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MLB Power Rankings: On The Challenge Of Identifying A League's Best Pitcher

The 23rd edition of our MLB power rankings, as voted on by SB Nation MLB bloggers Jim McLennan, Will McDonald, Sam Page, Kyle Lobner, Jeff Sullivan, and Randy Booth. You should probably take these very seriously, because they are uncommonly important.

SEATTLE - JULY 10:  Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates after defeating the New York Yankees 4-1 at Safeco Field on July 10 2010 in Seattle Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE - JULY 10: Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates after defeating the New York Yankees 4-1 at Safeco Field on July 10 2010 in Seattle Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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If you've been paying any attention at all over the past month or so, you've undoubtedly come across several articles and TV spots discussing the American League Cy Young race. More recently, the subject has narrowed a little bit to a discussion of the value of pitcher wins, and whether we should care about CC Sabathia's high total, or Felix Hernandez's low total. This is the topic on so many tongues, and so many people are talking about it as if they have the answer.

I used to think I knew the answer, too. I used to think that picking out the top arm in each league was a walk in the park. The more I sit here and think about it, though - I mean really think about it - the more I realize just how complicated this really is.

Not just this particular race. All races. The Cy Young Award is supposed to go to the best pitcher in the American League, and the best pitcher in the National League. And how well can we really identify who the best pitcher is?

It ends up coming down to statistics. It has to. Statistics are how we measure what happens on the field. But there are holes. So many holes. In all of them.

We know about the problems with the classic statistics. Pitcher wins are littered with flaws. They depend on the offense, which is independent of the starting pitcher. They depend on the bullpen, which is largely independent of the starting pitcher. They depend on the defense, which is largely independent of the starting pitcher. Along similar lines, ERA has flaws all its own. Again, the defense comes into consideration. So does the ballpark. Ballpark's a big one. Why should we look at ERA without in some way adjusting for the environment?

More recently, statistics like FIP and xFIP have gained popularity. FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching, and it's a stat on the ERA scale that attempts to strip away matters of defense and game context. But this isn't okay, either. FIP considers a pitcher's walks, strikeouts, homers, and innings. It assumes the same batting average on balls in play for every pitcher. What if some pitchers allowed weaker contact than others? What if some pitchers pitched exceptionally well with men on base? What if some pitchers pitched exceptionally poorly with men on base? And, again, what about the ballpark? ERA has its problems, but so do the sabermetric numbers, at least when it comes to describing past value. The Cy Young isn't about predicting who'll be the best pitcher next season. It's about who was the best pitcher in the season past, and we can't just strip things away all willy-nilly.

Beyond that, there's the matter of consistency. Two guys might have identical numbers, but maybe one of them allowed his runs in clumps, while the other spread them out more evenly. Who should be rewarded? The inconsistent starter will have given his team a greater average chance of winning. The consistent starter will have been the most dependable and the most predictable. Which is more deserving? When looking at consistency, should a pitcher's own team's runs scored be taken into account?

And we can keep going. If the Cy Young is about recognizing the best pitcher, rather than the most valuable pitcher, then why is so much emphasis put on starts and innings pitched? In theory, it's possible that the best pitcher may not have played very much at all. Racking up extra innings - that's valuable. That isn't necessarily an indicator of greater skill.

And then, of course, there's the whole matter of good pitches sometimes getting hit, and bad pitches sometimes getting missed. Which I know is kind of a lame argument, but it's worth remembering that a pitcher's statistics are indirect measures of his performance. A pitcher's statistics don't reflect how well he pitched. A pitcher's statistics reflect how well hitters hit the pitches he pitched. There's a difference, there, and we don't know how significant this may or may not be.

As is the case with most any award, the instructions for and purpose of the Cy Young are fairly ambiguous. As such, there are several possible interpretations, and given several possible interpretations, you're also given several possible right answers. Sure, sometimes a clear Cy Young winner may stand out from the pack. Sometimes some guy may be so far and away better than the rest of his peers that there's no questioning his worthiness. Most of the time, though, there's a cluster at the top, and when there's a cluster at the top, you can usually make some kind of argument for each and every candidate.

As I see it, nothing about the Cy Young is cut and dry, which means there's little sense in stumping too hard for one guy, or in getting upset when another guys wins. It's complicated. There's more that goes into it than simple ERA or FIP or strikeout rate or innings pitched. I don't think sportswriters are the best people to pick a guy out from a crowd, but at the same time, nor do I think fans and statheads truly understand the challenge of identifying the best pitcher in each league. ‘Best' is a funny word.

With that all out of the way, let's move on to something far simpler - some good ol' MLB power rankings.

