Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Real Reliever Bias

Just as I was thinking about commenting on how Trevor Hoffman got way too many Cy Young points (77 to Webb’s 103), I read this little number saying how egregious it is he didn’t just win the damn thing:

That’s an article which shows no knowledge of the relative value of relievers and is based on an idea that’s been dead for years (that relievers are unfairly punished in the awards department). The NL Cy Young race was wide open this year (I could strong cases for Zambrano, Webb, or Carpenter) but Hoffman did little separate himself even from his fellow relievers, much less the best starters in the NL. And for the record, this day in age it justifiably takes an unbelievable season from a reliever to make himself more valuable than the best starters in his league (see Greg Gagne, 2003).

I could do some serious statistical analysis here, or wait for baseball prospectus to do it for me, but I’ll do neither. Sure I don’t have the time, but it should still be an open and shut case even with some simple arguments. The case for Hoffman is that on the surface he had a damn good year: 65 games, 46 saves, 2.14 era. Perhaps years ago when relievers were going 3 innings a night and earning 0 respect despite pitching as many innings as starters, there was a starter bias, but it seems like more and more lately there is a developing closer (read: number of saves compiled) bias. Guys like Hoffman (the +35 year old version), Todd Jones, et. al racked up saves like grizzled veterans in 2006. And by “like grizzled veterans” I am alluding of course to the fact that they never pitch more than an inning at a time. Pitching one inning a few nights a week where there are no baserunners not your own is not very hard compared to what is asked from starters and a lot of middle relievers.

What is happening in baseball is smarter use of bullpen pitchers with more marginal stuff. Increasingly the real valuable work horses are hidden away as setup guys (either because of managerial wisdom or because of dumb luck by an organization in love with their lesser closer). A one inning bullpen pitcher of any worth won’t have an era north of 3.5 very often, requiring that one look beyond, way beyond, era when considering a reliever’s worth. You want guys with lower era’s than Hoffman, how about Saito (1 Cy Young point) or his teammate Cla Meredith. As for games pitched, 41 guys in the NL were in more than him, despite the low maintenance quality of his appearances. In fact Hoffman didn’t pitch longer than an inning in a single game this year or inherit a single baserunner from the pitcher before him. Bruce Bochy has finally achieved the optimal season for padding a reliever’s stats. And no fault to him, a guy with 4 reliable bullpen arms to work with should be able to assign each an inning. Hoffman is nothing if not one of the most consistent relievers baseball has ever seen, but that doesn’t really put him very high up on the Cy Young totem pole. Two guys, Billy Wagner (6 less saves, 10 more innings, nearly identical era, double the strikeouts) and Takashi Saito (every stat better except saves) received a total of 1 Cy Young point, despite being at least as deserving as Hoffman. Plenty of guys nearly as valuable received 0 votes among them.

Hoffman getting 77 votes for Cy Young this year is a reflection on the number of close games the Padres played, the very appropriate bullpen management employed by Bruce Bochy, the fact that Hoffman is well-known and set the save record this year, the lack of fellow NL relievers with impressive years this year, and especially because of the lack of NL starters with superb years in 2006. It is not a reflection of him having an especially valuable year as closer. Webb would be my choice as winner as well, but in lieu of the great talent exodus from the NL can’t we just start awarding 2 Cy Youngs to the AL instead of voting for a guy with 16 wins?

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