Evaluating the 2018 Cy Young contenders

Gavin aka Tramps is back for the second part of his two post submission. Today it’s time to look at the 2018 Cy Young Contenders. 

Born in 1867,  Cy Young pitched more innings and won more games than any other pitcher in MLB history. He is immortalised by the annual awards given to the best pitcher in each league.

Last season, Indians Corey Kluber picked up the award in the AL, while the Nationals’ workhorse Max Scherzer was the worthy recipient of the NL trophy. Both aces are in contention again this season.

Unfortunately for Scherzer, his Nationals have thrown in the towel on the 2018 season, ditching stalwarts like Danny Murphy and Gio Gonzalez, and slipping eight games back in the Wild Card race. Also unfortunately for Scherzer, most Cy Young award winners feature in the postseason. The playoffs generate colossal media coverage, and the recency bias of voters cannot be ignored.

Scherzer is one of the most consistent pitchers in the game. Unless he hits the DL over the next couple of weeks, he will break the 200-inning barrier for the sixth straight year. During this time he has accumulated over 100 more strikeouts than the next most prolific pitcher (Chris Sale).

2018 has been great for Scherzer. He has the lowest WHIP and highest strikeout rate of his career, and leads the NL with 16 wins. It is difficult to argue against the 33-year-old claiming the award for a third consecutive year.

Scherzer’s impressive 5.8 WAR (wins above replacement) this season is eclipsed by the 7.3 WAR of Mets ace Jacob deGrom. The advanced metrics love deGrom. He is so far ahead of his rivals that the award should be a foregone conclusion. The 30-year-old is enjoying the best season of his life with 1.68 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He is striking out batters for fun at a career-high rate of 11.1 SO/9.

Two things work against deGrom. Firstly, like the Nationals, the Mets will not be playing in October. He will not be seen by the widest audience, pitching in highest profile games. Secondly, the 8-8 win-loss record will impact voters. Without trawling through the records, I don’t think a starting pitcher has ever won the NL Cy Young award with fewer than 13 wins. It is possible deGrom will not even reach double-digit wins.

Pitcher wins are possibly the most useless statistic in baseball, but they are the currency by which the media judge a pitcher’s worth. Scherzer has doubled deGrom’s win total, but Aaron Nola, the third contender for the award, might have the best record of the trio.

At 25 years old, Nola is the youngest and certainly the least high-profile of the three favourites, but his 2.10 ERA and 0.97 WHIP are truly elite numbers.

Nola’s Phillies are three games back from the Braves in the NL East. The two rivals face each other seven times in the final 11 games of the season, so their race for October baseball is far from over. The Phillies progressing to the playoffs could be pivotal in the NL Cy Young competition.

It will be interesting to see whether his lower strikeout rate, higher walk rate and higher xFIP (an advanced metric which eliminates randomness to evaluate a pitcher’s performance), trump his superior win-loss record and any boost he may get from appearing in the postseason.

If the Phillies fail to make the postseason, then it is likely that the NL Cy Young award winner will not feature in the playoffs (unless the Diamondbacks’ Patrick Corbin makes a late-season push for contention). It is a different story in the AL where nine of ten top-ranked pitchers are likely to play in October. Blake Snell of the Rays is the exception unless Tampa Bay can overturn a 7-game deficit.

Red Sox Chris Sale is the heavy favourite. He has the lowest ERA, lowest xFIP and the highest strikeout rate of the contenders, to go with his 12-4 win-loss record. Unfortunately for the left-hander’s Cy Young ambitions, he has pitched the fewest innings of any of the top ten. Oh, and he is currently on the DL.

The Indians have the best rotation in the game with their front four all featuring in the AL’s top ten. Reigning Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber has thrown the most innings in the league and is the first player to 18 wins this season. His 2.80 ERA and 0.97 WHIP are an excellent return, but they do not match his stellar 2017.

With 2.22 ERA, Kluber’s teammate Trevor Bauer has the best ratio on the Indians’ staff. The controversial and frequently outspoken pitcher claimed in a preseason interview that any season when he doesn’t win the Cy Young award is a failure; perhaps this is his year.

Bauer has made 25 starts with a 12-6 win-loss record and is second behind Sale by just 0.1 WAR. Given the injury status of the Red Sox pitcher, it is easy to see Bauer finishing the season as the AL’s best starter in the eyes of sabermetricians.

When Tampa Bay beat Boston on August 26, Blake Snell became the first Rays’ pitcher to win more than 15 games in a season since David Price in 2012. Snell’s impressive 2.02 ERA is second only to Sale in the AL.

The advanced metrics suggest that the Rays’ left-hander has enjoyed some good fortune this season and maybe his results flatter his performances. No other top-ranked pitcher has an ERA which is one whole run lower than their FIP.

Snell is currently the hottest pitcher in the AL, with an exceptional 0.98 ERA over the last 30 days. Astros Justin Verlander is trending in the other direction with 5.40 ERA over the same period. The veteran may have blown his Cy Young chances.

The fact that the Rays will not feature in the postseason will likely impact Snell’s case. Once again, it will come down to whether the voters value traditional data such as wins and ERA or more modern statistics like WAR and FIP.

ESPN’s Buster Olney recently stated a case for the Athletics’ Blake Treinen to receive Cy Young consideration. He has enjoyed a career-year with 0.98 ERA over 57 appearances. It will always be difficult for a relief pitcher to win this award. You have to go all the way back to Dennis Eckersley in 1992 when a closer was last the recipient of the AL trophy. It is unlikely that Treinen will garner much support, especially as fellow closer Edwin Diaz has more saves, a higher strikeout rate, higher WAR and lower FIP.

It is likely both competitions will come down to the wire and results in their last four or five starts will be critical. If Sale makes a successful return at Fenway Park this weekend and if deGrom avoids capitulation over the final few weeks, both will be worthy Cy Young award winners this season.

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