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Monday, August 23, 2021

The 2021 NL Cy Young Race Shows the Great Divide in Pitcher Evaluation

Award arguments aren’t really about the players. They’re about values. From blinkered partisans to quantitative hard-liners to narrative-obsessed clubhouse insiders, everyone who advocates for an award candidate is trying to sell you a way of looking at or thinking about the sport. The actual player on the ballot is merely an avatar for a system of evaluation….

That battle speaks to the second fault line in modern Cy Young voting: results versus peripherals. Getting more granular than wins and ERA was only the first step in baseball’s tumble into empiricism. Wins are the product of run prevention (runs allowed and ERA), which is the product of keeping runners off base. That in turn is a function of missing bats and inducing weak contact, which comes from command, sequencing, velocity, and movement. All this has been common knowledge in baseball coaching circles for more than 100 years, but in the past decade and a half, we’ve gained the ability to quantify those aspects of the game.

So which is more important, results or peripherals? Do we reward pitchers for excelling in the areas they can control, or for achieving what they set out to accomplish—recording outs and, yes, winning games? This divide has no clear empirically based choice, and no consensus among the sabermetric community. Of the three major computations of WAR, for example, Baseball-Reference uses runs allowed as the baseline for pitchers, while FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus use ERA estimators.

What makes this NL Cy Young race particularly interesting, then, is the clarity of the fault lines between quality and quantity and results and underlying stats. There’s a candidate for every worldview—plus a Goldilocks contender in Brandon Woodruff, who’s close to Burnes on the underlying numbers front and isn’t scraping quite as close to the minimum threshold for qualifying for the ERA title.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: August 23, 2021 at 09:06 AM | 24 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: corbin burnes, cy young award, walker buehler, zack wheeler

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   1. Rally Posted: August 23, 2021 at 09:35 AM (#6035728)
Wheeler seems like the best pick. Ranks 1st in one WAR calculation and second in the other. He’s only .3 behind Burnes in fwar, but 1.3 ahead in bwar.

But it’s close enough with all the pitchers mentioned that any one of them might become the clear front runner with a great finish to the season.
   2. The Duke Posted: August 23, 2021 at 09:50 AM (#6035732)
It’s a great article for explaining the challenges of how to think about it. I tend to lean towards more traditional metrics if there is a clear candidate. Buehler and wheeler and wainwright are dueling for most innings pitched. Degrom has to get votes right? Still 3rd in WAR.

Then you have the likely division winners:

Gausmann is arguably keeping the Dodgers at arms length in the division race. Morton is doing the same for the Braves. Burnes, woodruff and Peralta are diluting one another a bit.

And finally, wainwright, Stroman, Urias, scherzer, Nola, Marquez could push themselves into contention with 6-7 great starts.

If I had to pick now, I’d go with Wheeler but if Burnes can hold this level to the end I may change my mind. If Degrom could come back for 4-6 awesome starts, I might have to vote for him.

   3. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: August 23, 2021 at 10:45 AM (#6035737)
I think it has to be Wheeler or Buehler. They have the quantity and the quality.
   4. Starring Bradley Scotchman as RMc Posted: August 23, 2021 at 11:21 AM (#6035743)
...and in the AL, Ohtani wins both the CY and the MVP.
   5. The Duke Posted: August 23, 2021 at 11:34 AM (#6035749)
I think he wins MVP but he’s far off the Cy race. I know he’ll get votes because of what he’s done but he’s not objectively the Cy winner as of now
   6. Rally Posted: August 23, 2021 at 11:50 AM (#6035757)
deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball, and it’s not really close. But I don’t think he’s a Cy contender because not only has he missed so much time, we don’t know when or if he’ll get back on the mound. Latest I see is he will not throw a baseball until after an MRI on 8-27. So even in the best case scenario, that doesn’t give him much time to work his way back.

