With the Rookie of the Year Award predictions out of the way, it’s time to move to the Cy Young Awards. These here predictions are not as easy as their rookie relatives, though, because we’ve got taut races in both leagues with two-and-a-half weeks left.
NL Cy Young
I’ll start by saying this: The NL race is a hot, hot mess, no matter how you cut it. There’s no clear leader, so grab a coffee and a seat at the table in our WAR room and we’ll dive right in. These are the top four pitchers by Baseball-Reference’s WAR with their corresponding Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus equivalent, along with their respective NL rankings.
The first thing that jumps out at me when I look at that list is, holy crap, the Nationals’ rotation is ridiculous. The second is that there’s no clear cut winner based on WAR alone, once you start looking at the different flavors. We haven’t even talked about some of the other players who appear near the top of the leaderboards either, like Hyun-Jin Ryu or Jack Flaherty.
Ryu was a clear favorite for most of the season. As of August 16, he had a 1.45 ERA over 142 innings. Pitchers who finish with a sub-2.00 ERA are pretty smart bets to take home the award, regardless of WAR, but as you can probably gather from the fact that Ryu isn’t in that table above and the tone of this paragraph, the wheels have fallen off for Ryu since that date.
Since August 17, in 19 innings over four starts, Ryu has a 9.95 ERA and the Dodgers are trying to figure out what to do about the fact that his struggles are coming as he’s entering uncharted workload territory. We’ll surely be talking more about Ryu in the future given the fact that the Dodgers are the only team to have clinched their division and the lack of a trustworthy Ryu changes things for them, but, for now, we just have to conclude that the presumed frontrunner for most of the season is quite probably out of the running for the CYA this year.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Flaherty is a player who struggled in the beginning of the season, but has more or less been the best pitcher in baseball since the All Star Break. In the second half, Flaherty has held opposing batters to a .151/.220/.229 slashline and notched a 0.76 ERA over 71 innings. While we can’t underestimate just how important Flaherty’s performance has been to the Cardinals and their overtaking the Cubs in the standings, the award covers the whole year and Flaherty’s first half (4.64 ERA) leaves those folks in the WAR leaderboard a little too far ahead.
Nope, the Cy Young is almost certainly going to a Nationals pitcher or deGrom, so we have to sort out what voters will be looking at when they weigh those pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses. Scherzer has the best ERA (2.56) and FIP (2.31) of the bunch, along with the best peripherals (12.57, 1.75 BB/9, 0.81 HR/9). The problem is that he’s well behind in the innings count category, with only 154 of them and a 10-5 record. After missing a month and a half with back injuries, Scherzer hasn’t been as dominant since his return, posting a 3.91 ERA/3.84 FIP as his walks and home runs have ticked up.
deGrom, on the other hand, has been fairly consistent all year and a tick better in the second half, with a 2.70 ERA and 2.84 FIP and really good peripherals 11.36 K/9, 2.11 BB/9, 0.93 HR/9. Those numbers aren’t in the same realm as last year’s though, and they might not be enough to convince more traditional voters to overlook the fact that deGrom plays for the Mets (and thus has a 9-8 record). What deGrom does have over Scherzer is volume, as deGrom’s greater innings pitched (183) put them in a virtual WAR tie, despite the fact that Scherzer’s underlying numbers are all far superior.
Moving on to Scherzer’s teammates, the strongest case of the two could probably be made for Strasburg. He’s the only pitcher in the mix with the possibility of reaching 20 wins, as he currently has 17 of them. But, really, that, and his lead in Baseball Prospectus’s WAR are the only real things that Strasburg has going for him. He has the highest ERA of the bunch (3.49) and the least sexy peripherals (10.79 K/9 2.31 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9) outside of Corbin.
Corbin suffers from a combination of problems for the other players we’ve discussed, with the highest walk-rate (3.01 BB/9) and a less impressive ERA (3.16) and FIP (3.37) than either Scherzer and deGrom. And this seems like as good a time as any to mention that there were players who didn’t make the arbitrary-ish top-four count with bWAR that I used in the table, with Walker Buehler (3.14 ERA/2.83) at the foremost who could conceivably move up the leaderboard with a few great starts of his own and a few bad starts from the current frontrunners to close out the season.
When it gets down to it, though, I think the race for the actual prize is basically between deGrom and Scherzer. It’s a decision that voters are going to have to make over whether they want quantity with deGrom or quality with Scherzer. The other players we’ve talked about (or at least mentioned) herein are going to get first place votes, but it;s most likely going to come down to deGrom and Scherzer. But things are also so close that this race is perhaps the toughest to call in all the awards races this year. Since I have to hedge my bets and actually choose someone, I’m going with Scherzer. I had him in my preseason predictions and he’s close enough now that I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that he can finish out the season strong and add a third trophy to his cabinet. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if deGrom repeats, either.
