The 2019 AL Cy Young Voting Guide

With just over a week to go in the regular season, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are running neck and neck as favorites for the American League Cy Young award. Verlander leads the league in innings (212) and ERA (2.50). Cole has the lead in strikeouts with 302 with Verlander 19 behind. Even after accounting for Verlander’s 34 homers, his 3.28 FIP is still one of the best marks in the league. On Cole’s side are the strikeouts, a league-leading 2.78 FIP and a 6.7 WAR half a win clear of Verlander. Several other pitchers, like Charlie Morton and Lance Lynn, boast strong resumes, and with five slots on voters’ ballots, many pitchers will receive down-ballot consideration worthy of discussion.

While awards voting is a mostly objective process, when trying to differentiate between a group of very good pitchers, personal preferences are likely to play into the selections. When voters rely on particular stats, be it FIP, ERA, or some other metric, they are making decisions about the importance of defense, park, opponent, and how much talent a big league pitcher is expected to exhibit when it comes to contact quality. Before we get to all of those issues, let’s identify the candidates. There’s a fairly clear top seven among AL starting pitchers (Liam Hendriks might deserve some consideration as well) with Eduardo Rodriguez also included due to his rank based on Baseball-Reference’s WAR.

Here are the eight pitchers under consideration, with some traditional and more advanced statistics:

AL Cy Young Candidates
Gerrit Cole Lance Lynn Justin Verlander Charlie Morton Shane Bieber Lucas Giolito Mike Minor Eduardo Rodriguez
IP 200.1 195.2 212 182.1 201.1 176.2 194.2 185.1
K% 39.1% 27.2% 35.3% 30.0% 30.5% 32.3% 23.4% 24.2%
BB% 6.0% 6.9% 5.0% 7.1% 4.9% 8.1% 7.7% 8.7%
HR/9 1.26 0.92 1.44 0.69 1.34 1.22 1.20 1.12
BABIP .274 .321 .212 .303 .288 .273 .283 .311
ERA 2.61 3.77 2.50 3.16 3.26 3.41 3.33 3.64
ERA- 59 75 56 71 67 75 66 75
FIP 2.73 3.24 3.28 2.84 3.39 3.44 4.08 4.00
FIP- 61 68 73 64 74 74 85 88
WAR 6.7 6.1 6.1 5.6 5.2 5.1 4.2 3.2
1st=Blue, 2nd=Orange, 3rd=Red

A look above shows Gerrit Cole leading in the more advanced statistics, with Verlander gaining the nod from traditional metrics, and Lance Lynn and Charlie Morton sort of splitting the difference between the two Astros. Shane Bieber and Lucas Giolito are a bit behind, with Giolito unable to add anything to his file after being shut down for the season. Mike Minor’s case is made by his low ERA combined with his difficult park, as his strikeouts and walks lag behind the other candidates. Eduardo Rodriguez is the poor man’s version of Minor.

If we looked at FanGraphs WAR, we’d see Cole as the leader due to his incredible strikeout rate and ability to limit homers, at least somewhat. Though he has a 20-inning deficit compared to Verlander, the strikeouts and homers make enough of a difference for Cole to take the day. Verlander and Lynn are in a dead heat when it comes to WAR, with the huge difference in home runs balancing Verlander’s lead in strikeouts and walks and Lynn’s more difficult park in which to keep balls in the field of play. Comparing Lynn to Morton, we see Morton with the homer advantage, but the innings deficit, combined with Tampa Bay being a hard park to homer in, gives Lynn the edge.

If you believe in the importance of getting strikeouts, inducing pop-ups, and preventing walks and homers, and that the park and league one plays in should be the factors when considering how good a pitcher has been, then you don’t really need to look further than the WAR totals above, which have Cole in front, Lynn and Verlander a tossup, and Morton bringing up the rear. This view ignores what happens on non-pop-up batted balls that stay in the field play, however. There are a few reasons for taking this route; it’s difficult to separate pitching talent from a player’s defense, and to confidently ascribe the results of those batted balls to pitcher talent rather than mere luck. Still, there are other ways of evaluating pitchers.