In the AL, Robbie Ray leads in both WAR (bbref) and ERA. Well, for now. Lance Lynn has an ERA 50 points better but is 2 innings short of qualifying. He pitches tonight, so just has to last a few innings and not give up a jillion runs to reclaim the lead. Ray is also 4th in innings, only 6 behind the leader Bassitt, who probably won’t pitch again for a while. Ohtani has only 100 innings, only 2/3 of the leader, but has still pitched well enough that he’s 4th in WAR, after Ray, Lynn, and Cole.

I don’t think a starter can win the award with 140 innings or so when the leaders are around 200, but if the guys ahead of him struggle and he keeps putting up dominant starts every 6th day he has an outside shot. I agree MVP not Cy is likely for him. His pitching helps his MVP case, but his batting does not help his Cy, that’s just the way the rules are set up.
   7. Tom Nawrocki Posted: August 23, 2021 at 12:05 PM (#6035763)
Ohtani, despite being talked up as a Cy candidate, has thrown just 8 more innings than deGrom, whom everyone seems to think hasn't pitched enough to win it.
   8. salvomania Posted: August 23, 2021 at 12:10 PM (#6035765)
Put me in the "results" camp, assuming the peripherals aren't completely out of whack.

I prefer bb-ref's WAR over fWAR, because it describes what happened, not what should have happened. We've all heard the "they were the better team" comment after a good team loses, and maybe someone is "the better pitcher" on a piece of paper, and maybe it's too bad that "sequencing" allowed three runs to score on the only three hits he allowed while the other guy gave up 2 runs on 5 hits, but maybe the other guy bore down and got out of a couple of tight situations whereas the better guy didn't miss a bat and a ball in play found a hole.

To me, if you go for "peripherals" then you may as well just award the championship based on wins (or better yet, team WAR) and not even bother with the postseason. But there's a reason they actually play the games, just as there's a reason the "better" team (or pitcher) doesn't always beat the other team (or pitcher).
   9. Rally Posted: August 23, 2021 at 02:33 PM (#6035799)
Ohtani, despite being talked up as a Cy candidate, has thrown just 8 more innings than deGrom, whom everyone seems to think hasn't pitched enough to win it.


2 reasons for this. The top NL pitchers are having more impressive seasons than the top AL pitchers. And Ohtani can be reasonably expected to make another 6 or 7 starts. It’s unknown if deGrom will throw another pitch this year, but given where he is and how long it would take to ramp him back up it’s hard to imagine him making more than another start or two.
   10. Howie Menckel Posted: August 23, 2021 at 03:22 PM (#6035807)
deGrom is now on 60-day IL and can't return until Sept. 13 at the earliest.

love the guy, but he has no business getting a top 3 vote. not even meat on the bone, even as tender as it is
   11. Lance Reddick! Lance him! Posted: August 23, 2021 at 03:33 PM (#6035811)
Most outstanding pitcher. Not most valuable. A vote for deGrom can easily be justified.
   12. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: August 23, 2021 at 03:37 PM (#6035813)
Most outstanding pitcher. Not most valuable. A vote for deGrom can easily be justified.

No, it really can't. 15 GS and 92 IP just isn't enough. Availability is a very important ability. He hasn't pitched at all as his team has circled the drain.

200 IP of 3.00 ERA is far better for a real team trying to win a pennant than 92 IP of 1.00 ERA.
   13. The Honorable Ardo Posted: August 23, 2021 at 04:15 PM (#6035829)
Funny thing is, I don't see any "great divide". IMO, it's a two-horse race in both leagues: Buehler and Wheeler in the NL, Ray and Cole in the AL. But with seven starts left there's still room for a late push from the field.
   14. Steve Parris, Je t'aime Posted: August 23, 2021 at 05:09 PM (#6035852)
Availability is a very important ability.


Agree, and I think it's something that WAR can't really capture because below-replacement level performances happen all the time.

In 2014, Kershaw missed the first month but still won the CYA easily because he finished the season with an ERA under 2. Johnny Cueto was well above that with a 2.55 but had 7 more starts and 45 more IP. That's around the point where I would favor the extra innings over the superior rate stats. The WARs did not agree. Especially Fangraphs, which put Kershaw ahead of Cueto 7.9 to 4.4.

