In my chat on Tuesday, I received several comments complaining that CC Sabathia is being ignored in the Cy Young race. The main arguments for his case, compared to Justin Verlander's: CC has faced tougher competition and pitches in a bandbox. ESPN Insider Matt Meyers has a piece up today that brings up these same issues and Matt concludes his case by writing, "When put in the proper context, Sabathia has been every bit as good as, if not better than, Verlander this season."
It's a compelling argument ... but I'm going to gently disagree.
First off, the tougher competition argument makes some sense. Sabathia pitches in the AL East, he's faced the Red Sox five times; Verlander pitches in the AL Central and gets to beat up on the Twins and Royals and Adam Dunn. As Matt points out, Sabathia has made 13 starts against the top five offenses in the American League compared to Verlander's six. That may seem like a big difference, but there's another way to check this. Baseball Prospectus keeps tracks of the quality of opposition batters each pitcher has faced. Here's the aggregate batting line for each pitcher:
So we're talking 15 points of OPS, which is notable by hardly sizable.
Now check out what each pitcher has allowed this season:
Sabathia has allowed an OPS 106 points lower than his aggregate average. Verlander has allowed an OPS 189 points lower.
There's also the matter of how Sabathia has pitched against those top offenses (Red Sox, Rangers, Tigers and Blue Jays): Not very good. In those 13 starts against the top offenses, he's posted a 5.03 ERA and allowed 97 hits in 87.2 innings. Verlander has made only six starts against those teams (plus the Yankees), but if we add in the Royals (who have scored only a few runs fewer than the Blue Jays), we get nine starts against the top offenses. In those nine games, Verlander has posted a 1.98 ERA with 40 hits allowed in 68.1 innings.
As for the ballpark, it's true that Yankee Stadium is a tougher park for pitchers than Comerica Park. However, keep in mind that Yankee Stadium helps left-handed batters much more than right-handed ones, due to the short porch. Sabathia, of course, faces far fewer lefties. Ballpark effects remain an imperfect science; each park is given an overall rating, but the "handedness" of each park isn't taken into account. (Fenway, for example, hurts left-handed pitchers more than right-handers.) So while you can argue that Sabathia is hurt by his home park, I'm not sure if that's completely accurate.
One final argument is that Verlander has been "lucky." As Matt points out, Verlander's .238 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is the third-lowest in the AL this year and would be tied for seventh-lowest in the AL this century. Sabathia's BABIP, by comparison, is .314. Does this mean Sabathia has a worse defense behind him, or that his line drives are falling while Verlander's are being caught? I don't know if that's the case. FanGraphs rates the Yankees' defense as fifth-best in the majors and the Tigers 22nd. Baseball Info Solutions also ranks the Yankees' defense as slightly better.
I just have trouble downgrading Verlander's numbers based on the assumption that he's been "lucky." For example, Verlander has allowed 104 line drives this year. Opponents are batting .680 when they hit a line drive against him. Sabathia has allowed 124 line drives, with batters hitting .683. Sabathia has allowed a higher average on groundballs (.271 to .203). Is that because of Derek Jeter? But Jhonny Peralta is hardly Ozzie Smith, so are Verlander's ground balls just lucky enough to be hit at Peralta all the time? There are just too many variables there to conclude that Verlander has allowed fewer hits strictly due to luck.
Bring it all together, and I think the case remains clear: Verlander is the Cy Young front-runner.