We will get to contact quality in a moment, but first let’s take a look at the different versions of WAR. Below are the versions of WAR found at FanGraphs (our FIP-based version along with RA9-WAR), plus the versions from Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus:

AL Cy Young Candidates’ WAR
Gerrit Cole Lance Lynn Justin Verlander Charlie Morton Shane Bieber Lucas Giolito Mike Minor Eduardo Rodriguez
WAR 6.7 6.1 6.1 5.6 5.2 5.1 4.2 3.2
RA/9 WAR 7.0 5.5 8.6 5.1 5.9 5.1 6.5 5.0
BRef 6.1 6.8 7.8 4.5 4.9 5.7 7.9 5.8
BPro 7.3 5.5 7.6 5.3 4.9 5.7 4.1 2.8
wAVG 6.9 5.9 7.3 5.2 5.2 5.4 5.2 3.8
1st=Blue, 2nd=Orange, 3rd=Red
wAVG is WAR plus the average of RA9 and BRef plus BPro all divided by three.

In the average above, RA9-WAR and BRef WAR are similar enough that they were counted as one for the result. If you trust the general framework of WAR, but don’t want to put too much emphasis on a FIP-model used here, the runs model used at Baseball-Reference and in RA9-WAR, or the more complicated DRA-based version of Baseball Prospectus, a simple average puts Verlander in the clear lead with Cole a clear second and Lynn an easy third choice, with the next four contenders all in a bunch. If that approach isn’t for you, we need to dig down to show exactly what each metric emphasizes.

Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR takes more information into account, including defense and opponents, which is how Mike Minor fares so well. The Rangers play in a difficult park and face difficult opponents and don’t have a great defense. Minor’s success in run-prevention despite those difficult circumstances causes him to lead Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, though he falls behind in the other versions. This was a major issue in Aaron Nola’s Cy Young case last season, as the adjustment for a poor defense might not have been warranted. Baseball Prospectus’ WARP attempts to isolate “every pitching event” and credit pitchers for their role in those events.

In many ways, the versions of WAR are all trying to do the same thing, which is to credit a pitcher for certain outcomes based on the pitcher’s work. This isn’t new. It’s why earned run average tries to strip away the unearned runs. ERA, Baseball-Reference’s WAR and RA/9 WAR both look at the number of runs and then work backwards to try to arrive at a deserved result. FIP-based WAR looks at the outcomes most controlled by the pitcher (walks and strikeouts) and then adds or subtracts credit for some batted balls via the home run and infield flies, and gives credit for all outs made. Baseball Prospectus looks at the most likely outcomes given the circumstances and assigns a value.

One piece of information we haven’t yet discussed, but which might be illuminating, is the data provided by Statcast. Using xwOBA, we can take a closer look at the results on batted balls to find out how much of a role luck or defense might have played in the results a pitcher experienced. In addition to those batted balls, xwOBA uses strikeouts and walks to come up with a single expected wOBA. It’s very similar to FIP, except instead of using home runs, it uses expected outcomes for all batted balls based on launch angle and exit velocity. Here’s where the Cy Young contenders sit this season, along with their actual wOBA and the difference between the two:

AL Cy Young Candidates’ xwOBA
Player xwOBA wOBA xwOBA-wOBA
Lance Lynn .290 .301 -.011
Eduardo Rodriguez .301 .311 -.010
Gerrit Cole .242 .251 -.009
MLB .319 .324 -.005
Mike Minor .294 .296 -.002
Lucas Giolito .279 .279 .000
Charlie Morton .278 .277 .001
Justin Verlander .244 .242 .002
Shane Bieber .298 .281 .017
1st=Blue, 2nd=Orange, 3rd=Red

Verlander and Cole again sit head and shoulders above the rest, but Charlie Morton is a strong third. In terms of luck and defense, Lynn, Cole, and Rodriguez have experienced some bad luck or poor defense, while Shane Bieber has benefited. The above numbers factor in the result of every plate appearance, but if we want to look just at contact, we can remove walks and strikeouts:

AL Cy Young Candidates’ xwOBA on Contact
Player xwOBA wOBA xwOBA-wOBA
Gerrit Cole .364 .382 -.018
Lance Lynn .363 .379 -.016
Eduardo Rodriguez .356 .371 -.015
MLB .384 .376 -.008
Mike Minor .347 .350 -.003
Lucas Giolito .373 .372 .001
Charlie Morton .355 .353 .002
Justin Verlander .346 .344 .002
Shane Bieber .407 .380 .027
1st=Blue, 2nd=Orange, 3rd=Red