Kershaw made two playoff starts that year, giving up 11 ER in 12.2 innings. That would have pushed his season ERA up to 2.13, and he may not have won the CYA.
   15. Jose Is An Absurd Balladeer Posted: August 23, 2021 at 05:22 PM (#6035858)
I'd vote for Buehler without much difficulty. Admittedly I think innings pitched is a big deal which pushes him comfortably ahead of Burnes.

But man even with that innings caveat deGrom gets a hard look. If he was a reliever with those numbers he'd get a hard look, he was absurdly good.
   16. Walt Davis Posted: August 23, 2021 at 08:13 PM (#6035910)
I more agree with #8 than disagree -- most especially I would not give "bad sequencing credit" in a CYA vote -- but part of "what actually happened" is the defensive support and we just don't have a good way of capturing that in either bWAR or fWAR. bWAR assumes (essentially) the pitcher got his team's average defense based on the potentially flawed DRS numbers; fWAR assumes (essentially) that any ERA-FIP difference is defense (after sequencing I suppose).

As we often opine, I'd take fWAR for prediction purposes. And I have nothing against the notion of sequencing per se -- two pitchers who both gave up a HR and a BB in an inning achieved pretty much the same even if one went BB then HR and the other went HR then BB.

Kershaw vs Cueto 2014 ... in those 45 extra innings, Cueto gave up 22 extra ER and 27 extra R. Even if we zero out Cueto's defense, that's about 1.4 R/9 worse than an average pitcher (1.7 with defense) which I think is going to be about 1 win below replacement. Ignoring those extra innings would bring Cueto back to about even with Kershaw -- those extra innings probably shouldn't really be held against Cueto but it looks like they were bad enough that they aren't to his credit either. As a voter that's where I'd let "quality" take over and, as fine a pitcher as Cueto was in 2014 and in some earlier years, he didn't come close to matching Kershaw 2011-14.

A case can still be made for Cueto -- mainly 29 QS (in 34 starts) vs 24 (in 27). But when the W-L's are 21-3 vs 20-9, the actual value of those extra QS for Cueto looks pretty marginal. Not that any sane person (or even me) would go this deep on a regular basis ... Kershaw's 4 worst QS were 7 IP, 3 R efforts and he went 0-2 with 2 NDs so, even if he got great run support, it wasn't necessary to his record. He did go 2-1 in his 3 non-QS but one of those was a 5 IP, 1 R effort so not shabby. Cueto had 5 QS under 7 innings but just 4 runs in 3 of those. He went 1-2 in 2 of the 6/3 and one 7/3 varieties. He got knocked around pretty bad in his non-QS starts and went 0-4-1.

Anyway, stack them up 27 starts vs 27 starts and it's awfully close with Kershaw probably a small edge on peripherals and a bigger edge on W-L. In this case, the extra starts for Cueto don't really help his case as they appear to be at best replacement-level. Keeping a AAAA guy off the field is a good thing but not so much if you pitch like a AAAA guy. Even if we don't count that against him, looks like Kershaw wins on a TKO. The actual vote was unanimous for Kershaw who also won the MVP (not unanimous) so probably it should have been closer in both votes. Cueto (#2 in CYA, #12 in MVP) and Stanton (#2 in MVP) playing for sub-500 teams probably didn't help.
   17. Howie Menckel Posted: August 23, 2021 at 08:41 PM (#6035913)
But man even with that innings caveat deGrom gets a hard look. If he was a reliever with those numbers he'd get a hard look, he was absurdly good.

if this scenario can get the anti "closing is absurdly easy" crowd to realize the error of their ways, then deGrom's misfortune will have a silver lining, at least.

imagine deGrom as a closer, lol.
he might not allow a run all season.

in fact, in his truncated 2021, he actually had a "perfect game" of sorts - he retired 27 consecutive batters in the first inning of his starts.

reminds me of my point about Mariano - he gets so much credit for coasting to saves instead of sometimes getting in hot water, but who cares? he converted most of his save chances, and so did some other AL closers each year. what he did have was consistency.

