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How Peripheral Stats Shape Perceptions

When I was in the Navy an emphasis on details was often referred to as “Mickey Mouse”; a friend who served in the Army puts it as “majoring in the minors.” No question, today’s baseball players are increasingly evaluated by what are termed “peripheral statistics” and millions of dollars can ride on these.

It used to be that for pitchers, especially starting pitchers, wins and losses, Earned Run Average (which is earned runs times nine divided by innings pitched) and strikeouts were the hallmarks of success and who was a star. Today all those factors, especially wins and losses, are discounted by voters for the Cy Young Award. “Wins and losses” especially are noted as “team statistics” where a starter’s support matters maybe even more than his performance. Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants and Zach Greinke of the Kansas City Royals won the award in 2009 with 15 and 16 victories respectively; the following year Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners won despite a record of 13-11.

These awards were won on the basis of outstanding ERAs and strikeout totals, true enough, but also stellar WHIP (walks+hits divided innings pitched), K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) and K/BB (strikeouts to walks) rates. One of the conundra of the 2012 season is the 0-3 start of the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cliff Lee, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2008 with a 22-3 record. This year Lee in his first eleven starts is 0-3 despite a very respectable ERA of 3.48 and an outstanding K/BB of 5.5:1 (77 strikeouts to 14 walks). As was pointed out in the New York Times, Lee joins Vida Blue, who was 0-5 in 14 starts in 1983, as the only Cy Young Award winners to have zero wins in his first eleven starts (Blue went 14 before notching a victory). The flickering and fitful Phillies’ offense has contributed to many of Lee’s sterile outings, indeed.

The Texas Rangers’ Colby Lewis is in contention for this year’s AL Cy Young Award on the basis to two peripheral statistics: his 6-5 won-loss record and 3.00 ERA are unremarkable, but his 1.00 WHIP and astounding 7.0 K/BB rate are quite noteworthy. I like Lewis because he bears a remarkable resemblance to one of my favorite actors, Josh Brolin. If they ever decide to make “The Colby Lewis Story”, they know right where to go.

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