The following is a case for why Blake Treinen should be considered as a Cy Young candidate. I am not certain if he should win but what I am about to detail is why he should get some votes and there is a logical reason to give him your first vote.
How do you determine who is best? Context Neutral v Context Non-Neutral Stats
The most common advanced stat that is bandied about and used by people to determine a player’s worth over a season currently is WAR (Wins Above Replacement), this is a context neutral statistic. What do I mean by this? Does the stat give you more credit for hitting a home run or striking someone out when the game is close, e.g. tied game in bottom of the 9th, than in a blowout, e.g. 10 runs to the good. If the stat doesn’t it is called context neutral and WAR doesn’t care about when your home run or strikeout happens.
When determining the best player for a season you need to look both Context Neutral & Context Non-Neutral stats, we know intuitively that a home run in the eighth inning of a blowout is less important than a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a close game. Most advanced statistics are context neutral but there is WPA (Win Probability Added) which captures the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning.
So with the AL Cy Young we should look at how well these pitchers have pitched, how that helped their respective teams win and how they compare to their peers. So let’s get on to why Blake Treinen should be in consideration.
- There is no outstanding fWAR (context neutral) starter candidate
When the teams took a break for the All-Star game back in July that ended what is generally termed the first half of the season. It isn’t a half of the season as some teams had already played 94 games but at this “half” way mark there were two clear leaders for the AL Cy Young. Chris Sale and Trevor Bauer were at 5.0 and 5.2 fWAR respectively, a clear margin ahead of Justin Verlander in 3rd with 4.3 fWAR. These two were set to duke it out for the rest of the season for the Cy Young award but sadly both have picked up injuries that severely impacted their chances.
We are now just a few games away from the end of the season and who wins the AL Cy Young award is up for grabs by a large number of players. Below is the list of the top 10 pitchers in the American League by fWAR, as you can see Bauer and Sale haven’t pushed on much and have been caught or passed by a number of individuals. What is quite remarkable is that there are two relief pitchers at joint 10th for fWAR in the American league.
Justin Verlander leads with an fWAR of 6.4 with one more start left this season and since 1974 there have been 129 seasons by starters better than that. So there would be 3 pitchers better than this on average each year and this year there are 2 but they are both in the National League (Jacob deGrom & Max Scherzer) so this fWAR is good but not great.
Blake Treinen isn’t in the top 5, so wouldn’t be in discussion for the awards just by looking at this, but he is in the top 10 which for a reliever is very good and here is why.
- fWAR is not equal for starters compared to relievers
Starters and relievers are not treated equally by WAR calculations. WAR is a cumulative stat, so for a player who performs at a level which gets him 2 WAR after 10 games if he was to perform at the same level for a further 20 games they would end up with 6 WAR. How this affects relievers is that on average the top starters will throw 2-3 times the number of innings the top relievers will.
Pitching fWAR gives the relievers who throw in higher leverage spots more credit but the factor isn’t enough to counter the difference in innings pitched. Also the expected replacement level is higher for relievers than starters due more being expected of a reliever as they can go harder for a shorter time period than a starter can. So because of all this and the way relievers are currently used the best ones will never match the best starters for WAR. In fact the rule of thumb is that an average starting pitcher is worth around 2 WAR, while relief pitchers are considered average if they get 0.4 WAR.
- Performance compared to peers
Diaz’s and Treinen’s WAR of 3.5 for a reliever has only been bettered by 44 relievers since 1974 and only twice in the last 10 years (3.6 fWAR by Kenley Jansen in 2017 and Kris Medlen in 2012). They both stand the chance of equaling or beating that mark in their last few games, so we are talking about some of the best relief performances of the last ten years.
In 2018 if the average starter, ability and innings pitched, was to start 30 times they would have a fWAR of 2.03. If the average reliever was to pitch 70 innings this season their fWAR would be 0.41. So if we compare to the yearly average WAR then the performances of Diaz and Treinen are even more remarkable than Verlander or Sale.
- The non-neutral context stat – Win Probability Added
This is the real kicker. The rest was just a preamble to say that the difference in fWAR isn’t as meaningful as you thought it might be, if fact it may skew in favour if you compare to peers. As discussed above WPA captures the change in win expectancy so it is context dependent but since it is also a cumulative statistic this leads to it being much better for comparing starters and relievers than fWAR. The league averages for starters and relievers are similar every year and since 1974 of the top 100 WPA performances 52 have belonged to starters and 48 to relievers.
Above is the top 10 WPA for the AL in 2018, as you can see 8 of the top 10 are from in the fWAR top 10 but in different order, for context Jacob deGrom has 6.08. As you can see Blake Treinen is top and he is top by quite a considerable amount, 28% more than second place and 32% better than Diaz in third. Since 1974 Treinen’s WPA of 6.43 is in the top 20 for all pitchers (16th) and top 10 for relievers (7th), his performance this year is of significance historically and not just for this season. If he makes it to 6.83 before the end of the season then he will be with the top 10 for all pitchers and top 5 for relievers.
So in conclusion: no outstanding starter, best performance compared to peers and historically high WPA. These are the reasons that Blake Treinen should be considered for the Cy Young and if I had a vote he would be in the no. 1 spot right now.
Note – I have used 1974 for the starting datapoint as that is as far back a Fangraphs WPA figures go.