There Simply Isn’t an AL Cy Young Frontrunner

When I started researching a post about the American League Cy Young Award, I was prepared to make a case in favor of Chris Sale. I know you’re not always supposed to go into these things with an outcome in mind, but, look! The rest of this post proves I wasn’t too biased. When I got a little into the work, I started imagining a somewhat contrarian argument in favor of Danny Duffy. That turned into my pursuit, until I became more convinced to support Corey Kluber. I was just about ready to begin a draft. Then I told myself, no, look at the numbers. The favorite should be Aaron Sanchez. I’ve assembled cases for all these guys. A few more, too. Start to finish, this wasn’t supposed to take more than a couple hours.

I wish I could give you something better. I wish I could give you a reason to lean toward one name. Truth be told, there are plenty of those reasons, but many of them point toward different names. It’s the middle of August right now, and there’s roughly a quarter of the season left. That’s going to settle the Cy Young race, because at least as far as I can see it, right now there’s just a multi-way tie.

The Cy Young conversation has picked up over the past week or two, with the pitcher in the middle being Zach Britton. The other day I laid out why I don’t think Britton makes for a great candidate. I could be persuaded otherwise, I’m sure, but that’s where I am today. In all the Britton talk, a big reason for the support is the perceived lackluster group of other AL candidates. There is no Clayton Kershaw. There is no 2015 Zack Greinke, or 2015 Jake Arrieta. There’s no freak. There’s no small assortment of freaks.

I do think the various candidates have been better than the credit they’ve gotten. Standards might be a little too high, and they might not yet have adjusted for the new home-run era. Low ERAs aren’t so easy to come by. Sanchez has a 66 ERA-. Jose Quintana is at 67. Duffy is at 64. Dallas Keuchel last year wound up at 62. The year before, Kluber was at 64. The year before that, Max Scherzer finished at 72. No, there isn’t a Kershaw, but there are aces. There is just a bunch of…somewhat indistinguishable aces. I think that can lead to Britton as almost an “easy” choice. Instead of putting in the work to try to separate the starters, you can just point to the one crazy reliever. I do get it. And relative to their own occupied roles, Britton has been literally the most outstanding pitcher in the population. If you’re open to a reliever winning, Britton is right there.

I’ve already told you I’m not that open. This post is about my own perspective, and not how I think the voters are going to see things. I’ve put in the work. I’ve tried to identify a starter whose case I like the most. I can’t get there. It does feel a little like trying to decide between Kershaw, Greinke, and Arrieta. The pitchers haven’t been on quite that level, but there’s that little separating them. It feels silly that only one pitcher can win.

I want to explain, but I want to do so treading lightly on the statistics. Right now I’ve got three different spreadsheets open, so I could proceed with an avalanche of numbers if that’s something I wanted to do, but I’m not sure it would be that helpful, especially with so many games still left. So we’ll try to stick mainly with words! We could use a starting point. Might as well be WAR. Kluber leads the group in WAR. There are five pitchers at the top within one win. Based just on this starting point, Kluber should be the current favorite.

And Kluber, also, is the leader in wOBA allowed. That’s a pretty pure statistic, that treats all plate appearances the same. Helping to support that number, Kluber grades well in terms of contact quality against. Outside of context, Kluber has been terrific. Even given context, Kluber has been terrific, but what gives me pause is that he’s performed worse with runners on base. Even more so with runners in scoring position. Those are more important opportunities, and it’s not like Kluber is out there unaware of his in-game scenarios. The whole job is to prevent runs from scoring. Kluber has allowed a few extra runs to score. It’s a certain point against him.

And when you open up those situational splits, contenders emerge. Sanchez has allowed a higher wOBA than Kluber. Quintana’s is higher still. Yet they’ve both been phenomenal with runners on. You can look up the splits yourself, if you want, but those two pitchers have killed run-scoring opportunities. Sanchez, under pressure, has eliminated walks and hard contact. Quintana, under pressure, has eliminated homers and boosted strikeouts. Again, the job is run prevention. It doesn’t matter if an opponent dies at third or in the batter’s box, so long as he doesn’t get home.

