Zach Britton and the AL Cy Young Award

Regardless of what happened in the AL Wild Card Game on Tuesday, I was going to write this article. It just so happens that a whole new level of context and subtext has developed since then. In either case, the votes are in, and Zach Britton, the guy who didn’t even get into an extra-inning win-or-go-home game, either has or hasn’t won the AL Cy Young Award.

As we did last week with the NL and Clayton Kershaw, let’s use granular batted-ball data to help decide whether an unconventional candidate is worthy of the hardware. There are four AL starting pitchers who finished in a near dead heat in WAR; I dropped one, Rick Porcello, who didn’t come close to matching the others — Corey Kluber, Chris Sale and Justin Verlander — in my first pass. We’ll evaluate those latter three against Britton.

Kluber was an unheralded draftee, originally selected by the Padres in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. Upon arrival in the big leagues, his strikeout and walk prowess carried him to success, and to a Cy Young Award in 2014, one that I would have given to Felix Hernandez. Contact management was not a strong suit of his in the early going, but as we shall see, he made solid progress in that area in 2016.

Chris Sale hasn’t won his Cy just yet, though he has finished among the top six in the voting four years running. He would have been my selection in 2015. He was much more a pitch-to-contact-type hurler in 2016 than in the past. He was able to do make the change without materially affecting his overall effectiveness, however — something that many star hurlers over the years failed to do when shifting their emphasis.

Justin Verlander was supposedly on the down side of his career, having failed to earn a single Cy Young vote since 2012. Subtly, he has returned to the upper echelon, simultaneously relocating his strikeout groove while becoming a fairly extreme pop-up generator.

Britton has cracked the award discussion this year, blowing zero saves and giving up barely more than zero earned runs. He basically churned out a typical Mariano Rivera season. The longtime Yankee stalwart never did win a Cy, though he did finish second once and third three times. Does Britton deserve the award that even Rivera never secured?

With this as our backdrop, let’s dig into each of these pitchers’ plate appearance frequency and production by BIP type data to draw some conclusions. First, the frequency data:

Plate Appearance Outcome Frequencies, 2016
Kluber % REL PCT
K 26.4% 125 91
BB 6.6% 80 40
POP 2.3% 69 22
FLY 34.0% 109 73
LD 19.3% 93 27
GB 44.5% 100 60
Sale % REL PCT
K 25.7% 122 89
BB 5.0% 61 9
POP 3.5% 49 55
FLY 34.3% 82 76
LD 21.0% 99 71
GB 41.2% 119 27
Verlander % REL PCT
K 28.1% 133 99
BB 6.3% 77 35
POP 5.4% 161 86
FLY 42.3% 136 96
LD 18.6% 90 11
GB 33.7% 75 11
Britton % REL PCT
K 29.1% 138 99
BB 7.1% 87 58
POP 0.0% 0 1
FLY 8.8% 28 1
LD 11.3% 55 1
GB 80.0% 179 99

All of these pitchers possess excellent K and BB profiles. The lowest K rate, still way up in the 89th percentile, belongs to Sale. Sale possesses the best BB rate, way down in the 9th percentile. Kluber (40th percentile) and Verlander (35th) both possess above-average BB rates, while Britton’s (58th) is just a tad above the average of all ERA-qualifying starters to whom he is being compared in this exercise.

Kluber doesn’t have a signature batted-ball tendency. His fly and grounder rates were above league average, while his liner rate was down in the 27th percentile. The latter is a fairly random development likely to regress moving forward; all other BIP frequencies correlate well over time, while liner rates allowed can be quite volatile. Kluber’s pop-up rate is also quite low (22nd percentile), also not a great sign for the future. He may have had a decent contact-management year, but I don’t see enough to conclusively dub him a good contact manager.

