Pitcher of the Year: The Case for Gil Meche
A poll on the Royals' official Web site asks fans who they believe Kansas City's Pitcher of the Year should be. For the first time in quite a while, the winner of the award won't take the trophy by default, by virtue of being the best of a very poor group of candidates. Much has been made of the quick turnaround the Royals made in keeping the other team from scoring, and that is beared out in the performances of the pitchers mentioned in the poll: Brian Bannister, Jimmy Gobble, Zack Greinke, Gil Meche, David Riske, and Joakim Soria.
How good were they? In 2007, that group of six pitchers threw 783 innings of 3.47 ERA ball. They also posted a cumulative 179.1 VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) which, if you subscribe to the theory that ten runs of VORP is equal to one win, was worth approximately 18 wins to the Royals this past season. Bill James' Win Shares method, however, states that the group was worth 59 Win Shares to their team, or roughly 20 wins. No matter which way the stat sheet is turned, the six pitchers did nothing but contribute to the Royals' cause this past season.
Still, the question of which guy out-performed the others is one that still has to be answered, both in the poll and when the actual winner is chosen later this winter. As of 8:38 p.m. Central Time, 50 percent of the 4,224 voters selected Bannister as the team's best pitcher, with Meche coming in a distant second with just 27 percent of the vote. In terms of naming the top two contenders, the fans have gotten this one right. Although Soria, Riske, and Gobble all posted lower ERAs than Meche and Bannister did, each of the latter two worked more than twice the number of innings as any of the three relief pitchers did. Greinke, with his 3.69 ERA, strong peripherals, and successful return to the starting rotation, likely would have won the award in a world without the two stalwarts.
At any rate, the competition ultimately comes down to Meche and Bannister, a competition that the voters have misjudged. The bottom line is that Meche had far more to do with his success than Bannister did. Let's take a look at their traditional statistics:
Right off the bat, it is apparent that Meche has the edge by posting a lower ERA in 50 more innings and striking out batters at a much higher rate. It should be noted that Bannister's .249 batting average against was better than Meche's .263, and played a significant role in his WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched), which was .084 points lower than Meche's. That information will be very important in a moment.
PITCHER ERA IP SO BB HR OPS
Meche 3.67 216.0 156 69 22 .711
Bannister 3.87 165.0 77 44 15 .713
Is it fair, then, to determine that Meche was the better pitcher by virtue of his lower ERA and higher number of innings pitched? The answer to that question in any scenario is almost always 'No.' To get a clearer picture of whether or not Meche deserves the trophy, we'll next explore some deeper statistical measures: Line Drive percentage (LD%), Defense Efficiency Ratio (DER), and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP).
With these numbers, the case for Meche is made even stronger. The first category is fairly self-explanitory. While Bannister was below league-average in allowing line drives, his counterpart in the rotation was just a couple of ticks below the mean. Things get very interesting when it comes to DER which, according to The Hardball Times, is "the percent of times a batted ball is turned into an out by the teams' fielders, not including home runs." In other words, DER measures how often a pitcher's defense do their jobs behind him. As the chart shows, the Royals converted batted balls against Meche into an out 3.5 percent less than they did for Bannister. That helps explain why Bannister's batting average against was better. Despite that, Meche still had the better ERA, partially a reflection of Bannister's poor performance in his final two starts, but moreso of Meche's superior strikeout rate.
PITCHER LD% DER FIP FIP-ERA
Meche 17.8 .704 4.14 0.47
Bannister 19.2 .739 4.52 0.65
AL Avg 18.0 .687 4.51 ----
The point is illustrated further with FIP and FIP minus ERA, which measures all things a pitcher is personally responsible for (also known as the "luck" factor). This is a situation in which a lower number is better. Just as he did in preventing line drives, Meche bested the league FIP, this time by eight percent. When subtracted from his ERA, Meche's 0.47 bests Bannister's 0.65, further cementing him as having had the superior campaign.
Despite Bannister's amazing run through the summer months in which he was named the American League Rookie of the Month in June and August, it is Meche who deserves to be the team's Pitcher of the Year. It all comes back to strikeouts and things that are out of a pitcher's control. Meche's superior strikeout rate not only illustrates how much more he himself had to do with his own success, but also casts a shadow of doubt over Bannister's future. Although the 26-year-old has the ability to pitch in the Major Leagues, he will not continue to receive the good fortune that was given him in 2007. To win a seasonal award in the future, he will have to do more of the heavy lifting himself.