With the Pittsburgh Pirates officially in the offseason, Breakdown turns its attention to the playoffs and the upcoming 2016 season awards.
One of the most hotly contested awards this year will be the Cy Young award for the best pitcher in the NL and AL. This week we will look at the National League and make our own pick for this prestigious award. Next week, we will follow up with our choice for the American League Cy Young winner.
Even though Gerrit Cole received a few votes in 2015, the NL Cy Young award hasn’t been a topic that has really concerned the Pirates since Doug Drabek won it back in 1990. That said, the Pirates have faced all of the contenders for this year’s award and many of our hitters are still licking their wounds from those experiences.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The NL Cy Young award was a virtual lock until June 26 this season. That is when Clayton Kershaw stopped pitching.[/perfectpullquote]
The NL Cy Young award was a virtual lock until June 26 this season. That is when Clayton Kershaw stopped pitching and later went on the 60-day DL with a herniated disk in his back. Up to that point, he had a 1.79 ERA to go along with 145 strikeouts and only 9 walks. He went 7 innings or more in 14 of his 16 starts, demonstrating his ability to shoulder the load. When he came back from the DL in early September, he was even better, lowering his season ERA to an incredible 1.69 and improving his Ks/9 to a stratospheric 10.39. It was truly an incredible season for Kershaw.
Except you can’t win the Cy Young when you sit for more than 2 months and only pitch 149 innings.
With Kershaw out of the picture, it opened up the Cy Young field to a large number of contenders. Basically all top ten pitchers as ranked by ERA had a legitimate claim on the award, as well as dark horse candidate and former Pirate closer Mark Melancon. The table below provides a snapshot of these ten starting pitchers and Melancon.
The voters will have a tough time choosing from this slate of pitchers. All are deserving, but only one can win. In order to pare down the field, we have to start by eliminating some of the candidates based on various criteria.
Must be a workhorse
The first is the total number of innings pitched in the season. This has been a key factor in many past awards.
The Cy Young voters haven’t selected a relief pitcher since Eric Gagne in 2003. In that season, Gagne pitched 82.1 innings, sported a 1.20 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and an incredible Ks/9 of 15.0. This is the recent bar that has been set for relief pitchers to win the award. As dominant as Melancon’s season has been, he didn’t eclipse Gagne in any of these three key statistics. For this reason, Melancon will get some votes and recognition, but won’t be in the top five when the dust settles.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The Cy Young voters haven’t selected a relief pitcher since Eric Gagne in 2003. [/perfectpullquote]
Noah Syndergaard will also be eliminated based on his total innings pitched. In his case, he didn’t pitch very deep into games relative to the other starters – barely averaging six innings per start. Kyle Hendricks is dangerously close to being eliminated based on workload as well. He was worked into the rotation slowly at the start of the season, finishing with 31 starts and averaging barely over 6 innings per contest in his third year in the bigs. Hendricks is obviously a great pitcher with a bright future but this year’s NL ERA leader shouldn’t win the Cy Young until he can be relied upon to pitch deep into games.
Also, recent Cy Young trends tend to favor pitchers who post both a high strikeout rate and low ERA. Since 1999, there has only been one starting pitcher in the NL to win the Cy Young with an ERA over 3.00 and less than 200 strikeouts (that was Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks in a season with unusually high ERAs). If we eliminate pitchers who don’t hit both of these milestones, then Johnny Cueto, Jon Lester, Tanner Roark, Carlos Martinez and Jake Arreita fall off the list. Cueto and Lester just barely miss the cut by a few strikeouts, however, these pitchers also show much less than 9.0 Ks/9 as well. So the total 200 strikeouts mark isn’t as arbitrary as it seems.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Since 1999, there has only been one starting pitcher in the NL to win the Cy Young with an ERA over 3.00 and less than 200 strikeouts.[/perfectpullquote]
This leaves Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer and Jose Fernandez as likely finalists for the NL Cy Young award. The tragic death of Jose Fernandez cut his magic season short. He started 29 games and pitched 182.1 innings, flashing incredible stuff en route to a league-leading 12.49 K’s/9. If Fernandez was able to finish the season and get four or five more starts, he would have about 220 innings of work and, in our opinion, would have been the favorite to win the Cy Young. He may still win it if the voters decide to extrapolate his stats to a full season.
For our choice though, it comes down to Scherzer versus Bumgarner.
Scherzer has more strikeouts and Bumgarner has a lower ERA. We tend to shy away from W-L records as a criteria, but Scherzer has the edge there at 20-7 to Bumgarner’s record of 15-9. Both pitchers gave up a lot of home runs this season relative to their career averages, but still managed to keep their ERAs low. If you are a fan of WAR (wins against replacement), Scherzer had 6.2 against Bumgarner’s 5.0, thereby making him more valuable by that measure. They are almost even in WHIP with both pitchers hovering around 1.00.
So how to decide between these two? I come back to an old school statistic that tends to distinguish the best pitchers from the very good ones – Batting Average Against, or BAA. Opposing hitters had a .199 batting average against Scherzer while they posted .212 against Bumgarner. .199 is historically very good. In addition, Scherzer set a modern day record on May 11, recording 20 strikeouts in a nine inning game. He had an incredible season, and led his team to the NL East division crown. This, combined with the fact that Scherzer has the slight edge in all stats except ERA and HRs allowed, makes Max Scherzer our pick for the National League Cy Young award.
Scherzer won the award once before, back in 2013 as a member of the Detroit Tigers. If he wins this year, he would become the 18th multi-year winner and only the sixth pitcher to win the award in both the American and National League.
Photo Credit – Keith Allison – Flickr Creative Commons
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