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Who is the Rays Most Valuable Pitcher?

Last week I presented Ben Zobrist as the current team MVP. That still holds true one week later and Jonah Keri even wrote that he is, again, a stealth league MVP candidate. But this is not about Ben Zobrist. This is about figuring out who has been the Rays most valuable pitcher at this point in the season.

Anyone in their right mind would automatically know that every reliever except Kyle Farnsworth is dismissed from this conversation and that you can automatically exclude Jeff Niemann (even if he were healthy all season) and Wade Davis from the discussion as well. That leaves us with Farnsworth, Jeremy Hellickson, James Shields, and David Price. I will start with the least obvious candidates.

Jeremy Hellickson is having a fantastic rookie season sporting a 3.18 ERA through 96.1 innings pitched and he is holding opponents to a .208 batting average. But, his FIP is almost a full run higher at 4.13 and his xFIP is 4.38. He has been walking more batters than most of us expected and he allows a lot of fly balls. Some will look at his BABIP of .229 and say he has been lucky but I look at his PitchFX for all games and see a good number of pitches down in the zone and on the corners called balls and it seems like he is getting pinched more than any other pitcher I have watched all season. His fWAR sits at a meek 0.9 and while he has been more valuable than that figure indicates he is not the most valuable pitcher on the team so far this season.

Kyle Farnsworth has reinvented himself as a pitcher with the Rays. He came in to the season with a career K/9 above 9, a career BB/9 close to 4, and a career groundball rate below 40%. He currently has a 6.06 K/9, 0.55 BB/9, and 55.6% groundball rate. He has an ERA of 2.20 and FIP of 2.66 in 32.2 innings. I, personally, do not value relievers like I do starters and the save stat is a complete joke so let's not even go there. Although Farnsworth is having a great year by reliever comparisons I simply cannot name him the Rays most valuable pitcher.

That leaves us with David Price and James Shields and it is a much closer race than I thought it would be. They each have 17 starts under their belts so the best way to compare is to take a side-by-side look.

 Stat  David Price  James Shields
 fWAR  3.3  2.9
 IP  118.0  128.2
 K/9  8.85  8.88
 BB/9  1.68  2.10
 CG  0  6
 SHO  0  3
 ERA  3.43  2.45
 FIP  2.67  3.07
 xFIP  2.89  2.80
 GB%  41.8%  45.1%
 HR/9  0.69  0.91
 BABIP  .289  .256
 LOB%  71.6%  82.3%

If you go by fWAR it suggests that Price has been the most valuable pitcher on the Rays staff. But that takes into effect the luck factor and the peripherals suggest Shields has been luckier than Price. Going forward one could justifiably say that Price might be the better pitcher and would want him to start a deciding game in a series over Shields. I would not argue too much about that. But in the same amount of starts the results have gone in Shields direction. I love fWAR but I think it got the most valuable pitcher wrong in this case. Shields has 10.2 more innings than Price and an ERA that is almost a full run better. Add to that 6 complete games and 3 shutouts and a better slightly better xFIP and I have to say that Shields has been the Rays most valuable pitcher so far this season. Not a bad 1-2 combo.