Sale is a fly-ball pitcher (76th percentile), who also posted a slightly above-average pop-up rate. His liner rate allowed (71st percentile) was quite high; I’d actually expect, contrary to Kluber’s case, some positive regression from Sale moving forward. As long as Sale contains authority on fly balls, there’s a foundation for solid contact management in place.

Verlander is a much more extreme fly-ball pitcher than Sale. His pop-up rate (86th percentile) is quite extreme, and his fly-ball rate (96th) is even more so. Like Kluber, he benefited quite a bit from a low liner rate (11th percentile) that is likely to drift upward next season. As with Sale, a strong contact-management foundation is in place, provided Verlander can limit the authority of all of those fly balls he allows.

Then there’s Britton. Yes, his sample sizes are much smaller than those of the starters, but his frequency profile is an eye-opener nonetheless. He allowed no pop ups this season, but very few liners (1st percentile) as well. His 80.0% grounder rate is amazing — obviously far above any ERA-qualifying starting pitcher.

Let’s now take a look at the production by BIP type data to get a better feel for the authority allowed by these pitchers this season:

Adjusted Production by BIP Type, 2016
FLY 0.306 0.798 84 94
LD 0.695 0.907 110 88
GB 0.168 0.173 48 85
ALL BIP 0.301 0.496 85 90
ALL PA 0.215 0.267 0.354 70 74 3.14 2.93 3.26 3.10
FLY 0.288 0.802 80 96
LD 0.656 0.869 100 100
GB 0.258 0.278 116 98
ALL BIP 0.312 0.510 91 94
ALL PA 0.226 0.265 0.369 72 75 3.34 3.02 3.46 3.13
FLY 0.255 0.793 72 101
LD 0.652 0.843 96 99
GB 0.258 0.301 124 98
ALL BIP 0.293 0.521 87 98
ALL PA 0.204 0.255 0.363 68 75 3.04 2.85 3.48 3.15
FLY 0.313 0.688 72 102
LD 0.700 0.850 105 107
GB 0.235 0.296 110 124
ALL BIP 0.235 0.296 40 45
ALL PA 0.161 0.220 0.203 36 40 0.54 1.50 1.94 1.65

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 pitches (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation.

Kluber did a nice job of limiting authority across all BIP types in 2016. He was fairly unlucky on line drives (110 Unadjusted vs. 88 Adjusted Contact Score), but very lucky on grounders (48 vs. 85). He needed to manage authority well, as his BIP mix was less optimal than the mixes of other pitchers under our microscope. Overall, a pitcher with Kluber’s K/BB bona fides and a 90 Adjusted Contact Score has had an exceptional season. His “Tru” ERA of 3.10 comes in just under his ERA and FIP.

Sale’s BIP mix was slightly superior to Kluber’s, though his Adjusted Contact Score in each major BIP type was slightly higher. Overall, the combination of an even better K/BB combo than his Cleveland counterpart, combined with a slightly higher 94 Adjusted Contact Score brings Sale in with a 3.13 “Tru” ERA, also better than both his ERA and FIP. The latter metric undervalues Kluber’s authority management and Sale’s BIP mix.

Verlander’s 87 Unadjusted Contact Score is quite a bit lower than his adjusted 98 mark. This is largely the work of Tiger Stadium, in particular the deep middle third of the outfield. Hitters batted only .255 AVG-.793 SLG in the air (72 Unadjusted Contact Score) vs. Verlander, while his exit speed/launch-angle data supports a 101 adjusted mark. On all BIP, Verlander’s 98 Adjusted Contact Score combined with his exceptional K rate and above average BB avoidance places his “Tru” ERA right there in the mix with Kluber and Sale at 3.15. This mark is higher than his ERA, but lower than his FIP.

