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Justin Verlander and the power of narrative

By Travis Reitsma

I want to start off by saying congratulations to Justin Verlander on a well-deserved Cy Young Award.  Had I been voting, I would have selected him to win.  He posted a ridiculous season leading the AL in ERA at 2.40, tERA at 3.09 and SIERA at 2.99.  He also led the league in wins with 24, and when someone wins that many games in a season, you can probably assume it was a very good season.

There’s little question that Verlander is a deserving Cy Young Award winner and the Baseball Writers Association of America apparently thought so too, naming him just the ninth unanimous winner of the award since its inception in 1956 joining Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana (all twice), Denny McLain, and Ron Guidry.

Verlander’s naming was so much a slam dunk that there was zero drama ahead of the award announcement this afternoon.  That has been the narrative really since he no-hit the Blue Jays back in May.  From about mid-August onward, no one questioned his winning the award; the narrative was set in place.  The only question was how much consideration should he get for the MVP award?  The problem isn’t that Verlander doesn’t deserve the Cy, it’s that the narrative set in place months ago clearly dictated just how convincingly he won.  It should have been much, much closer than it was and for once, it was a Yankee who lost out because of narrative.

C.C. Sabathia had an outstanding season in 2011.  He actually led the American League in pitcher fWAR at 7.1 compared to Verlander’s 7.0, although Verlander did have a sizable advantage in rWAR at 8.6 to 6.9.  Sabathia also finished ahead of Verlander in FIP, xFIP and finished only slightly behind him in SIERA.  Despite this, Sabathia didn’t even finish second to Verlander…or third!  Sabathia was a far superior pitcher in 2011 to both Jered Weaver and James Shields, yet he finished behind them as well.

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Of course, none of this takes into account the divisions in which Verlander and Sabathia play.  Sabathia pitches many of his games against the offensively gifted AL East, while Verlander pitches most against such “daunting” lineups as the Indians, Royals and Twins.  Verlander also plays in a much more pitcher-friendly park than Sabathia.  Despite this, Sabathia put up at least comparable numbers across the board and actually had a significantly lower home run rate.

Here’s a quick rundown comparing the numbers of Verlander and Sabathia against the AL East and Central divisions.

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As you can see, the numbers are fairly similar between the two.  Verlander has a sizable advantage against both divisions in hits, but Sabathia has a strong advantage in home runs allowed.  Would Verlander have been such a slam dunk, no doubt, unanimous winner if he were on the Yankees?  Would Sabathia have at least finished second in voting had he pitched his 2011 season on the Tigers?

I’ll reiterate, I do think Verlander should have won this award, but the narrative crafted by the media throughout the season made Verlander not just a Cy Young Award winner, but painted him as having one of the finest pitching seasons of all time and has also made him a serious contender for the MVP.

Although fWAR puts Verlander behind not only Sabathia but also behind five other AL position players, he did lead all of baseball in rWAR (for pitchers and position players) lending at least some credence to him being considered for the AL MVP; not that WAR stats should be the end all and be all in MVP voting.

The 2011 Justin Verlander season is a perfect example of how media-crafted narratives have a significant influence on award voting and how we think of a given player’s season.


The myth of Eric Thames’ fast-balls

A while back, I took to the blog to decry a myth that Corey Patterson was seeing more fastballs (or more strikes) while hitting in the two-spot in the Jays’ lineup.  It was found that there was virtually no difference.

You see, it’s a common myth in baseball that whoever is hitting in front of your best hitter (usually the number three hitter) will see more fastballs and strikes (i.e. controllable, hittable pitches).  Several studies have found that there is virtually no difference at all.

Then last night on the Twitter, someone speculated that Blue Jays new call-up and Canadian Baseball Moses Brett Lawrie should hit second in the lineup because he would see more hittable pitches and more fastballs.  When I calmly questioned the logic (and didn’t deny that he wouldn’t be the worst choice on the team for the two-spot), I was blasted from several angles.  The biggest argument against me was that Eric Thames was “tearing it up” whilst hitting in the number-two spot earlier this year; which was sort of true, although he hasn’t hit much worse in the six-hole in decidedly less games.

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Coverage at Getting Blanked

For further updates on the 2011 MLB Trade Deadline from me, head on over to Getting Blanked.

How bad is the Jays’ bullpen, really?

The Jays’ bullpen has been the ire of a frustrated fan base over the course of this season.  The often cited statistic is the ‘blown save’ which the Blue Jays are tied with the Angels for the most in the American League at 17.

But if we are going to decry the save statistic (which, if you don’t, you might want to remove your breathing orifices from your rectal cavity), then don’t we have to decry the blown save stat too?

The obvious answer is yes, but there is something to be said about a team blowing 17 leads late in games when it’s only late July.  But keep in mind, a pitcher can record a blown save if he comes in with one out in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and a one-run lead, and then surrenders an infield-single before striking out the next two batters; there are certainly gaping flaws.

Blown saves inevitably occur in both good bullpens and bad ones.  Just as it is flawed logic to look at how many saves a certain bullpen has to determine how good they are, it is almost equally as absurd to look at blown saves to judge how bad one is.

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Why are the Blue Jays considering Heath Bell?

News broke this past week that the Jays were inquiring about Padres bullpen arms, specifically Heath Bell’s arm.  I think all of us collectively moaned and groaned at the thought of this.  After all, why would a team in fourth place with no chance of contending this season go after a 33-year-old closer being courted by all the contenders?  Especially considering the wealth of veteran right-handers already occupying spots in Toronto’s bullpen.

The answer is simple: Alex Anthopoulos is a crafty mother-trucker.

As ESPN’s Buster Olney noted earlier today via Twitter, the Jays interest in Bell is most likely purely an interest derived from Bell receiving Type-A free agent status this offseason.  Now, you may be saying, “but Travis, isn’t it very likely that the Jays would have to give up more in a trade than the equivalent of two draft picks in the next draft?”

The answer is, maybe not.

The trade market is absolutely flooded with right-handed relievers which drives the asking price down.  Another factor is the lack of offense in Major League Baseball this season; most teams are already doing a good job of preventing runs so there aren’t as many in the market for expensive relievers.

All of this means that sure-fire Type-A free agent relievers such as Bell and his setup man Mike Adams may be acquired for less than what the teams would get when they sign elsewhere this offseason

The Padres have also said they are now less likely to trade their two relief aces*, most likely because they are worth more as free agents than they are on the trade market.

If either of those two players could be acquired by the Jays for less than what a first- and sandwich-round pick are deemed to be worth, than I am all for them going for it.

And those who are worried that the new CBA will affect the draft pick compensation rule, it may, but not until next season.  Even if a new CBA is hammered out before the offseason festivities truly get underway, there is no way it will start to take effect right away; next year would be that year.

We’ve said it before, Alex Anthopoulos is a ninja…let him work his magic.

*– Eric Karabell mentioned this today on ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast.

The myth of Corey Patterson’s fast balls.

Well, Buck, the things that are coming out of my mouth are based on totally unsubstantiated theories that I've concocted in my brain. I love speeeeed.

You know how Blue Jays’ colour commentor Pat Tabler likes to think he knows things about baseball?

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If hair had personality, Coco might be a better person

He may be a terrible person what with his homophobic comments via twitter, his questionable Craig’s List shenanigans, and his drunken driving, but Coco Crisp’s hair makes him nearly likeable.  Nearly.