We still see Cole, Lynn, and Rodriguez experiencing some bad luck with Bieber getting help. What’s interesting here is how bunched up most of these pitchers are on contact. Six of the eight’s xwOBAs are within 20 points of each other, with Giolito a little further away and Bieber pretty far off. If we remove home runs, we get an outlier in the group:

AL Cy Young Candidates’ xwOBA on Balls In Play
Player xwOBA wOBA xwOBA-wOBA
Lance Lynn .319 .317 .002
Eduardo Rodriguez .305 .295 .010
Mike Minor .290 .267 .023
Charlie Morton .326 .301 .025
MLB .321 .292 .029
Lucas Giolito .308 .272 .036
Gerrit Cole .304 .267 .037
Justin Verlander .273 .216 .057
Shane Bieber .345 .280 .065
1st=Blue, 2nd=Orange, 3rd=Red

When we remove Verlander’s home runs, instead of looking a bit lucky (10 points better than the league differential), his results on balls in play look incredibly fortunate. Looking only at Verlander’s homers for contact might not be ideal, but considering his results on balls in play and the resulting runs isn’t going to isolate his talent, either. Lynn’s results on balls in play look very unlucky, while Cole moves from being unfortunate on all batted balls to fortunate when homers are removed. While Cole gave up a decent number of homers, a few might have been a bit unlucky, which was actually Verlander’s problem last season.

Verlander has earned his homers and been lucky on balls in play, but when combining Verlander’s batted balls with his strikeouts and walks, he and Cole stand above the rest of the league. The gap between Lynn’s very good FIP and decent ERA is easily explainable by bad luck on batted balls in play. Morton’s contact has more or less evened out. How much you rely on xwOBA depends on how much control you believe a pitcher has over his batted balls. It removes the defense, save for the extra batters a pitcher with a poor defense has to pitch to, and it should remove consideration for parks, but it is not very results-based outside of the walks and strikeouts. Still, it’s another tool to use when trying to separate pitchers who have had similar seasons.

The last few tables don’t incorporate innings, and getting more outs is better, so I created a rather crude xWAR based on xwOBA. These are the results for all AL pitches with at least 100 innings (conclusion after the table):

WAR based on xWOBA
Justin Verlander 212 6.1 .244 8.1
Gerrit Cole 192.1 6.7 .242 7.8
Charlie Morton 182.1 5.6 .278 5.2
Lucas Giolito 176.2 5.1 .279 4.9
Lance Lynn 195.2 6.1 .290 4.8
Mike Minor 194.2 4.2 .294 4.4
Shane Bieber 201.1 5.2 .298 4.3
Chris Sale 147.1 3.6 .283 3.9
Matthew Boyd 176.1 3 .296 3.9
Eduardo Rodriguez 185.1 3.2 .301 3.8
Jose Berrios 188.1 4.1 .302 3.8
Mike Clevinger 107.1 3.9 .260 3.6
Wade Miley 162.1 2.1 .297 3.6
Blake Snell 103 2.6 .260 3.5
Ryan Yarbrough 133.1 2.9 .285 3.4
Martin Perez 157.1 2 .301 3.3
James Paxton 143.2 3.3 .296 3.2
Marcus Stroman 124.2 3 .286 3.2
Jake Odorizzi 147.1 3.7 .299 3.1
Marco Gonzales 189 3.6 .313 3.1
John Means 143 2.8 .298 3.1
Masahiro Tanaka 172 3 .312 2.9
Dylan Bundy 149.2 2.2 .309 2.7
Chris Bassitt 139 2 .307 2.6
Trevor Bauer 156.2 2.7 .314 2.5
Michael Pineda 146 2.7 .313 2.4
Domingo German 140.2 2 .314 2.2
David Price 107.1 2.4 .307 2.0
CC Sabathia 103.2 0.3 .309 1.8
Yonny Chirinos 126.2 1.8 .318 1.8
Homer Bailey 151.1 2.2 .326 1.8
J.A. Happ 151 1.1 .327 1.7
Brad Keller 165.1 2.2 .330 1.7
Kyle Gibson 155 2.4 .329 1.6
Reynaldo Lopez 172 2.3 .334 1.5
Mike Fiers 171.2 1.3 .337 1.4
Trent Thornton 144.1 1.8 .332 1.4
Tommy Milone 102.1 0.1 .322 1.3
Rick Porcello 162.1 1.3 .337 1.2
Adam Plutko 103.2 0.6 .326 1.2
Spencer Turnbull 132 2.2 .334 1.1
Daniel Norris 138.1 1.7 .339 1.0
Wade LeBlanc 121.1 -0.3 .341 0.7
Mike Leake 137 1.3 .345 0.7
Yusei Kikuchi 151.2 0 .345 0.7
Jakob Junis 175.1 1.5 .347 0.7
Andrew Cashner 144.1 1.7 .346 0.7
Brett Anderson 171 1.9 .349 0.6
Jalen Beeks 101.2 0.3 .341 0.6
Aaron Sanchez 131.1 0.8 .345 0.5
Danny Duffy 118.2 1 .346 0.5
Ivan Nova 176 1.7 .351 0.5
Zach Plesac 106.1 0.8 .349 0.4
Aaron Brooks 101 0.2 .354 0.1
Gabriel Ynoa 100.1 -0.3 .357 0.0
Jorge Lopez 115.1 0.2 .358 0.0
Ariel Jurado 118.1 1 .362 -0.2
Glenn Sparkman 127 -0.6 .362 -0.2
Jordan Zimmermann 104 1.3 .365 -0.3
Adrian Sampson 121 0.4 .371 -0.6

