Having covered the Rookie of the Year Award races, the next stop on our award-prediction journey takes us into the pitcher’s realm. Under normal circumstances, with so few starts left, it’s pretty easy to make reasonable predictions about the Cy Young Awards. But, as with other awards, we’re going to have to dig deeper than normal to sort it out and see if we can figure out who deserves the award, who will actually take it home and, of course, whether that pitcher is, in fact, the same person.
AL Cy Young
In a season full of tough calls, the American League race is one of the toughest. Chris Sale currently leads all AL pitchers by fWAR (6.1), bWAR (6.6), ERA (1.96), FIP (1.95), K/9 (13.53), WHIP (0.85) and batting average against (.175). Normally that would be enough to call it and move on, but Sale has only pitched nine innings since July 27 thanks to shoulder soreness, for a grand total of 150 IP this season. While the fact that he leads a whole bunch of pitchers who are closer to 200 IP in WAR testifies to just how good he’s been when on the mound, it’s quite possible that Sale won’t even qualify for the ERA title.
And Sale isn’t the only pitcher atop the leaderboard with an innings issue. The Indians’ Trevor Bauer comes in tied for 2nd by fWAR (6.0) and FIP (2.37) and 3rd by bWAR (5.6) and ERA (2.22). He’s been sidelined since August 11 with a right-leg stress fracture and has started throwing bullpen sessions, but he’s only at 166 IP on the season.
We know that voters traditionally value a starting pitcher who carries a heavy workload. In 2016, Clayton Kershaw posted the best numbers of to date in his three Cy Young Award career but came up short on a fourth. The fact that he only had 149 innings pitched was clearly a hindrance for voters.
We also know that there’s another thing that voters value: wins. We have to go back to Felix Hernandez’s 13-12 2010 season to find a player who hasn’t notched at least 16 wins, and that instance was a fluke. Historically, if you want to win a Cy Young Award, you’d better be a lot closer to 20 wins than 10, and that’s just not going to happen with Sale or Bauer, who each have 12.
Sale is being eased back into the rotation (and rightly so, as Boston is already at 103 wins), with a one-inning, 23-pitch start on September 11 and a three-inning, 42-pitch start on the 16th. While Bauer is throwing bullpen sessions in preparation for his return, Cleveland has already clinched their division and they won’t be taking any chances with rushing him into long outings. There just isn’t much time left for either of them to pad some of the counting stats that voters traditionally look to in deciding who is deserving of the award.
Which means this is probably a good time to take a look at the Mariners’ Blake Snell. Although he ranks lower down the list in fWAR (3.9, 9th place), that’s due to the way that fWAR is calculated and its reliance on FIP, as Snell’s 3.08 FIP comes in 7th. Snell leads all qualified pitchers in the AL by ERA at 2.03 and comes in second place in bWAR with 6.2. As he’s currently in possession of 19 notches in the win column, he’s also one of the few candidates we’re talking about that might get to the 20-win mark, although he’s also only got 164 IP, so that’s a notch against him by that other traditional metric.
The next likely candidates on my list, Houston’s Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, might not have as high a win-total as Snell, but they’ve got him beat in the innings department. Both have been having excellent seasons and, even if the rotation isn’t the unstoppable force that it was earlier in the year, are clearly worthy of inclusion in the conversation.
Verlander is 4th in ERA (2.22) and tied for 2nd in fWAR (6.0) with Bauer. He’s the only pitcher we’re going to be talking about on the AL side of things who has crossed the 200-innings line so far (with 202 IP). Cole is 5th by ERA (2.88) and 4th by fWAR (5.7), but he’s not even the best starting pitcher on his own team, so I think he’s probably out. Verlander had a rough August (5.29 ERA), but his three starts this month have been more in line with his overall goodness this year. It’s quite likely that he finishes the year with the best ERA among players who have pitched “enough” innings to traditionally qualify for the award.
Luis Severino started off the year extremely strong, with a 2.31 ERA in the first half. A 6.35 ERA in the second has dragged his overall numbers down quite a bit. The fact that it’s a large part due to a huge jump in his BABIP (.278 in the first half, .396 in the second) isn’t going to matter to voters, though. He also plays for the Yankees, so if he can come up with a few big starts the rest of the way, maybe he’ll reenter the conversation, but I don’t think he’ll be able to bring his 3.46 ERA back down to an acceptable enough level to merit much consideration for the award, when compared to his competition.
Corey Kluber just took home the award last year, and he’s having another excellent season (2.91 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 4.8 fWAR, 5.4 bWAR). He’s already at 195 IP and 18 wins, so he checks off a couple of important categories there, but he also didn’t make it out of the second inning in his last start and Cleveland is skipping a start to lineup their rotation for the postseason. While he’ll certainly get some votes, I don’t think he’s going to be able to get enough to repeat, considering the numbers that his aforementioned starting pitcher competitors have put up.