and with just one pitch, he couldn't have made it as a starter.

closing the circle, I think this helps show how stupid it would be to waste a starter of deGrom's caliber - or even one several rungs lower - as a closer. and what flows from that is, why would you give a reliever a CYA vote, much less an MVP one?
   18. stanmvp48 Posted: August 24, 2021 at 12:23 AM (#6035952)
League ERA 4.14

Walker Buehler 2.11 ERA over 162 innings. That is 2.03 runs/9 innings better than the league and he has pitched 18 X 9 innings=36 runs
Brunes 2.13 127 innings=28
Wheeler 2.77 168innings=25
DeGrom 1.08 92 innings=31
   19. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: August 24, 2021 at 10:06 AM (#6035976)
League ERA 4.14

Walker Buehler 2.11 ERA over 162 innings. That is 2.03 runs/9 innings better than the league and he has pitched 18 X 9 innings=36 runs
Brunes 2.13 127 innings=28
Wheeler 2.77 168innings=25
DeGrom 1.08 92 innings=31


Oh c'mon, you can't do that. The guys replacing your ace in the rotation are not going to be league average starters. They're going to be replacement level.
   20. bfan Posted: August 24, 2021 at 10:41 AM (#6035979)
I would vote for Buehler just so the dodgers can have 5 current or former cy young award winners on their starting staff (Price; Scherzer; Kershaw; Bauer; Buehler), at least until Scherzer signs elsewhere.
   21. stanmvp48 Posted: August 24, 2021 at 11:19 AM (#6035982)
Oh c'mon, you can't do that. The guys replacing your ace in the rotation are not going to be league average starters. They're going to be replacement level

So they all would look somewhat better compared to a replacement level pitcher. To the same degree. I think the relative ratings still hold. Admittedly I am not adjusting for home field or for team defense.
   22. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: August 24, 2021 at 11:32 AM (#6035985)
So they all would look somewhat better compared to a replacement level pitcher. To the same degree. I think the relative ratings still hold.

Not really. You have to ding deGrom for the 100 IP he forced his team to use a crappy starter.

If Buehler gives you 200 IP of 2.50 R/G, and deGrom give you 100 IP of 1.5 R/G, you have to account for another 100 IP of 5 R/G. The team with Buehler allows a bunch fewer runs that the team with deGrom and some scrubs.
   23. Walt Davis Posted: August 24, 2021 at 05:37 PM (#6036076)
Snapper's basically correct but you don't "ding" deGrom. DeGrom gets credit for however much WAR and WAA he accumulated -- it doesn't get reduced when other guys take the mound in his place. Buehler continues to accumulate additional WAR/WAA during his extra 100 innings while deGrom is stuck where he was and Buehler might or might not pass him.

The debate gets tough when we have a pitcher who puts up, say, 3 WAA in 100 innings, so about 4 WAR, then nothing. The other pitcher puts up 2 WAA, 3 WAR in his first 100 innings then 100 innings of average which leaves him at 2 WAA, 4 WAR in 200 innings. Which of those guys would you rather have? In theory, your team ends up the same (on average) as the replacement-level guys give you -1 WAA, 0 WAR in their 100 innings. It's not the pitcher's fault if his GM can only find sub-replacement-level guys.

The first has been the Dodgers' strategy for several years -- stock up on several (pretty expensive) high-quality but fragile SPs and hope that at least 5 of them are healthy each turn. Obviously you're better off replacing missed Kershaw starts with Rich Hill starts than with AAAA guy starts but not many teams can afford that. Of course the Mets picked up Hill but unfortunately a couple years past his "prime."
   24. Russlan thinks deGrom is da bomb Posted: August 25, 2021 at 04:34 PM (#6036301)
I would vote for Buehler just so the dodgers can have 5 current or former cy young award winners on their starting staff (Price; Scherzer; Kershaw; Bauer; Buehler), at least until Scherzer signs elsewhere.

Or until they sign Justin Verlander, trade for deGrom, and buy a time machine and bring back Prime Pedro Martinez.

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