Was Kershaw Really Better Than Halladay?

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.

Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

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Dave Travis
12 years ago

Ha ha. After reading your article, Eric, I wondered whether you were from Philadelphia. I googled you and sure enough, I found that you were born in Philadelphia and suffer from a chronic case of Philadelphia syndrome, a common disease that causes you to think that real baseball teams and real baseball players can only be found in New York, Boston, and Philly. It must have been hard to get all that press all year and then end up with nothing.

12 years ago
Reply to  Eric Seidman

The breakdowns are interesting, but this article does come off as one written by a Phillies apologist. Kershaw faced SD and SF 9 times? And, Halladay feasted on WAS & FLA seven times. So what?

3 easy reasons Kershaw won the Cy:
1. Kershaw had the Pitching Triple Crown. Frankly, I think it’s “progress” that 5 voters did NOT give him their first-place votes given this fact.
2. Roy won last year… unlike Gold Gloves, where previous wins tend to help build a reputation for the next one, previous Cy/MVP wins tend to have voters looking for other options unless a repeat winner clearly earned it.
3. Phils’ “greatest rotation ever” split the vote. (Of course, it doesn’t really matter when 1 guy gets 27 first-place votes.)

Also, although I obviously don’t put much stock into wins, it nevertheless is impressive to have a 20-game winner on such a shatty BB team. Meanwhile, the Phils were so loaded, they could’ve inserted anyone into the rotation (Vance Worley) and they’d be on a 20-win pace for a full season.

12 years ago
Reply to  Eric Seidman

and the Mets….. don’t forget the Mets.

12 years ago
Reply to  Eric Seidman

Rob, you’re not getting the concepts discussed in the article. Forget where the guy that wrote the article is from and address what is wrong with the concepts if you really disagree with it.

12 years ago
Reply to  Eric Seidman

Rob – I couldn’t disagree with you more. With regard to the “Pitching Triple Crown,” let’s not get terribly excited. It has been done 6 times in 10 years. Moreover, we might want to think about what this Triple Crown really is: a measure of statistics over which the pitcher has limited control. This is why we have metrics in the first place, and your comments suggests to me that you don’t read or absorb the articles on this site. I would also point out that while the Phillies beat up on Florida and Washington some, their offenses and ballparks are significantly more pro-offense.

I just shrug at stuff like this – why come to this site if you are going to ignore the very metrics that make it tick?

12 years ago
Reply to  Eric Seidman

Rob, the “so what” is that the Giants and Padres had the worst offenses in baseball. While the Nats and Marlins weren’t good teams, they were not last in offense.

12 years ago
Reply to  Eric Seidman

Err…you do know the Mets were 6th in runs scored in the NL last year, right? Ahead of the Phillies?

Antonio Bananas
12 years ago
Reply to  Eric Seidman

shouldn’t we normalize for streakiness? If you got Dan Uggla out the first half of the season, that’s not a big deal, if you go thim out in the second half, it’s a bigger deal.

You can’t just say “well let’s normalize performance” and then assume facing a team in April is the same thing as facing them in July. Baseball is such a streaky sport.