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a word about awards

the answers to yesterday's trivia question come at the end of this post.

i'd recommend to everybody ken arneson's post the other day at Catfish Stew, wherein he comments upon the disgust over bartolo colon's coronation as the al cy young winner. the disgust -- prevelant within the by-the-numbers camp -- arises because, sabermetrically speaking, colon wasn't the best pitcher in the league. the numbers are unequivocal. hence statements like this one: "The choice of Colon over Johan Santana - or Mariano Rivera, or Kevin Millwood, or Mark Buehrle - is indefensible. . . . stupid, smug, pat idiocy masquerading as analysis, flying in the face of logic, and insulting baseball fans across the nation."

similar outrage has been spewing throughout the baseball blogosphere ever since colon won. except at Catfish Stew, where arneson says, succinctly: "Awards are not measurements. Awards are celebrations."

i happen to agree. i wrote much the same thing in september during a discussion about the nl mvp race: "to me, the mvp award celebrates more than the individual player who receives it; it celebrates the game. it's an emblem of excellence . . . . . the award isn't just about value; it is also about values, the things we admire in the game."

i know, i know -- soft-headed thinking. drives sabrsayers up the wall. but i'm sticking to my opinion. when it comes to these awards, the sabermetricians have got it all wrong. they're attempting to impose "objective" criteria and standards on awards that were never meant to be objective. we can, thanks to sabermetrics, filter out park effects, run support, defensive support, bullpen support, and numerous other pollutants from a pitcher's stat line and quantify his performance down to fractions of runs. but that does not mean we should replace the ill-informed dolts who vote on these awards with a committee of all-knowing sabermetricians. i sometimes think that's what some people want -- do away with the voting and replace it with rote mathematical analysis that measures pure ability. we could then simply plug everyone's numbers into the formula, run the program, and know with certainty who the real cy young is.

while we're at it, maybe we should just do away with the playoffs too.

short series are a notoriously faulty way of determining which team is really the best -- too few games, too small a sample size. surely it would be an improvement to apply a standard set of statistical criteria to the 162-game regular season, normalize all the data and adjust for context, and determine the champion mathematically. that way we can rid ourselves of nonsensical results such as we saw this october, when the world series was decided -- in defiance of every principle of logic and sabrmetrics -- on home runs by scott podsednik and geoff blum. any sabermetrician can prove in five seconds that these homers were more the product of chance than ability. for that matter, we know -- via the pythagorean formula and baseball prospectus' third-order standings -- that the white sox didn't belong in the postseason at all, much less the series, because the fact is they didn't play the best baseball in their own division in 2005. the cleveland indians did, and by a substantial margin. if it's outrageous for colon to win the cy, isn't it just as outrageous (even more so) to crown the sox as world champs when the numbers so very clearly show they were also-rans in the al central?

granted, the sox won more games than any other al team, but this simply proves the sabr camp's point: wins themselves are a primitive, often wildly imprecise measurement of true performance -- too crude for a 21st-century fan base that demands statistical sophistication . . . . .

have i made my point clear yet?

i've been a sabermetrics devotee since 1982, when ballantine brought bill james' baseball abstract to a mainstream audience. the discipline has deepened my understanding of and appreciation for what i see on the field. but the "movement" (if i must call it that) has taken on an unfortunate aspect, one to which all revolutions are prone -- that of simply replacing old dogma with new dogma. too many people are now applying these concepts self-righteously, not in a spirit of (to return to ken arneson's word) celebrating the game but rather a spirit of "your opinion is idiotic and i've got the numbers to prove it." there's a misplaced obsession with conformity and standardization, a desire to channel every baseball discussion into scientific nomenclature -- and a deafness to the game's poetry.

the al cy young award brought that ugliness way to the fore, so let me use it as an example. if you saw bartolo colon pitch this year (and i didn't), maybe you spotted something that made you say "now there's a pitcher." perhaps it was the way he carved up the strike zone in-out up-down, or the way he worked out of jams; maybe you admired his ability to break his team's losing streaks, or the fact that he had the guts he to challenge opponents' best hitters in tight spots. any of those things (or a million others) might have struck you as an emblem of pure pitching essence -- something to celebrate. as far as i'm concerned, that makes it legitimate grounds to put the guy first on your cy young ballot. it's not as if colon lacked the statistics to qualify as a legitimate finalist -- he placed among the top handful in his league not only in traditional categories like innings, wins, era, whip, k/bb, and adjusted era but also in advanced metrics like FIP and VORP. from that point forward it's a matter of taste -- some voters will parse the stats, others will go with their gut. that's the spirit in which the awards were conceived; i see no reason to change that, nor even to bemoan it.

on the contrary, i kind of like the current system's inconsistency, its blurry standards, the quicksand-like ground upon which many voters seem to base their awards. i like the fact that the "best" player doesn't always win. you know why? because that's the nature of baseball. bad teams routinely beat good ones, and in a given game the team that plays better -- throws harder, hits the ball farther, runs faster -- will often lose because of bad luck or bad timing. so it often goes with these awards; the zeitgeist doesn't always favor the most "deserving" competitor.

i'm not really writing this in defense of carpenter's selection as nl cy -- objections have been muted, and there's a general acknowledgment that he had a year worthy of recognition. i'm writing it more in anticipation of the nl mvp, which andruw jones is going to win. among cardinal fans, understandably, that will not be a popular outcome, and i'll have no problem with people expressing disappointment, frustration, etc. but i'll be less patient with arrogant, sabr-centric fulminations about how idiotic the voters are.

the game's about art, not science. the awards are about celebration, not measurement.

trivia answers:

darryl kile got one 1st place vote in 2000, his first year with stl, after going 20-9, 3.91 with 192 strikeouts. he was one of five pitchers to receive a 1st-place vote that year, finished fifth in the overall race; randy johnson won.

lee smith got four 1st place votes in 1991, a year in which (i think) he broke the nl record for saves. he recorded 47. smith finished second overall that year to tom glavine.

bruce sutter was among four pitchers to receive 1st place votes in 1982 -- he got two of `em and finished 3d behind two steves, montreal's rogers and philadelphia's carlton (who won his 4th cy that year).

al hrabosky got two 1st place votes in 1975 for going 13-3, 1.67 with 22 saves. he finished 3d behind tom seaver (the winner) and randy jones.

finally there's the 1960 award. back then voters didn't name 1st, 2d, and 3d place choices on their ballot; they simply cast one vote for the best pitcher. pittsburgh's vern law won the award, warren spahn finished second, and two cardinal pitchers got one vote apiece -- lindy mcdaniel (12-4, 2.09) and none other than ernie broglio (21-9, 2.74). two voters appear to have abstained that year, not that it would have changd the outcome in any case . . . .