Britton’s numbers are a little quirky, but there’s a reason. In 2016, just over 14% of all balls in play didn’t register speed/angle data in 2016. Typically, this is the result of weakly hit balls hit at very high and very low launch angles. For Britton, however, over 36% of the batted balls he allowed didn’t register — the vast majority of them weakly hit ground balls. This, combined with the small sample size, renders his fly ball, liner and grounder Adjusted Contact Scores quite meaningless. All of those unregistered batted balls — all but two of them outs — are included in his overall Adjusted Contact Score of 45, which is very, very real. Britton’s few fly balls and liners allowed actually are hit a tad harder than average, but the grounders are paddled extremely weakly. Combine a 45 Adjusted Contact Score with solid but not overwhelming K and BB rates for a reliever, and the result is a 1.65 “Tru” ERA that is better than his FIP, though higher than his almost invisible ERA.

So what does all of this mean with regard to overall value? To measure each hurler’s “pitching runs” for the season, you simply multiply their innings pitched totals by the difference between their “Tru” ERA and the league average, per nine innings. Talk about a dead heat: Sale leads with 26.4 pitching runs, followed by Verlander at 26.1 and Kluber at 25.8. They all round to 26 pitching runs. If any of the three wins the Cy, I’m not complaining. Britton? Fantastic for a reliever, and on the fringe of the discussion, but still well behind at 18.8 pitching runs. The bulk of the high-quality innings delivered by the starters outweighs the superior per-inning excellence of Britton.

A word or two on Porcello. His “Tru” ERA is 3.52, his pitching runs, 16.4. He was extremely “lucky” on all three BIP type. On flies, he allowed a .320 AVG-.775 SLG, but “should have” allowed .331 AVG-.880 SLG. On liners, he allowed a .613 AVG-.782 SLG vs. .653 AVG-.887 SLG, on grounders, .185 AVG-.204 SLG vs. .226 AVG-.247 SLG. Overall, he allowed a .294 AVG-.470 SLG vs. a projected .320 AVG-.535 SLG. He benefited from exceptional team defense; if Porcello wins the award, he should pass it along to his supporting cast. The award going to Porcello would suggest that we, as writers and analysts, aren’t doing enough with the added volume of data at our disposal. There are multiple better options out there; are we still giving the hardware to the guy with the gaudy win-loss record?

Can’t let the opportunity pass without a word or two on Britton’s “usage” on Tuesday night. It’s really a shame that something like this can still happen in a sport in which analytics have supposedly become so much more important in recent years. Buck Showalter is a good manager, don’t get me wrong. His teams always play hard for six months, and they tend to outperform expectations more often than not. Still, can you imagine a vintage Chicago Bulls team without Dennis Rodman on the floor in a close postseason game? Or a healthy Von Miller on the sidelines in a key Broncos postseason game? Or Nicklas Lidstrom on the bench in overtime in a Red Wings Game 7?

It stinks that something like this can still happen in our sport in this day and age. It stinks even more that some feel compelled to defend it. No, the decision to not use Britton didn’t necessarily lose the game; the O’s might not have scored again if the game went 20 innings. It certainly decreased their chance to win, however. A manager who doesn’t use his best reliever in a tie game is handcuffing himself. On the road, such a decision simply intensifies the already existing home advantage owned by the other club. The home club by definition can’t have a “save” situation in extra innings, so there’s no artificial barrier to using a “closer”. What Showalter did Tuesday night was not take a hit on 16 despite knowing that the deck was chock full of aces, twos, threes, fours and fives, simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.

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6 years ago

To play role of traditionalist, what about J.A. Happ’s incredible season and Rick Porcello? I’d talk about them as potential AL CY candidates before a dominant reliever. I don’t mind when a reliever wins the award during a weak starting pitching year, but there’s tons of good-to strong starting pitching this year in AL.
I’d think Britton gets some votes, and probably deserves to be ranked 6th overall. But there are more deserving guys out there.

6 years ago
Reply to  feslenraster

He talks about Porcello. Did you even read the article or are you that guy that reads the title and goes straight to the comments section.

Aaron (UK)
6 years ago
Reply to  aggies43080

How else are you supposed to get the coveted #1 slot?