Which brings us to the extremely dark horse candidates: relievers. The Mariners’ Edwin Diaz (2.05 ERA, 1.56 FIP, 3.5 fWAR, 2.9 bWAR) has 55 saves this season and could still conceivably break Francisco Rodriguez’s single-season save record of 62. But he’s arguably not even the best reliever in his division, with the Athletics’ Blake Treinen (0.85 ERA, 1.86 FIP, 3.3 fWAR, 3.9 bWAR) actually putting up better numbers in most win-probability statistics like WPA and RE24. Treinen actually leads all AL pitchers in WPA (6.30).
We haven’t had a reliever win the award since Eric Gagne in 2003, and that certainly doesn’t bode well for Diaz or Treinen. If Zach Britton couldn’t do it 2016, with his ridiculous 0.54 ERA, 4.2 bWAR season, it’s certainly going to be hard for either of these relievers to do so, especially with them potentially siphoning off votes from each other. But, then again, as we’ve discussed, the starting pitcher waters are more than a little muddy this year.
All in all, you can make a reasonable case for this award going to any number of pitchers and the weighted voting system certainly means we could end up with some strange results this year. Sale has been so good when he’s been healthy that he might deserve to finally win his first award (and it still seems so damn strange that he hasn’t won already). Given the changing nature of pitcher workloads in MLB, and everyone’s evolving thinking about value, we’re almost certainly going to see some changes in how much workload matters in determining the award for the best pitcher in the league.
The question, then, is whether or not this is the year that it happens and voters give Sale the edge even though he’s so far behind in some traditionally important categories while being so far ahead in others. I think maybe we’ll split the difference, then, and go with Snell, who has the wins in his favor, but not the innings count. But with things this tight, almost anything could happen before the season ends.
Prediction: Blake Snell
NL Cy Young
The Cy Young situation in the NL has a similar dichotomy to the AL as what we witnessed in examining Rookie of the Year candidates: a smaller number of potential candidates, but with plenty of reason for heated debate about who’s going to actually win. While there are (IMHO) only three truly likely candidates, they’re all in the same division and we’re going to be faced with some similar questions as we were in dealing with the AL.
Jacob deGrom is currently leading the NL in ERA (1.78), FIP (2.05), HR/9 (0.45), fWAR (8.0).
With numbers like that, every deGrom start should have been more likely to end up with Mets fans celebrating. As we know from looking at the standings, that did not happen, and deGrom has only 8 wins on the season, despite starting 30 games.
Unlike with relievers winning a Cy Young, there’s simply no historical precedent for a starting pitcher winning the award with such a low win total. Hernandez’s win was a fluke, and while you spot the occasional 15 or 16-game winner on the list, winning games clearly matters. Hello, 2016 Cy Young Award recipient, Rick Porcello.
That’s where the rub comes in. Verlander clearly had a better season than Porcello that year, but he played for an under .500 team. And that’s where we might be at with deGrom, as the Phillies’ Aaron Nola has also had an excellent season, but on a better team, and has a whole bunch more wins (16) to show for it.
His 2.42 ERA is certainly good enough to win the Cy Young in many a year, but it’s still not in the same realm as deGrom’s. Nola’s FIP (2.96) is almost a whole digit higher and he’s almost three digits back in fWAR (5.3). But the other most popular flavor of WAR tells a very different story.
With 9.4 bWAR, Nola leads all pitchers in either league and is having one of the best seasons since the 1960s by that metric. One conspicuous difference between Nola and the other folks near the top of the leaderboard: Nola’s low BABIP (.252). You’d perhaps initially think that Nola had benefited from some great defense behind him. He hasn’t. Philadelphia is 29th in MLB by UZR (-40) and last by DRS (-122). Despite the poor defensive play from his teammates, Nola has managed to limit dangerous contact at a ridiculously rate.
My feeling at this point is that this is basically a two-way race between deGrom and Nola, but we should at least talk about the other folks that are in there, because a couple of horrendous starts could totally changes things. The third slot, I think, falls to the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, who is having yet another excellent season. He’s 2nd by fWAR (6.8) and 3rd by ERA (2.53), FIP (2.66) and bWAR (8.3). I think, given the fact that he’s won the award the last two years, there’s going to be a bit of fatigue on the part of the voters. Again, though, it’s tough to parse what’s going to be going through voters’ heads in a weird year where there isn’t an absolutely clear-cut winner standing out of the pack and conventional notions of value are being challenged left and right.
The Diamondbacks’ Patrick Corbin also deserves a mention, and will certainly merit plenty of votes (given the fact that we’re looking at a five-player ballot), but I just don’t see it happening for him. He suffers from the low win-total stigma (with 11) and has a much higher ERA (3.05), even if his FIP (2.40) has been much better. He’s not having as good of a season as deGrom, and he has some of the same knocks against him from a traditional standpoint.
While I think that the voting populace hasn’t moved past a lot of the traditional counting stats when it comes to handing out Cy Young Awards, I think they’re going to look past the win-loss situation with deGrom. He’s clearly been the best pitcher in the National League by most metrics, even if he plays for a bad team, and I’m pretty confident that they’re going to look past it, even if Nola is doing something beautifully ridiculous at the same time.
Prediction: Jacob deGrom