This should be the closest of all the postseason award races. The three finalists all had terrific seasons and it’s very difficult to separate them statistically.
The graphs below show the important statistics for the three finalists, along with other notable AL pitchers in 2015. The three finalists are highlighted in blue.
The battle for the NL Cy Young Award is incredibly close. For fans of baseball, how you feel about which of these pitchers should win the Cy Young says much about how you view baseball statistics.
If you like the old-school numbers, you have a tough decision between Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke. Clayton Kershaw would already be dismissed because he had the fewest wins and the highest ERA, so it comes down to Arrieta and Grienke. Arrieta won 22 games to Greinke’s 19, but Greinke had a 1.66 ERA to Arrieta’s 1.77. Arrieta had more strikeouts, while Greinke walked fewer batters. Both pitchers played for playoff teams. Arrieta pitched 6 1/3 more innings.
So how do you separate the two?
Then you toss Clayton Kershaw into the mix. Kershaw is the candidate for those who embrace advanced statistical analysis. Pitches have the most control over strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. There are different beliefs as to how much a pitcher can control how hard or soft a batter hits the ball or whether those balls drop in for hits. There are pitchers who definitely have the ability to induce ground balls or fly balls at a higher rate than other pitchers, but how well a pitcher can limit hits on balls in play is still somewhat in question, depending on your views.
Zack Greinke is an example of this. Looking at the last four years, Greinke’s Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) has gone from .306 to .276 to .311 to .229. Is it reasonable to think that Greinke’s ability to induce weak contact has fluctuated that much each year? Should he be given all the credit for his BABIP dropping from .311 to .229 or should the defense behind him get some credit? Or could there have been balls that dropped in for hits two years ago that didn’t drop in this year? How much luck is involved?
Going back 15 years, we have Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000 as a classic example of the uncertainty of BABIP. Pedro was unbelievable those years. Considering the high offense era of the time, Pedro’s 2.07 ERA in 1999 and 1.74 ERA in 2000 were just unreal. He struck out a ton of batters and walked few. His strikeout rate was 37.5% in 1999 and 34.8% in 2000. And yet, Pedro allowed a BABIP of .323 in 1999 and .236 in 2000. His BABIP went back up to .307 in 2001. What do we make of this? Pedro actually had better strikeout rates in 1999 and 2001 but a lower BABIP in 2000.
Your feelings about a pitcher’s BABIP will guide your view on which of these three pitchers was the best in the league last year. Greinke allowed a .229 average on balls in play while striking out 8.1 batters per nine innings. Kershaw allowed a .281 BABIP while striking out 11.6 batters per nine. Arrieta was in-between the two with a .246 BABIP and 9.3 K/9. If you believe Greinke should get all or most of the credit for a low BABIP, then he might be your guy. If you believe more that strikeout rate is the best determiner, then Kershaw will get your vote.
The differences between these pitchers can be seen by how the two versions of WAR rate them. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, Zack Greinke has a commanding lead, with 9.3 WAR to Arrieta’s 8.7 and Kershaw’s 7.5. The reverse is true for Fangraphs WAR, where Kershaw is on top with 8.6 WAR to Arrieta’s 8.0 to Greinke’s 7.6. The big difference between the two is that Baseball-Reference uses actual runs allowed, which favors Greinke and his 1.66 ERA, while Fangraphs uses Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which favors Kershaw and his 1.99 FIP.
How the voters decide this one will be interesting to see.
Gerrit Cole (5.0 WAR) Cole was the ace of the second-best team in baseball, the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was his third year in the big leagues and easily his best, as he became the unquestioned stud of the pitching rotation. Cole set career highs in innings pitched, wins, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. He doesn’t compare to the top four starters in the NL this year, but he’s still living among the greats.
Jacob deGrom (5.0 WAR) The man with the best mullet in baseball since Randy Johnson had a surprisingly good rookie year in 2014. After posting mediocre strikeout rates during his minor league years (7.4 K/9), deGrom came up last season and had a 9.2 K/9 in 140 1/3 innings. He was predicted to regress based on his minor leaguer numbers but he actually increased his strikeout rate to 9.7 K/9 and lowered his ERA and WHIP. deGrom doesn’t get the media attention that teammate Matt Harvey gets but deGrom was the more valuable pitcher.
Madison Bumgarner (5.0 WAR) Madison Bumgarner had an epic postseason in the 2014 World Championship year for the San Francisco Giants. He threw nearly 270 innings when you include the regular season and the postseason. It would not have been surprising had Bumgarner regressed some from 2014. He did not regress, though. In fact, he had his best regular season year in 2015, tying his career high in wins and setting career highs in WHIP, strikeout rate, and walk rate. The Giants didn’t come close to sniffing the playoffs, but Bumgarner still did his thing exceptionally well.
Who I think will win: I think Arrieta’s edge in wins will outweigh Greinke’s edge in ERA. It should be very close, but I think Arrieta gets it.
Who I would vote for: I’m more about isolating the things a pitcher is most responsible for, so I would vote for Kershaw.