Does R.A. Dickey deserve extra credit because the Mets stink?

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One New York writer suggests that anyone who makes a Cy Young case for anyone but R.A. Dickey has been brainwashed by sabermetric propaganda.

Bill Madden makes so many preposterous arguments in this screed about Wins Above Replacement and a couple of interesting awards (A.L. MVP and N.L. Cy Young) this season that I wouldn't even know where to start.

Well, I would, actually. I would start at the beginning. But that would take me a few thousand words. But while there was a time when such an endeavor might actually do some good, I'm afraid at this point that if someone still clings to the old ways, he always will. Which means ripping Bill Madden at length would be merely fun rather than educational. And so I'm going to pass, this time anyway.

I do want to mention one of Madden's specific points, though, because I'm not sure it's been sufficiently explored over all these long years of sabermetric meanderings ...

With one more start, Dickey conceivably could win the Triple Crown of pitching, but the very fact he’s this close to it ought to be case enough for him. Dickey’s 4.11 strikeouts-to-walks ratio is also fourth in the majors. But, of course, the one stat that should separate him from all of the rest is his 20 wins for a team that was 11 games under .500 heading into Saturday night's game in Atlanta, giving him 28% of the Mets’ wins. The last two pitchers to win 20 games for under-.500 teams were Brad Radke, who won 20 games for the 68-94 Twins, accounting for 29% of Minnesota’s wins and Roger Clemens, who accounted for 28% of the last-place 76-86 Toronto Blue Jays’ wins in 1997 in winning both the Triple Crown of pitching and the Cy Young.

That was a nifty thing that Brad Radke did in 1997, but he doesn't exactly help Madden's Cy Young argument; Radke finished third in the balloting. Granted, the winner that season was Clemens, and deservedly so. But Radke probably wasn't one of the league's five best pitchers, and of course he finished third in the balloting not because of his record relative to his team's, but because he was one of three 20-game winners in the league; Clemens won 21, Radke won 20, and Randy Johnson won 20 (and finished second in the balloting). Andy Pettitte finished with an ERA a full run better than Radke's -- 3.87 for Radke, 2.88 for Pettitte -- but Pettitte won only 18 games so he finished fifth in the Cy Young balloting. If Radke had won 19 games instead of 20, he probably have finished fifth.

Yeah. One win does make that much difference in the voters' minds. Or used to.

But I digress. The interesting thing here is the notion that a pitcher's record relative to his team's tells us something, necessarily, about how well he pitched.

Team context is interesting, to be sure. It's interesting that Steve Carlton won 27 games for a Phillies team that went 32-87 otherwise. Really interesting. But meaningful, though?

While we might readily acknowledge that a pitcher's wins and losses are influenced by his teammates, the generalization isn't particularly useful when evaluating a specific pitcher. One can essentially imagine three ways in which a pitcher's record might be impacted by his teammates ...

1. Run Support
Bad teams usually have trouble scoring runs. Which makes it difficult for a pitcher to win games. This is hardly some sabermetric secret. The Mets rank just 11th in the National League in scoring. Thus, R.A. Dickey has won 20 games despite poor run support, right?

But Dickey's been blessed with fine run support. Per nine innings, the Mets have scored 4.7 runs when Dickey's been the pitcher of record, which ranks 14th in the league. Now, that's not as much run support as Gio Gonzalez (5.38) has gotten ... but it's a lot more than Clayton Kershaw (3.91) and Johnny Cueto (3.79) have gotten. It's encouraging that Madden is taking team context into account. It just seems that he's doing it wrong.

2. Lousy Defense
Bad teams usually have trouble turning batted balls into outs, which leads to more runs which leads to fewer wins for starting pitchers. But the Mets' defense hasn't been bad; according to Baseball Prospectus they're right in the middle of the pack, eighth in the National League in park-adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Dickey has given up only seven un-earned runs this season, which is not a lot. And one might credit three of those un-earned runs to Dickey, as they were the direct result of passed balls, which were (probably) the direct result of Dickey's No. 1 pitch.

The Mets won two of those games anyway. The Mets did lose two other games in which un-earned runs were scored, but in both of those games, a) it was just one un-earned run, and b) the Mets lost both of them by more than one run. So it's just exceptionally hard to argue that Dickey's been inordinately hurt by his teammates' defense.

3. Demoralization
It's been argued, I'm sure, that it's more diffficult to pitch for a bad team than a good team, simply because of the mental strain that comes along with knowing your teammates aren't as good as you. There just isn't much evidence to suggest it actually makes a real difference, though.

Depending on which version of Wins Above Replacement you look at, R.A. Dickey has been either the third- or fifth-best pitcher in the National League. But the difference between Dickey and the No. 1 guys -- Gio Gonzalez and Clayton Kershaw -- is not so large that any reasonable man would eliminate Dickey from contention for the Cy Young Award.

WAR is just a tool, like any other tool. It does a really good job of narrowing down the list of candidates. In this case, it tells us that Dickey one of four or five worthy Cy Young candidates. And I haven't seen anybody saying it does more than that.












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