Who Should Win The Cy Young Award?

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At some point during the first week of the MLB playoffs, Bob Costas floated the idea that the regular season awards – MVP, Cy Young, ROY, etc. – should be voted on after the championship rounds of the playoffs but still before the World Series. That way, Costas opined, the casual fan would get to realize how great certain players are who might not be household names. Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros was held up as a shining example. Never mind that “casual fans” would also be left with the impression that Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals was a complete and utter bum for managing only one hit in his first ten AB against the Chicago Cubs, the idea of letting “casual fans” see players they may not know about to influence the awards for the season is simply idiotic. Casual fans don’t vote.

Sadly, the much-revered pioneer of sabermetrics, Bill James, jumped on the Costas bandwagon with a Twitter poll in which his followers roundly rejected his premise.

Regular Season Awards Are Regular Season Awards!!!

With that little rant out of the way, let’s take a look at the best candidates for Cy Young in both leagues, unencumbered by the memory of some bad (and excellent) starting outings in the post-season.

AL Cy Young

For much of the season it seemed a foregone conclusion that Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox would win the AL Cy Young. And then down the stretch Sale faded some and Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians roared into the conversation with an extraordinary run, posting a 1.96 ERA in August and an even more spectacular 0.84 ERA in September and October.

The old guard of baseball writers might argue for wins – Kluber with 18 and Sale with 17 – but, ironically, won’t be arguing the case of Jason Vargas of the Kansas City Royals, also with 18 wins and a not-so-impressive 11 losses and a 4.16 ERA. Sorry guys. Wins aren’t within the control of the pitcher. Just Ask Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg with their 11-no-hit innings and no wins in the playoffs. (I couldn’t resist).

A stat that does matter since it indicates something the pitcher can control, one of the three true outcomes, is strikeouts. And in that statistic Chris Sale led all of baseball with 308. Clayton Kershaw struck out 301 in 2015, but before that you have to go back to Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson on the 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks to find 300+ K’s. With starters going fewer and fewer innings per season, the 300 K threshold is becoming more and more rare. Kluber trails Sale by 43 whiffs in this department.

Looking at ERA, Sale does trail Kluber – 2.90 to 2.25 – albeit while playing his home games in the hitter friendly Fenway Park. Oddly though, Sale pitched 37.2 fewer innings at home than on the road. Quirky schedule. At Fenway his ERA was 3.16, while on the road it was 2.71. Taking the park factors into account, Sale prevails with a 2.45 FIP over Kluber’s 2.50 FIP. Again, Sale wins this department.

Finally, pitching “better” and for 10.2 more innings, Sale accumulated 7.7 fWAR to Kluber’s 7.3. Kluber, in turn, beats out Sale in rWAR 8.0 to 6.0, a metric that relies more heavily on actual ERA than on park adjusted numbers. Even calling it a “tie,” the tie goes to the pitcher who won the first two measures of K’s and FIP.

Chris Sale should win the AL Cy Young. There will definitely be votes for Kluber and there’s no reason to begrudge them. Either pitcher is worthy. Sale is just a little bit more worthy, post-season notwithstanding.

NL Cy Young

I love Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon and make it a point to watch PTI every day, religiously. I listen to TK’s podcast daily and was fortunate enough to attend a taping at Chatter on a recent visit to DC. But sadly, these guys don’t know much about baseball. Clayton Kershaw is not the NL Cy Young winner. His 18 wins don’t make him a lock and it’s ironic that the ever pessimistic Kornheiser dismisses Washington’s own Max Scherzer as the rightful winner, because he is.

Scherzer was one of only seven NL pitchers to log 200+ innings and led the league in strikeouts with 268, 29 more than his next closest competitor, not Clayton Kershaw but Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets. Kershaw was eighth. Sherzer’s K/9 rate was third among MLB starters, trailing just the AL Cy Young Award should-be-winner, Chris Sale, and Robbie Ray of the Diamondbacks.

As with the AL breakdown, Kershaw does squeak past Scherzer 2.31 to 2.51 in ERA. But, again, in the more hitter friendly park in the nation’s capital, Scherzer posted a 2.90 FIP compared to Kershaw with a 3.07 FIP in the notoriously pitcher friendly baseball shrine known as Dodger Stadium.

Not to get sucked into the fallacious Kershaw v. Scherzer argument too far, it seems clear that the real competition for NL Cy Young is between teammates – Scherzer and Strasburg. Here are the standard lines:

Scherzer – 16-6, 2.51 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 268 K, 200.2 IP

Strasburg – 15-4, 2.52 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 202 K, 175.1 IP

And here are the advanced numbers:

Scherzer – 57 ERA-, 12.02 K/9, 6 fWAR

Strasberg – 58 ERA- 10.47 K/9, 5.6 fWAR

And to be fair – Kershaw – 56 ERA-, 10.39 K/9, 4.6 fWAR

So, no mistake – these guys are really, really, really good pitchers. And no, the tiebreaker isn’t “which pitcher would you want on the mound if you had to win one game?” The award recognizes a body of work over the course of an entire REGULAR season. Of the five starting pitchers with ERA under 3.00 – Kershaw, Scherzer, Strasburg, Ray, and yet another Nat, Gio Gonzalez – Scherzer should win the Cy Young. Kershaw might, but Scherzer should.

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About Author

Brian Hight

Brian Hight lives in Seattle and writes primarily about MLB and the local Seattle Mariners, with a focus on advanced analytics. Occasionally, he delves into the NFL and the NBA, also with an emphasis on advanced statistics.
He’s currently pursuing a Certificate in Data Analysis online from Microsoft, where he hopes to create a prediction model for baseball outcomes for his capstone project.

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