Today marks opening day for the 2012 major league baseball season in the United States, although technically, it really began in Japan a week ago, and to mark the occasion, we're going to tackle the question of who is the best pitcher in baseball!
It's a tougher question to answer than you might think. If we go by last season's Cy Young Award winners, the Detroit Tigers' Justin Verlander in the American League and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw in the National League, it might be as easy as flipping a quarter.
But what if these pitchers really owe their awards to some stellar defense on the part of their teammates, instead of their pitching? And what if some other pitcher can actually outpitch both of them, but suffered because their team's sloppy fielding or other bad luck allowed too many runs to score against them?
These are things that the usual top pitching measure, the Earned Run Average (ERA), wouldn't be able to tell us. Or, if you're one of those statistics-obsessed sabermetician types, something their Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP) metric also wouldn't tell us.
For our purposes, we'll turn instead to the obscure Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) measure, which only considers the things that are completely within the pitchers domain: the Home Runs (HR) they give up, the number of Bases on Balls (BB, or walks) they issue (not counting their Intentional Bases on Balls, because that's really the result of a decision made by the team's manager in the dugout), and also the number of Strikeouts (K) they score during their Innings Pitched (IP).
We then tapped ESPN's 2011 pitching stats site and selected the top 20 ranked pitchers in major league baseball for that year, all of whom accumulated at least 162 innings pitched during the regular season, and calculated the FIP for each. Our results, along with the other stats we mentioned above, are presented in the dynamic table below, which will allow you to sort the data from low to high or high to low by clicking the column headings (you'll need to visit our site for that capability if you're reading this post through a site that republishes our RSS news feed).
|Top 20 Major League Baseball Pitchers in 2011|
What we find is that the Philadelphia Phillies' Roy Halladay edges the Los Angeles Dodger's Clayton Kershaw on this list of the best of the best when it comes to pure pitching performance, as opposing batters facing him were much less likely to either hit home runs or gain free admission to first base through being walked.
In the American League, the New York Yankees' CC Sabathia outperformed the pitching of that league's Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander. Even more surprisingly, Verlander didn't even rank as well as his own teammate on the Detroit Tigers, Doug Fister, who joined the team in mid-season after being traded from the Seattle Mariners. Here, we see that while Verlander struck out over a hundred more batters during the 2011 season, Fister gave up far fewer home runs and issued far fewer unintentional walks to opposing batters in what became the best season ever of his career.
The difference between the two comes down to pitching style. Verlander is a dominant power pitcher who relies upon his fastball to blow strikes past opposing batters, sometimes at speeds of well over 100 miles per hour. Fister, on the other hand, throws more slowly in comparison (in the upper 80s-low 90s miles per hour range), but with great command and control, using off-speed pitches and careful placement to keep opposing batters from gaining an edge.
It will be interesting to see if Fister can repeat the performance of his unexpected best-ever year.
Update: One of our sharp-eyed readers recommends fangraphs as a better source of baseball stats!