The NL Cy Young and Splitting an Award into Three Pieces

Posted: 10/03/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

What do you do when there’s a question with no real answer? Ignore it? Bash your head against a wall until you knock yourself out? Eenie meenie miney mo? These are the questions I had to contemplate when I set about picking an NL Cy Young winner. And while I’d love to ignore the race, it can’t be ignored, because someone is going to win the award, and actual voters are going to have to make the same decision I’m about to attempt to make. However the vote turns out, it’s going to be brutally unfair for two pitchers, since all three of these guys have excellent Cy Young cases. But unless the award is split into three pieces, only one of the pitchers is going to be able to bring hardware home. We’re at the point that any single start could change the winner, which sounds ridiculous but is absolutely true. And since Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw still have games to start in the final two days of the season, this could change, but I’m going to make a decision based on the vast amount of information we have right now.

Zack Greinke:
Based on his entire body of work, Greinke is probably the best traditional candidate. Heading into his start tonight, he’s 18-3 with a 1.68 ERA. That’s the lowest in baseball since Greg Maddux posted a 1.63 ERA in 1995, the fourth of his four consecutive Cy Young awards (by the way, it’s easy to forget how incredible Maddux was. Between 1992-1998, he finished top-five in the Cy Young race every year while going 127-53 with a 2.15 ERA). Greinke’s ERA hasn’t been higher than 1.98 all season, and he has 29 quality starts in his 31 starts. It doesn’t get much more consistent than that. He’s also on pace to finish with the 15th best WHIP of all-time (.85), although Kershaw (.86, 19th) and Jake Arrieta (.87, 22nd) are right behind him. So he has the record going for him, he has the traditional stats, he has the consistency, and he also has the team success; the Dodgers are 90-70 and seem set to lock up home-field advantage in their series against the Mets. Coming from the eye-test perspective, every time I’ve seen Greinke highlights or watched him pitch, I’ve looked at the catcher’s glove before and after the pitch. And guess what? It rarely moves more than a couple of inches. Greinke’s control is pinpoint, even Cliff Lee-esque. He has the fourth-best walk rate in the NL (1.64 per nine innings), although again he’s not that far ahead of Kershaw (1.65, fifth) or Arrieta (1.89, 10th), And his control makes it possible that some of the less-good (luckier) things about his resume, which I’m about to get to, might not all be down to good luck. The lucky things I’m talking about? Well, there’s a reason that Greinke’s xFIP is more than a run and a half higher than his ERA is; most of that comes from the trifecta of a low BABIP, a high left on base %, and a low HR/FB rate, all stats usually linked at least mostly to luck. His BABIP, at .232, is lowest in the NL by 14 points (Arrieta’s, shockingly, is second-lowest). His left on base percentage, 86%, is the highest in the NL, with Arrieta ranking third at 80%. And his HR/FB rate is fourth-lowest in the league, with Arrieta again ranking just a spot better. But can this be attributed to good control or a specific pitching style? Not really. Greinke ranks in the middle of the pack in hard hit %, strikeout rate, and ground ball rate. So while he’s pitched well this season, he’s been about as lucky as one can be. And how can I give the award to a guy who’s been aided so much by luck when there are two other great candidates?

Jake Arrieta:
Arrieta’s case starts with his amazing and unprecedented end to the season. Since August 1st, Arrieta has started 12 games. He’s 11-0 with a .41 ERA. That’s more than twice as low as the second lowest ERA over the last two months of the season in baseball’s history. Let me say that again: in 88.1 August, September, and October innings, Arrieta faced 320 batters. Seven of them scored, and only four of those runs were earned. Of course, he’s gotten some good luck in that stretch, but you can’t attribute this kind of stretch to good luck. Arrieta’s been utterly dominant. But it’s not as if he wasn’t good before his historic stretch. In his first 21 starts, he was 11-6 with a 2.62 ERA, a 2.67 FIP, and a 2.83 xFIP. Those may not be Cy Young stats, but it’s not as if he was pitching like he did in his first four seasons. Until August, it looked like he was going to replicate last season’s breakout year (he finished 9th in the Cy Young voting despite making just 25 starts). But when you look at his stats as a whole, he has winner-caliber numbers. He’s 22-6 and leads baseball in wins by two. He has a 1.77 ERA, which is only slightly worse than Greinke’s, and more than compensates with a FIP (2.35) and xFIP (2.62) both significantly better than his LA counterpart. He has the team narrative thing going for him, as the Cubs have gone from winning 73 games to winning 95, third-best in baseball (also unfortunately third-best in his division). And his peripheral stats, while not Kershaw-esque, are a lot better than Greinke’s. He’s third in the NL in strikeout % at 27.1%, well behind Kershaw but also significantly ahead of Greinke. Arrieta is also an extreme ground ball pitcher; his 56.2% GB rate ranks him behind just Brett Anderson and Tyson Ross in the NL among the 37 qualifiers and well ahead of Kershaw (13th) and Greinke (20th). And his low BABIP can be explained away by a 22.2% hard hit % that is by far the best in the NL. In my mind, Arrieta is the superior candidate to Greinke. He has comparable traditional stats, plays for a better team, and his stellar season has been less fluky. So we’ve eliminated Greinke, which leaves us with..

Clayton Kershaw:
If Kershaw weren’t so good, his success might be getting boring by now. He’s won three Cy Young’s in the past four years, and he probably should have won the fourth. Kershaw’s well on his way to the Hall of Fame, and it says a lot that his ERA this year is actually 39 points higher than it was last year and 33 higher than two seasons ago. With that being said, make no mistake about it; this might well be Kershaw’s best season yet. His fWAR is 8.4, the highest of his career and much higher than Arrieta’s (7.3) and Greinke’s (5.7). His 2.16 ERA isn’t as good as his competition’s, but his FIP (2.04) and xFIP (2.14) are both by far the best in baseball. And he certainly passes the eye test. This is by far the most dominant pitcher in baseball, which leads me to perhaps the biggest element of his Cy Young campain: the strikeouts. As I type this, Kershaw sits at 294 strikeouts, with a start to come tomorrow. He’s striking out 11.55 batters per nine innings, so he should easily reach 300 tomorrow. And unlike his competition, Kershaw’s actually been slightly unlucky. His peripheral stats are all much better than Greinke’s and Arrieta’s, so from a stats-only perspective he is the clear winner. There’s also the fact that, if Arrieta hadn’t turned into Christy Mathewson, we might be talking about Kershaw’s 10-1 record and 1.36 ERA since the all-star break. But if you want to see Kershaw’s case, just watch him pitch in a game. More than with anyone else, you can immediately see how good he is when he pitches. Sure, his 16-7 record and 2.16 ERA are downright pedestrian when compared to Greinke’s and Arrieta’s, but he’s clearly the best pitcher of the three. Does that mean he should win the award? No, but his peripheral stats might.

Verdict… I’m going to give my vote to Jake Arrieta. It’s so agonizingly close, but Arrieta’s dominance across the board clinches this for me. It might be recency bias, but I also feel like he has to be rewarded for one of the best stretches for a starting pitcher ever. I’d rank them:

Arrieta
Kershaw
Greinke

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