The NL Cy Young and Quantity Versus Quality

For the second straight year, I have been given the right to cast a vote for the National League Cy Young Award. Last year, the task of picking between three deserving winners was practically impossible, and I ended up going with Jake Arrieta over Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke by the thinnest of margins. After last year’s embarrassment of riches, however, it looks like this year, the choice will come down to picking between some candidates with some more obvious flaws.

Just going by runs allowed, there’s a big pile of guys who have all been roughly similar in value.

NL RA9-WAR Leaders
Player RA9-WAR
Max Scherzer 5.8
Kyle Hendricks 5.7
Clayton Kershaw 5.6
Madison Bumgarner 5.3
Jon Lester 5.2
Jake Arrieta 5.2

But of course, we’re not big believers in evaluating pitchers by runs allowed around here. If you look at our FIP-based WAR (which does give credit to pitchers for infield flies, so some hit prevention is still included), the list looks a lot different.

NL FIP-WAR Leaders
Player FIP-WAR
Clayton Kershaw 5.5
Noah Syndergaard 5.4
Jose Fernandez 5.4
Max Scherzer 4.7
Johnny Cueto 4.2
Madison Bumgarner 4.0

There isn’t a lot of agreement between those two groups, with only three of the six names in common between them, and some big differences in ranking even for those who appear on both. By runs allowed, Max Scherzer and Madison Bumgarner are both top contenders, but by FIP (plus infield flies), they’re behind both Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez, who don’t show up in the top RA9 group.

Then there’s the Cubs problem. Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Jake Arrieta are all among the top six in RA9-WAR, but all three are there because they’re running some of the lowest BABIPs in the league; Arrieta is #1, Hendricks is #4, and Lester is #9, and for good measure, John Lackey is #8. With that kind of across-the-board BABIP suppression, it’s hard not to argue the Cubs excellent defense has been a significant contributor to each pitcher’s success, and not surprisingly, the Cubs rank #1 in MLB in both UZR and DRS.

So over the next month, I’m going to spend a lot of time going through the details of each pitcher’s success, and for most the pitchers on those lists, the question of their placement will come down to how much credit or blame I end up assigning them for their runs allowed. That’s basically the same problem I wrestled with last year.

But there’s one pitcher on both lists that presents a very different kind of question. Despite not having pitched for the last two months, Clayton Kershaw’s value metrics still put him in the same tier as the mortals who have stayed healthy. Kershaw dominated the first half at a level that no one else could even begin to come close to, and everyone else has spent the second half just playing catch up. So, with Kershaw working his way back towards a return, I very well may have to answer the question of just how few innings a starting pitcher can throw while still being considered for the Cy Young Award.

It’s an interesting year to be asking that question, given all the talk about Zach Britton as an AL Cy Young candidate. After all, if a reliever who throws 70 innings can be considered a serious contender, shouldn’t a starter who has already thrown 120 innings, and might end up around 140, be a legitimate option as well?

It seems like public sentiment isn’t so clear on this. In talking with people about the NL Cy Young vote this year, when I bring up Kershaw, the general response is something like “he’s missed too much time.” It seems to many, the question isn’t really number of innings, but percentage of games he was supposed to appear that he was able to. The idea that the Dodgers had to make trades for a guy like Bud Norris, because Kershaw was hurt and couldn’t make his turn, limits his value in many people’s eyes, even as they acknowledge no one was as good as Kershaw when he was on the mound.

But, really, how much credit do we want to give a pitcher for just taking the mound, even if he doesn’t perform all that well. For fun, here’s a table showing the innings and runs allowed differences between Kershaw and all the other pitchers we’ve named.

Player Innings Runs Net Innings Net Runs
Clayton Kershaw 121 25
Kyle Hendricks 159 45 38 20
Jon Lester 160 50 39 25
Noah Syndergaard 155 52 34 27
Jose Fernandez 154 52 33 27
Jake Arrieta 168 55 47 30
Madison Bumgarner 187 62 66 37
Max Scherzer 190 63 69 38
Johnny Cueto 184 64 63 39

Hendricks has thrown 38 more innings than Kershaw, and allowed 20 more runs in the process; that’s a 4.73 RA9 for his extra innings. And that’s the guy with the best case. Scherzer has thrown almost 70 additional innings, but has done so at a marginal RA9 of almost 5.00. Cueto is over 5.00. Syndergaard and Fernandez are almost at 9.00!

Of course, this is a very basic runs allowed comparison, and that’s not a good way to actually look at their performance. But it does illustrate the issue; how much credit do we want to give the non-Kershaw pitchers for just taking the mound while he was on the shelf? Why would we only look at a difference in innings pitched, and not the difference in performance during their innings?

Historically, though, voters have toyed with the idea of giving votes to a dominant half-season starter, but in the end, they go for innings. Probably the most recent example is CC Sabathia, who was traded to the Brewers mid-season in 2008, then threw 131 dominant innings to help carry them to the postseason. He allowed just 31 runs in those 131 innings, but in the end, the Cy Young went to Tim Lincecum, who allowed 72 runs in 227 innings, for a net difference of 96 innings and 41 runs allowed. Sabathia did get one first place vote, but finished fifth on the ballot, behind even Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who threw 69 innings out of the bullpen that year.

Certainly, taking the mound matters, and if Kershaw doesn’t make it back for the Dodgers in September, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to keep up with the other contenders who will have another month to put distance between him and themselves. But if Kershaw does come back, and pitches well, this could become a very interesting discussion indeed.

I’d be interested in hearing what you guys think. Should a guy who misses two months of the season be in the mix for the Cy Young award? If you had a vote, would you give Kershaw legitimate considering, even though he’s almost 70 innings behind Scherzer and counting? How much extra weight do you put on just taking the hill and giving the team’s bullpen a rest, even if the run prevention isn’t all that great in those extra innings? I don’t have the answer to these questions yet, and would happily listen to any guidance you guys want to offer.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

I think that Kershaw still has a case for Cy Young. However, if it was a close contest (as this year’s Cy Young seems to be), I would use the time missed due to injury as a negative tie-breaker.

If I had to choose today, I would probably go for Syndergaard, but if Kershaw dominates the end of the season, I think he has to be considered.

PS, Brad Lidge was on the Phillies in 2008!