The list doesn’t stop there. By WAR, Sale is within a half-win of Kluber. He’s faced ever-so-slightly more challenging opponents. He’s pitched in front of an inferior team defense. And Sale has worked with a pretty unfriendly strike zone, on account of the White Sox’ catchers. Using my own homespun framing numbers, pulled from the FanGraphs leaderboards, pitch-receiving has cost Sale about five runs. There’s no way to know how he’s actually been affected, but he’s worked with a worse zone than he did a year ago. Presumably it hasn’t been helping. Sale would probably have better numbers if he had better catchers, and that isn’t his fault.

Quintana’s also pitched to those catchers! Interestingly, I don’t have him being negatively affected. His command is awfully good.

You can keep on going. Justin Verlander has allowed a lower wOBA than Quintana. If you’re a big fan of playing time, only David Price has pitched to more batters on the year. I constructed a statistic similar to K-BB%, only also folding in pop-ups and hit-by-pitches. It measures those elements mostly under a pitcher’s control. In that category in the AL, Verlander ranks second. The only name in front of him: Danny Duffy. Duffy is your candidate if you don’t care that much about playing time. It’s just about finding the best pitcher, right? I can see this going both ways. Since re-entering the Royals rotation, Duffy has been almost untouchable. He’s thrown just 20 fewer innings than Sanchez. There’s nothing he’s not doing right now. I guess he could allow softer contact, but mostly, he just allows no contact.

And, oh, what the hell, Michael Fulmer is second out of everyone in wOBA against. He’s appeared in just 19 games, so he’s pitched even less than Duffy, but he’s the ERA leader. You can’t not mention the ERA leader. I’m pretty comfortable not supporting Fulmer as the AL Cy Young, because there just aren’t enough other supporting numbers, but he’s not completely off the radar. Yet there are enough other names to try to sort through.

You could very reasonably go with any of these names. Kluber, Sale, Sanchez, Quintana, Verlander, Duffy…precedent says Duffy won’t get there because of limited innings, but I don’t know how much that should truly matter. He’s proven himself as a quality starter. Even if you think innings are critical, that still leaves you with four or five candidates at the moment. And I just can’t tell them apart. I mean, I can tell them apart, but I can’t tell who’s pitched the best. I’ve thought I could. I’ve put hours into thinking. I’ve gotten both somewhere and nowhere.

Thankfully, there’s more time left for the pitchers to pitch. And, thankfully, I won’t be officially voting. I can’t imagine the potential headache.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

I feel like the Cy Young should go to the pitcher that lowers the league’s FIP the most. I’d love to see a year-by-year break down of that and see how it compares to the actual Cy Young winners. Anyone looking for a project?

7 years ago
Reply to  pelgudmir

Wouldn’t that just be the pitcher with the lowest FIP to IP ratio? Wouldn’t tell you much more than finding the qualified pitcher with the lowest FIP season to season I’m pretty sure.

7 years ago
Reply to  frivoflava29

I’m not quite as well versed as a lot of people in the way that some statistical principles work, but I don’t think that is exactly what it would be… I’m going to go ahead and do some work on this though, because I’m curious. The idea would be have the league FIP and then take each pitcher’s stats out and of it and then see what the league FIP is after that. If two pitchers have an equal FIP and one pitched 30 more innings, then I think he’s the guy you go with. But what if the guy with 30 more innings has a slightly higher FIP? Is there a chance that he might still be considered better because he had a greater effect on more actual game time? What about a relief pitcher with a miniscule FIP – just how miniscule would it have to be for him to get the nod, if you agree with this sort of methodology? We shall see.

7 years ago
Reply to  pelgudmir

If anyone is curious, I ran the AL numbers…

Here were the AL pitchers with the greatest effect on the league FIP, through tonight, meaning that the league FIP of 4.2603 would be this much higher without their numbers included.

1. Corey Kluber 0.0128
2. Dellin Betances 0.0108
3. Aaron Sanchez 0.0093

Over notables from the discussion.

14. Zach Britton
20. Justin Verlander
23. Michael Fulmer
24. Rick Porcello
48. J.A. Happ

The bottom?

350. Clay Buchholz
351. R.A. Dickey
352. Jered Weaver
353. James Shields
354. Chris Young -0.0130

If you’d like a link to the Google doc, let me know.