If contact quality is important to you, then Verlander and Cole are the clear 1-2 in the Cy Young race, with Morton, Giolito, and Lynn in a second tier. If pure results are key, look to RA9-WAR. If you want those results adjusted, Baseball-Reference can help. If you want a more dialed down version of the WAR based on expected contributions, Baseball Prospectus is there to help. If you’re skeptical that we can reasonably isolate defense or contact quality as a skill in a single season, FanGraphs’ FIP-based WAR can help by using strikeouts, walks, and only the strongest and weakest contact in the form of homers and popups. When choosing between a set of very good pitchers all of whom are having very good years, you have to decide what you believe is most important in terms of results and deserved results, and how much control a pitcher has over individual aspects of the game. We try to be as objective as possible, but a little subjectivity is bound to creep in when making these kinds of decisions.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

so looking at the Tango numbers-
Verlander 94.3
Cole 90.4
Bieber 66.2
Morton 64.5
Giolito 58.1

it’s a 2 horse race, and it’s not even close.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

Verlander also has a no-hitter, and a historically dominant one. Yes, Cole has had a few games that were close to one, but those big achievement markers matter to voters. It’s felt like Verlander’s to lose since the start of September, unless Cole throws his own, or a 20 K game.

4 years ago
Reply to  JupiterBrando

well, Cole does have a chance to tie a MLB record with 8 straight games with 10+ k’s.

Verlander 19-6 2.50 ERA 288 k’s
Cole 18-5 2.61 ERA 302 k’s

1 advantage Verlander has is he’s got 2 more starts, to only 1 for Cole.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

That is clearly the case and those numbers simply verify what the eye test has seen this season. Verlander and Cole have stood, head and shoulders, above the rest of the pitchers in the AL. Others have had very good seasons but it appears to me that true SABR believers actually hold things like a great won-loss record against the pitcher and look for some obtuse reason to knock them or, as well, a high RBI total or BA against the hitter. Will somebody please explain to me how Mike Minor, who has been excellent this year has a 7.9bWAR and Gerrit Cole’s bWAR is only 6.1. I just spent 20 minutes on BR and couldn’t find any reason. Cole leads, and by a lot, in almost every category.

4 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

I think a lot of it has to do with Minor’s excellent run prevention while pitching in a home run happy park.

But I’m like you… I don’t think that reason should negate such a large difference in WAR.

4 years ago
Reply to  CL1NT

The Crawford boxes are as inviting a target as there is in baseball. This ball park influence is grossly exaggerated.

4 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Minor is one that you could really make the case about the Texas park making a huge difference.
home games 5-4 4.22 ERA in 14 starts
road games 8-5 2.63 ERA in 16 starts

Don’t think that’s enough to pass Verlander/Cole(I expect those to to get all 30 1st/2nd place votes), but he’ll be in the mix sure for 3rd.