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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, December 12, 2002
Jason looks back at the Pedro/Zito Cy Young debate.
Sometimes true greatness is difficult to comprehend. In some cases, we grow accustomed to it and, after awhile, fail to recognize it. At least, this is what I keep telling myself whenever award voters snub Pedro Martinez.
Pedro narrowly lost the 1999 AL MVP award because two voters left him completely off their ballots, claiming they believed pitchers didn’t deserve MVP votes. This was hypocritical, as one (George King) had voted for David Wells and Rick Helling the previous year. But I digress, that’s a story for a different column. As in ‘99, this year Oakland’s Barry Zito usurped the Cy Young Award from Pedro, depite being less qualified.
Both pitchers threw terrifically this season, as the chart below depicts.
Pedro led the majors in ERA, and AL in strikeouts. Zito, on the other hand, pitched pretty well too, and offered five more starts and 30 more innings than Pedro. His more durable contribution, in addition to pitching for a team in the pennant race, earned him the majority of votes. However, the performances of the two pitchers get a little more skewered under closer scrutiny.
A pitcher owes a great deal of his success to:
A) The defense behind him, and
Let me expand: As Voros McCracken exhaustively studied, pitchers have little effect on balls put into play. Once the ball touches the bat, it’s up to chance and the fielders to determine what happens. So, how did the fielders and Lady Luck affect our two Cy candidates this year?
*Defense Induced Luck Percentage (H-HR/BF-HR-K-BB-HBP)
So, we see that either Zito’s defense was a lot better, or Pedro was far unluckier than Zito. Zito is a flyball pitcher with one of the weaker defensive outfields in the game, and thus it’s truly amazing that his defense converted such a high percentage of balls in play into outs. Not meaning to discredit Zito’s season, but he ducked serious odds putting up the numbers he did. Luck played a healthy role in his success.
Pedro, despite having a DILP 30 points higher than Zito, still allowed far fewer runs per nine innings and let fewer opponents on base. Pedro accomplished this through several statistics that are totally independent of a pitcher’s defense.
Pedro only walked 40 batters this season, good for a miniscule average of 1.8 per 9 innings. Zito actually missed the plate a good portion this year, ranking sixth in the AL in walks surrendered and averaging 3.06 walks per nine.
Pedro struck out far more opponents than Zito, averaging 10.79 per 9 innings, while Zito only whiffed 7.14 per 9 innings.
Hitters also took Zito deep more frequently than Pedro, as he allowed 24 homers to Pedro’s 13. Zito actually let up one fewer home run than Pedro and Beantown counterpart Derek Lowe combined (24-25).
Even though Zito’s luck and defense overwhelmingly aided him this season, Pedro still posted superior numbers because he pitched considerably better.
Ah, but you already knew Pedro pitched better than Zito. Zito’s Cy qualifications rest on throwing 5 additional games and 30 more innings than Pedro the Great. The argument seems to be that Pedro pitched tremendously, but Zito pitched great too, and the extra innings make him more valuable than Pedro. But do they?
Here’s an exercise: Pedro, projected to 229.1 innings this season, the same as Zito. However, I’ve projected Pedro’s extra innings with double the BBs per nine innings, double the homers allowed per nine innings, half the Ks per nine and with Zito’s ERA added to his own:
As you can see, even if pro-rated to an extra 30 innings of awful pitching, Pedro still clearly comes out on top. If the two pitchers had posted these numbers, Pedro probably would’ve won the award because it would’ve made the two much easier to compare, a comparison Zito clearly loses. Yet, these numbers represent Pedro getting absolutely Lima-ed over those 30 innings.
As you can see here, there’s a Catch-22 for Zito backers. How can Zito deserve the Cy Young over Pedro for throwing more innings, because even if Pedro pitched those 30 innings like a Devil Ray cast-off, he’d clearly be the better hurler? Yet, adding 30 extra innings of batting practice meatballs only tarnishes the quality of Pedro’s season.
The truth is that durability counts, but so does dominance. When you analyze it, Pedro was so clearly more dominant that Zito during the course of the season that a paltry 30 innings doesn’t nearly bridge the chasm between the two.
Some people may be tempted to believe that Zito’s presence in a pennant race, pitching against the AL West competition, meant that he posted his numbers against far better competition. Various writers addressed this issue, with mixed results. One ESPN.com column by Matt Szfec and David Schoenfield broke down Zito and Pedro’s performances against winning and losing teams.
Zito pitched well enough to get 11 wins against winning teams, but without a spectacular ERA. In fact, Zito sculpted his formidable 2.75 ERA by demolishing weak opponents, while Pedro actually pitched better against winning teams.
Barry Zito racked up a lot of wins and anchored a playoff team. He received a lot of positive press for pitching terrifically down the stretch for a team that won 20 straight games and battled their way into the playoffs. He also didn’t come close to matching Pedro Martinez, the best pitcher in the American League.
As I wrote above, sometimes greatness is difficult to quantify. Pedro didn’t quite match his divine status of previous seasons, and perhaps some voters mistakenly viewed this as a negative. Perhaps others tired of voting for Pedro, and since they actually had an alternative, opted for it. Regardless, I just hope these same voters know how lucky they are to be watching Pedro, even if they don’t bequeath him with the awards to prove it.
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