“Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all.”
― Dr. Seuss,
As the season winds down, we can look ahead to who might win the Cy Young Awards. In years past, the pitcher who won the most games often won the Cy Young or, at least, ranked high in voting. However, wins by a pitcher are the worst stat to use to determine a pitcher’s success. Often, a pitcher will not yield a single run, but still not win that game. Theoretically, a pitcher could go an entire season without giving up a run and still not win any games if his team failed to score or played poor defense to allow unearned runs.
In 2012, Cliff Lee pitched 211 excellent innings, but ended the season with just 6 wins. Despite having the lowest BB/9 and best K/BB ratio that season, Lee received zero Cy Young votes. While there were plenty of deserving pitchers who did receive votes, 2 of them were closers. Pitcher wins should only factor in as an ultimate tiebreaker between pitchers with virtually identical stats.
In 2005, Bartolo Colon won the Cy Young essentially by default because he led the league in wins with 21. When you compare his other stats to Johan Santana’s, you will see that Santana was the superior pitcher with a lower ERA, fewer hits and runs, and more strikeouts in more innings.
Voters were able to put together a sensible ballot in 2010, when Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young with a mediocre record of 13 wins and 12 losses. There were other viable candidates, but Hernandez was most deserving based on the entirety of his numbers.
In determining the top Cy Young candidates this year, I will ignore wins and relievers. The Cy Young award began in 1956 for the best pitcher in all of baseball and was expanded to 1 award per league in 1967. While “best pitcher” is open for debate, the fact that it is named after the most prolific starter in history and MLB has added awards for relievers, the Cy Young belongs to starting pitchers. Since 1976, Relievers have had their own version of the Cy Young known as the Rolaids relief award or, by its name today, the Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera awards. Are relievers the most important players on a baseball team? If you consider that relievers are the only players who qualify for each major award, you might say yes. In reality, they are not. MVP should be for offensive players, Cy Young should be for starting pitchers, and the Rolaids Relief award for relievers.
The most important stats are those that show a pitcher’s ability to prevent base runners and runs. Traditional stats such as ERA, WHIP, walks, and strikeouts make it simple to determine who the best pitcher is. Some voters and fans will give preference to a pitcher who pitched in “meaningful games”. The pitchers from a contender will often get preference over those who played for a bad team. I disagree with that notion. Superior pitchers on last place teams don’t have the luxury of facing that bad team. In fact, that bad team is likely playing subpar defense or providing anemic run support for that unfortunate pitcher. The pitcher on the good team enjoys the benefit of greater run support, better defense, and being surrounded by other excellent pitchers to take the pressure off.
Bob Welch won the 1990 Cy Young Award with 27 wins, while his better teammate, Dave Stewart, finished 3rd in voting. Roger Clemens, the runner up in voting, should have won the award this year, but voters could not ignore the gaudy win total for Welch. In addition to Stewart, that Oakland juggernaut featured Dennis Eckersley, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and AL MVP Rickey Henderson. The 1990 Oakland Athletics are considered to be one of the top offenses in history and Bob Welch never had to face them. He just kept on winning as they scored runs with regularity.
Now that I have made my point about how the Cy Young should be awarded, here are the top candidates in the American and National leagues with my pick for who should win with a few weeks left in the season. First, the winner should be in the top 10 in ERA. From that list, we can identify those who appear in the top 10 in WHIP. Thirdly, we can identify those who rank in the top 10 for K:BB ratio, which gives credit for strikeouts in the context of displaying control. We can also view complete games and WAR for a more complete picture, but the first 3 stats give us most of what we need to know. In the stats after ERA, I have excluded those who don’t fall within the top 10 in ERA to narrow the field.
ERA Tanaka, Sale, Quintana, Kluber, Porcello, Duffy, Sanchez, Hamels, Happ, Carrasco
Whip Porcello, Sale, Kluber, Tanaka, Duffy, Quintana, Carrasco, Happ
K:BB Porcello, Duffy, Sale, Tanaka, Carrasco, Kluber
CG Sale, Kluber, Porcello
WAR Kluber, Tanaka, Sale, Hamels, Quintana, Porcello
The AL ERA leaders are all clustered together around an ERA of 3, so the other stats will call this contest. In a close race, Chris Sale is a cut above the field. Rick Porcello makes a strong case, as his W-L record will likely motivate voters to swing his way, but Sale is the superior pitcher with Kluber and Tanaka also worth consideration.
ERA Hendricks, Lester, Syndergaard, Bumgarner, Roark, Scherzer, Cueto, Arrieta, Fernandez, deGrom
Whip Scherzer, Hendricks, Lester, Arrieta, Bumgarner, Cueto
K:BB Scherzer, Syndergaard, Bumgarner, Fernandez, Cueto, deGrom
CG Cueto, Bumgarner, Lester, Hendricks
WAR Scherzer, Roark, Syndergaard, Cueto, Lester, Bumgarner, Hendricks
Kershaw would have won the 2016 NL Cy Young award easily had he remained healthy, so the winner (as of 9/16) should be Max Scherzer. Overall, he is the most effective at preventing base-runners and runs. His ERA is higher than his other numbers would suggest which is why Hendricks may end up taking the prize. The last few starts of the season will be the difference maker and I am betting on Scherzer who is more proven than Hendricks.
Those are my selections for Cy Young this year. These pitchers could easily change my mind with a few starts remaining, I just hope the voters don’t give too much credit to wins and losses and that they leave relievers out of the voting altogether.