30. Pittsburgh Pirates

SBN Blog: Bucs Dugout

2010 record: 47-91

Last week's rank: 30

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 30

The NL Central is a pretty weak division, but there's still a good chance the Pirates will be the NL's first team to clinch last place. They're 12.5 back of the Cubs with 24 games to play, while the Diamondbacks are 13 back of the Dodgers with 23 contests left. It's really hard to find much positive to say about a team that's last in their league in both runs scored (479) and runs allowed (746), but at least they've pretty much locked up the top pick in the 2011 draft.

29. Seattle Mariners

SBN Blog: Lookout Landing

2010 record: 55-84

Last week's rank: 27

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 27

Before Tuesday night, the Mariners had gone 11 consecutive games without scoring more than three runs. They snapped that streak with a five-run second inning against Dallas Braden. That inning's sequence of events: walk single single sac fly single single single single single. Even the Mariners' offensive outbursts are embarrassing.

28. Baltimore Orioles

SBN Blog: Camden Chat

2010 record: 53-86

Last week's rank: 29

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 28

The O's are trying to play the role of spoiler and right now they're doing it. The O's have won four in a row, including the last two in a three-game series against the Rays and two against the Yankees. If the O's beat the Yankees on Wednesday, that will be a sweep for Baltimore and a time to cry for New York. Another high note: the durable right fielder Nick Markakis once again hit 40 doubles this season. That's four-straight years for the 26 year old.

27. Arizona Diamondbacks

SBN Blog: AZ Snakepit

2010 record: 56-83

Last week's rank: 25

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 22

The DBacks swept the Padres, but dropped two of three to Houston and fell to San Francisco on Tuesday. They've been getting good starting pitching, with a 3.27 ERA and nearly seven innings per start over the last eight games, but Arizona only went 4-4. That's been par for the course: on Monday, Ian Kennedy provided Arizona's 13th start with no runs allowed, but the team's record in such contests is a feeble 7-6.

26. Kansas City Royals

SBN Blog: Royals Review

2010 record: 57-81

Last week's rank: 26

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 29

The Royals have been gettin' their lose on again, and at 57-81 the team looks headed for another awful record. Kansas City fans can take heart, however; Gil Meche has randomly decided to eschew major surgery, and is now part of the team's bullpen. Fun.

25. Cleveland Indians

SBN Blog: Let's Go Tribe!

2010 record: 57-82

Last week's rank: 28

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 24

Did you hear that LeBron James is taking his talents to South Beach?

24. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

SBN Blog: Halos Heaven

2010 record: 66-73

Last week's rank: 21

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 23

The Angels haven't been at least seven games under .500 at the 139 game mark since 1999, which should tell you a little something about the success they've had over the past decade. The temptation is to conclude that their window is closing, and that it's time to usher in a new era in the AL West, and though that's a bit hasty and the Angels have plenty of talent in the upper levels, Mike Scioscia & co. should be prepared to face their greatest challenge yet.

23. Milwaukee Brewers

SBN Blog: Brew Crew Ball

2010 record: 64-74

Last week's rank: 20

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 20

He's under the radar, to be sure, but one player that could really help the trajectory of his career with a strong finish in September is Brewer starter Chris Narveson. With a 3.38 ERA in his last seven starts, Narveson is starting to make a case that he deserves consideration for the 2011 rotation. The fact that he's outhitting the Mariners doesn't hurt, either.

22. Washington Nationals

SBN Blog: Federal Baseball

2010 record: 60-79

Last week's rank: 23

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 21

What's the funniest part of the headline Nationals prepare for Nyjer Morgan's suspension: the Nationals being eliminated from playoff contention months ago, or Nyjer Morgan's being one of the worst regulars in the majors?

21. Chicago Cubs

SBN Blog: Bleed Cubbie Blue

2010 record: 60-79

Last week's rank: 24

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 25

Since the NL Central moved to six teams in 1998, the Cubs have finished in fifth place or worse three times, and they appear poised to do it again in 2010: with 23 games to play, they're 4.5 games worse than the fourth-place Brewers. Just seven of their remaining 23 games are at home, and they still have to play the Cardinals six more times and make a trip out to San Diego for four.

20. Los Angeles Dodgers

SBN Blog: True Blue LA

2010 record: 69-70

Last week's rank: 16

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 15

Los Angeles dropped series to the Phillies and Giants, and hasn't scored more than four runs in a game since August 29th. James Loney, in particular, continues to struggle: over his last 21 games, he's hitting .181. Meanwhile, Jonathan Broxton's return to the closer's role for the Dodgers was short-lived, taking the loss on Saturday against the Giants. His second-half ERA is now 7.13.

19. Houston Astros

SBN Blog: The Crawfish Boxes

2010 record: 65-73

Last week's rank: 22

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 26

You probably could have made a fair amount of money on June 1st by betting that the Astros, who were 17-34 at the time, would be back in third place in September. Yet somehow they've gone 25-14 in their last 39 games and, with 18 of their remaining 24 games against the Cubs, Dodgers, Brewers, Nationals and Pirates, they still have an outside shot at getting back to .500.