Winner: Max Scherzer
AL Cy Young
The WAR leaderboards aren’t exactly much more helpful over in the AL, either. We’re expanding the board to five this time around, for reasons that should immediately become clear.
The first thing that pops out here is four of our five lead WARriors are hailing from Texas. The second is that there’s a much bigger differential between the bWAR and other WAR types which causes some serious flip-flopping of the rankings, which we’ll be parsing that out shortly in our talks about the individual pitchers’ seasons.
The two pitchers from Houston, Verlander and Cole, have been getting most of the hype as we head down the stretch, albeit for different reasons. The strongest narrative component definitely goes to Verlander. On September 1, he pitched his third career no-hitter, becoming just the sixth pitcher in the history of the game to accomplish that feat. That no-hitter came one start after he was one ten-strikeout game away from tying the record for most consecutive ten-plus strikeout games, but was ejected after arguing strikes.
He’s got the best ERA (2.52) in the AL, but his FIP (3.34) comes in 5th. Part of the reason for that is the fact that while his 11.88 K/9 and 1.62 BB/9 have both been excellent, his 1.49
HR/9 is less so, and is the highest mark of the pitchers ranked. The good news is that it hasn’t hurt the bottom line too much, because of when he’s given them up: he has a 1.8 HR/9 with the bases empty and a 1.0 HR/9 with runners on base. Only giving up solo home runs is certainly an effective way to limit the damage. He’s also currently a few tenths of decimal point from setting the single-season record for WHIP, with a 0.77 mark that sits just behind Pedro Martinez’s 0.74 WHIP in 2000.
The problem is that he’s got a teammate who’s also doing some pretty great things in Cole. Just as Verlander is looking to set the single-season record for WHIP, Cole is currently in possession of the single-season strikeout-rate, as his 39.4 K% currently comes in a bit ahead of that record’s current holder, Martinez again in his 1999 season. His 2.73 ERA comes in second behind Verlander and his 2.80 FIP is the second best behind ex-Astro Charlie Morton. Cole is surprisingly low on the WAR leaderboard when you look at his individual stats, but all the strikeouts will surely matter to voters, too.
Moving on to the Rangers’ contributions to the conversation, Minor is the bWAR leader by miles, but with a 3.08 ERA and 3.90 FIP, less impressive peripherals (8.68 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 1.09 HR/9) and only 13 wins, there’s a lot working against him. While voters are clearly considering WAR in their calculations these days, the big numbers still matter and it’s unlikely that they’re going to worry about things like park factors and defense when they’ve got the eye-popping numbers being put up by the Astros’ top-two.
The same goes for Lynn, who I am pleasantly shocked to see in the mix. While I thoroughly approved of the Rangers’ decision to sign him this offseason, he’s outperformed most of our expectations by quite a bit. While Lynn’s peripherals (10.30 K/9, 2.67 BB/9, 0.81 HR/9) are better than Minor’s, he has the same ERA (3.72) issue to deal with, even if his FIP (3.09) is better than Verlander’s. Again, though, just because Lynn is your fWAR leader, that’s probably not going to be enough in a crowded field where there are players setting records.
Then there’s Giolito (170 IP, 3.27 ERA, 3.41 FIP, 11.39 K.9, 2.95 FIP, 1.16 HR/9), who suffers from some of the issues we’ve already discussed. It’s impressive, but it seems that at the race is Verlander and Cole’s to lose at this point. The same goes for the aforementioned Morton who didn’t quite make the cut by fWAR, but does by other varietals. The Indians’ Shane Bieber is also in the mix, depending on the particular flavor of WAR you fancy.
At the end of the day, narrative matters. For starters, if Minor or Lynn were playing for a contending team, things might be different. But, in a crowded field, voters are likely to look at everything in play. I’m not sure who actually has been the better pitcher between Verlander and Cole, but Verlander has the edge in innings pitched and wins over everybody else.
Once you combine that with the fact that he’s got all this narrative juju going his way, and a little more of that thanks to the fact that he’s been robbed in the past by David Price in 2012 and Rick Porcello in 2016, I think we can expect Verlander to finally take home his second Cy Young Award and further pad his Hall of Fame resume. But, again, things are so close that they could flip on a dime. But as it stands now, you only have to watch 40% of Astros games to see what happens.
Winner: Justin Verlander