has actually twice logged percentile ranks in the single digits. This is an elite frequency profile.

Frequency rates can only tell us so much; to fill out the rest of the picture, let’s get a read on the authority level allowed by each pitcher by examining their production by BIP type data:

Production Data, 2015
FLY 0.161 0.473 80 77
LD 0.717 1.208 133 97
GB 0.292 0.306 129 74
ALL BIP 0.355 0.558 126 100
ALL PA 0.233 0.271 0.366 79 64 3.48 3.04 2.70 2.46
———— ———— ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
FLY 0.185 0.523 100 100
LD 0.623 0.907 87 103
GB 0.250 0.293 103 98
ALL BIP 0.312 0.473 94 101
ALL PA 0.228 0.269 0.346 74 79 2.45 2.87 2.79 3.06
———— ———— ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
FLY 0.175 0.474 85 107
LD 0.612 0.969 91 96
GB 0.213 0.232 71 81
ALL BIP 0.287 0.413 76 83
ALL PA 0.214 0.258 0.307 64 69 2.47 2.47 2.85 2.68

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation.

Well, if the story to this point of this article has been Keuchel’s frequency profile, the story the rest of the way will be the negative impact of the horrific White Sox team defense on Sale’s performance this season. Based on actual performance allowed (REL PRD column, or Unadjusted Contact Score), it would appear that Sale has been one of the worst contact managers in baseball this season; an incredible .717 AVG-1.208 SLG allowed on liners, for a 133 Unadjusted Contact Score, nearly matched by his 129 Unadjusted Contact Score allowed on grounders (.292 AVG-.306 SLG). Overall, he allowed .355 AVG-.558 SLG on all BIP, for a 126 Unadjusted Contact Score.

Only problem is, after adjustment for context — meaning adjusted for the Sox’ worst-in-baseball team defense — Sale actually was an average contact manager this season (100 Adjusted Contact Score). Sale actually allowed well below league average fly ball and grounder authority, and only a relatively healthy performance (compared to Price and Keuchel) on BIP not captured by Statcast pushed his Adjusted Contact Score up to 100. In other words, if Statcast captured more of his BIP velocities, chances are the contextual adjustment would be even greater. As it is, his contextually adjusted “tru” ERA of 2.46 is way better than his ERA, and even better than his 2.70 FIP.

It’s the opposite story, but to a lesser magnitude, for Price. The Jays’ lefty allowed harder liner contact than Sale (103 liner Adjusted Contact Score, compared to 97 for Sale), but way less production on liners (.623 AVG-.907 SLG). That’s a combination of superior (or is it less awful?) defense, particularly in the outfield, with some random luck thrown in. Price has been an essentially average contact manager this season, as evidenced by his overall Adjusted Score of 101. Sequencing has also been kind to Price, as his 2.45 ERA is much lower than his calculated component ERA of 2.87. His relatively ordinary contact management ability puffs up his “tru” ERA to a fairly pedestrian, at least in this company, 3.06.

Then there’s Keuchel. It’s not just stellar grounder frequency that drives his performance, it’s superior contact-authority suppression, as well. He’s allowed just .213 AVG-.232 SLG on all of those grounders (71 Unadjusted Contact Score), and there isn’t a lot of luck baked into that number. After adjustment for context, he retains an 81 grounder Adjusted Contact Score. Since grounders make up almost two-thirds of his BIP population, that mark nearly mirrors his overall Adjusted Contact Score of 83. HIs “tru” ERA of 2.68 isn’t quite as good as his ERA of 2.47, but it’s better than his FIP of 2.85, which doesn’t take into account BIP authority.

So who wins? Well, in my mind, the only thing certain headed into the final week of the season is that it shouldn’t be Price. Of the other two, Sale has been the better pitcher, though Keuchel has pitched 19 more innings. The additional volume doesn’t quite outweigh Sale’s additional excellence, in my opinion. If I had a vote, Chris Sale and his 12-11, 3.48, mark would get it. Felix Hernandez set a precedent for a pitcher with a low win total prevailing in the voting, and Sale would take it one step further, given his relatively unspectacular ERA. He won’t win it, of course, but let’s be clear that Sale himself has nothing to with that shortfall. It’s the eight guys surrounding him on the field that let him down with their glove work.

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8 years ago

I didn’t realize how bad the White Sox defense has been. Must have been particularly poor with Sale on the mound.,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=19,d

Gay Ozzie Guillen
8 years ago
Reply to  tz

Sorry to post the same reply twice, I am just more hopeful I may get a response at the top than the bottom:

This is just a random question, that may not get answered….

The data we have from statcast is obviously limited at this point – our sample size is under 2 years, so it’s tough to do any sort of comparison.

For much of this season, Chris Sale had the weakest exit velocity in baseball. I’m not quite sure where he stands now, but I’d imagine he is still in the top 10 – if not the top ten. Despite inducing the weakest contact in baseball for much of the year, Sale’s BABIP is a lofty .326.

Without access to all the statcast data personally, I can not calculate the correlation between the two, and the likelihood of this happening, but I have to imagine it is not the norm.

Would it be fair to assume that generating the weakest contact against in baseball, should lead to a lower BABIP? If so, is Chris Sale having one of the more unlucky seasons in baseball history for a pitcher?

.326 BABIP against, 72.2% LOB rate, 12.2 HR/FB rate… all of this while generating incredibly weak contact.