18. New York Mets

SBN Blog: Amazin' Avenue

2010 record: 68-71

Last week's rank: 19

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 19

You know it's a slow season, when...

17. Florida Marlins

SBN Blog: Fish Stripes

2010 record: 70-68

Last week's rank: 17

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 17

Josh Johnson's season may be over, due to ever-frightening back pain. For the Marlins, the prospect of losing Johnson, especially on top of Ricky Nolasco's injury, is obviously worrisome. Personally, for Johnson, however, there's a Cy Young award potentially at stake. Already handicapped in the counting stat department with just 11 wins, Johnson will likely now place behind Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, and possibly even Chris Carpenter and Ubaldo Jimenez, all of whom he's arguably pitched better than.

16. Oakland Athletics

SBN Blog: Athletics Nation

2010 record: 68-70

Last week's rank: 18

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 12

The A's haven't been more than three games away from .500 since July 10th. They've spent exactly one day at five over, and they spent exactly one day at six under. For all intents and purposes, this team has been treading water from the get go, with little in the way of any long streaks. And their run differential still isn't that much worse than that of the Rangers. The A's are an unremarkable team that, right now, is sitting rather pretty in second place.

15. Detroit Tigers

SBN Blog: Bless You Boys

2010 record: 69-70

Last week's rank: 15

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 11

Can early summer's darlings, Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch, keep their OPSes above .750? It'll be close. Jackson should be all right, but Boesch has quietly crumbled down the stretch. Since July 10, Boesch is hitting just .160/.225/.229. That's 191 plate appearances of pitcher-level hitting. Ouch.

14. St. Louis Cardinals

SBN Blog: Viva El Birdos

2010 record: 72-64

Last week's rank: 12

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 10

The Cardinals are 3-2 in their last five games (including taking two of three from the Reds over the weekend) and have closed the gap a bit, but they still have a tough hill to climb: they enter play Wednesday six games back of the Reds and they'll play the rest of the season without an off day, as the lone blank spot on their calendar has been replaced by a makeup game against the Marlins. Meanwhile, it's been a quiet couple of weeks for Albert Pujols. He's hitting just .118/.188/.148 in his last eight games, dropping his OPS by 30 points.

13. Toronto Blue Jays

SBN Blog: Bluebird Banter

2010 record: 72-66

Last week's rank: 14

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 3

Once this season is over, baseball analysts will look back and make a list of the "surprises" of the 2010 season. On that list, no doubt, will be the Toronto Blue Jays. More specifically, their offense. The Jays' offense has been a powerhouse all season long as they currently rank highly in the American League in almost everything, including doubles (2nd), home runs (1st), total bases (2nd), slugging percentage (2nd) and OPS (4th). And no, Jose Bautista is not a juicer.

12. Texas Rangers

SBN Blog: Lone Star Ball

2010 record: 75-63

Last week's rank: 6

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 9

On August 6th, the Rangers reached a season-high 19 games over .500. Since then, they've lost 18 of 29 to drop well out of the race for the AL's best record. Their playoff odds haven't suffered, and they're still a lock to see the Division Series, but it's funny how a month-long slump can spoil the perception of a team. After the Cliff Lee trade, the Rangers looked to have all the necessary pieces in place. Now, would anyone even give this team a chance against the Yankees? Interestingly, over the past 30 days, the Rangers' pitching staff has posted the AL's second-worst ERA with the AL's second-best strikeout rate.

11. Chicago White Sox

SBN Blog: South Side Sox

2010 record: 77-61

Last week's rank: 11

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 13

Chicago won seven straight games... and gained one game on the Twins. It might be too late to matter now, but it looks like the bullpen's temporary bout of terribleness has passed. Part of that return to form has come from the emergence of rookie Chris Sale, who is striking out over 12 hitters per nine innings. Getting Matt Thornton back from the DL doesn't hurt, either.

10. San Francisco Giants

SBN Blog: McCovey Chronicles

2010 record: 78-61

Last week's rank: 13

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 18

Since our last report, San Francisco has won six of seven against divisional opponents and, aided by the Padres' slump, has moved to within one game of the NL West lead. It looks like all Tim Lincecum needed was the calendar to turn from August, as September 1st saw him pitch eight innings of one-run ball and Tuesday night saw him strike out 11 of the 25 Diamondbacks he faced. The Giants have allowed 16 runs in eight games, heading into Wednesday night.

9. Colorado Rockies

SBN Blog: Purple Row

2010 record: 74-64

Last week's rank: 10

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 8

In the middle of a 20-games-in-20-days stretch, Colorado looked to be wobbling after Philadelphia scored nine in one inning on Thursday to send the Rockies 7.5 back in the division. But a sweep of the Padres and two wins over Cincinnati has pulled Colorado back up, and they currently sit 4.5 games out of both the West and the Wild Card. Ubaldo Jimenez finally won his 18th game, at the sixth attempt - with his worst performance.

8. San Diego Padres

SBN Blog: Gaslamp Ball

2010 record: 78-59

Last week's rank: 5

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 7

The Padres struggled through the first ten-game losing streak by a first place team since the 1932 Pittsburgh Pirates, resulting in their playoff odds dropping from the high-90s to the mid-60s. San Diego hit a collective .216 during the streak, averaging only 2.3 runs per game. The Padres finally won on Monday night, beating the Dodgers, and held on to beat them again on Tuesday, but a four-game series at Petco this weekend against the Giants looks highly pivotal. The two teams have two series remaining against one another, and the second is the last series of the year.

7. Cincinnati Reds

SBN Blog: Red Reporter

2010 record: 79-59

Last week's rank: 8

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 16

The Reds enter play Wednesday with 79 wins, poised to break 80 for just the second time since 2000 and in line to make the playoffs for just the third time since 1979. Joey Votto may not win the triple crown (at the moment he's second in batting average and RBI, and third in home runs), but the numbers he's putting up are notable nonetheless: he's already set career highs in runs scored (94), home runs (32), RBI (98), walks (80) and stolen bases (13), and leads the NL in OBP (.422) and OPS (1.014).

6. Boston Red Sox

SBN Blog: Over The Monster

2010 record: 77-62

Last week's rank: 7

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 6

Date of season death? Tuesday, Sept. 7. After rocking the Rays in game one of their series on Monday, 12-5, there was still some hope left with the Sox. Terry Francona planned to used Clay Buchholz on three days' rest in game three as long as game two went well ... and it didn't. Daisuke Matsuzaka was blown up for eight runs in 4.2 innings as the Sox lost, 14-5. Now? Buchholz will pitch Friday on his normal days of rest. Wednesday's lineup should feature at least 6.5 rookies in the starting lineup.

5. Philadelphia Phillies

SBN Blog: The Good Phight

2010 record: 80-60

Last week's rank: 9

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 14

I guess they showed us. We thought they just couldn't make the playoffs again, not with the sputtering offense and laundry list of injuries. But the Phillies are finding a way, for the third consecutive year. We'll see what happens down the stretch, but if the Braves start short-shifting their rotation, the Phillies are going to have a great answer with Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt.

4. Atlanta Braves

SBN Blog: Talking Chop

2010 record: 79-60

Last week's rank: 4

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 5

Atlanta has now successfully done what's known in the baseball world as "pulling a Mets." After leading the NL East for most of the season, the Braves now look up at the Phillies in the standings, trailing by 0.5 games. If you can't beat the Pirates, though, maybe you don't deserve to make the playoffs. And with one crappy high-paid starter coming off the DL, the Braves will need to make the tough choices in these coming weeks to secure a trip to the promised land.

3. Tampa Bay Rays

SBN Blog: DRays Bay

2010 record: 84-54

Last week's rank: 1

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 2

The Rays have been getting by, but haven't been dominant. They haven't had a series sweep since Aug. 18 (which seems like a long time for this team) while they were on the verge of a four-game losing streak Tuesday -- until the bats came out of the woodwork. After being blown up by Red Sox scrubs 12-5 on Monday, the Rays came back and did their own damage with a 14-5 win the next day. Wednesday is the rubber game. Over/under 18.5 runs scored between the two teams?

2. Minnesota Twins

SBN Blog: Twinkie Town

2010 record: 82-57

Last week's rank: 3

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 4

The odd thing about the 2010 Twins is that while this edition certainly feels like a more elite squad than some of the recent Minnesota squads, a number of the team's position players have actually been disappointing this year. Justin Morneau was excellent, but remains absent. The middle infield combo of Hardy (.696 OPS) and Hudson (.750 OPS) have been great defensively, but underwhelming at the plate. Similarly, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Mauer's offensive numbers are also down from 2009. Target Field is likely a factor, along with age and general regression. Delmon Young's mild step forward and the presence of Jim Thome have certainly helped.

1. New York Yankees

SBN Blog: Pinstripe Alley

2010 record: 86-53

Last week's rank: 2

Last week's Beyond The Box Score rank: 1

Finally at the top of the mountain! ... with a few games of separation! After battling the Rays tooth and nail all season long, the Yankees have widened the gap. The gap being, of course, 1.5 games. It's not much, but considering how these two teams have gutted it out all year long, 1.5 games seems like a lot. Despite losing their last three games (one to Toronto, two to Baltimore), the Yankees had an eight-game winning streak prior to that to help them gain their distance from the Rays and keep it. After today's series finale with the O's, it'll be a tough six-game streak against the Rangers and Rays (and then the O's again. Put that under the "tough" column as well if Baltimore does sweep today).

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