Tonight, the awards for the best pitchers in the American and National Leagues will be conferred upon (probably) deserving candidates and perhaps one or two new men will forever be known as “former Cy Young winner”, a prefix to names such as R.A. Dickey and Rick Porcello. This sounds like a joke, but you don’t need that phrase in front of Clayton Kershaw’s name. If I were Dickey or Porcello, I’d be signing my name with it.
This is a mostly self-explanatory award–you pick the best pitcher–but it’s also somewhat hard to define “best”, as it is not quite as cut and dry of a designation as it may seem. So here is a little bit of background on my ideology.
- Although I am somewhat more inclined to give the award to a relief pitcher than a WAR leaderboard is, I’m ultimately going to be more inclined to give the award to guys who threw a bunch of innings.
- That said, if two pitchers have similar player value metrics, one through being a great pitcher and one through being a good pitcher over a longer period of time, I tend to lean towards the latter. Most of these pitchers, after all, are on good baseball teams (merely adding a pitcher of the caliber of these lists turns a .500 team into a playoff contender), and if we were to assume the caliber of a “replacement level” pitcher is a little bit higher than is traditionally designated (since in the case of teams with deep farm systems such as the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, or New York Yankees, it generally is), the better pitcher on a rate basis becomes more valuable.
- Compared to position players, pitcher WAR can vary greatly among Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus. Baseball Reference is primarily focused on ERA, FanGraphs is focused primarily on FIP, and Prospectus focuses on Deserved Run Average, a less immediate measure which is, to put it in overly-simplistic terms, a more nuanced take on what FIP sets to achieve. Although I think FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus are arguably more predictive forms of WAR, I also don’t have any issue rewarding players for what did happen. Let’s put it this way: Did David Freese’s two-out triple to tie Game 6 of the 2011 World Series increase how much you’d be willing to pay him as a free agent? It probably shouldn’t have–it was a fairly softly hit ball that a good defensive right fielder catches and a non-incompetent one doesn’t let turn into a triple. But I’m also okay giving Freese full credit for a triple when it comes to evaluating World Series MVP because he tied the dang baseball game.
Anyway, here are my ballots.
1. Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox: He slipped a little bit down the stretch and his postseason performances left something to be desired, but over the course of the regular season, Chris Sale was the driving force behind the pitching staff of the 108-win Red Sox. His innings total (158), because of injury, lagged somewhat behind the other AL Cy Young contenders, but Sale was undeniably effective when he pitched, to the tune of a 2.11 ERA and an even better FIP of 1.98. He led AL starts in strikeout rate and was still among the top control pitchers in the league, walking fewer than two batters per nine innings.
2. Justin Verlander, Houston Astros: Although I opted for Sale to win the award, there is something more aesthetically satisfying (not to mention “objectively superior”) about somebody dominating hitters with 200+ innings, and Verlander did just that. In 214 innings, just one behind Corey Kluber for the league lead, Verlander managed a sub-3 ERA (2.52) and FIP (2.78) and was even more of a control artist than Sale (albeit with a lower strikeout rate). By WAR, Verlander finished first by FanGraphs and third by Baseball Reference measurements (Sale finished second in both).
3. Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays: While the headline of the Rays season was “bullpening”, an approach reliant on heavy use of the bullpen still does need a consistent starter or two to sustain itself for a full season, and Blake Snell was that starter for Tampa Bay. Although his peripherals suggested some luck in achieving it, it’s hard to ignore a 1.89 ERA in awards consideration. By Baseball Reference, he was the best pitcher in the AL in 2018, though his FanGraphs WAR ranked just eighth, thanks in large part to a good but certainly less elite FIP of 2.95.
4. Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros: There was some sense when the Astros acquired Cole in the off-season from the Pittsburgh Pirates that he may turn a corner with the defending champions, but few could have realistically predicted just what would happen in 2018. Cole, while clearing 200 innings and becoming a legitimate co-ace along with the aforementioned Verlander, actually topped his more famous teammate by FIP and finished third in the league in fWAR, finishing sixth in bWAR.
5. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians: It says a lot about Corey Kluber that he so quickly went from out-of-nowhere credible starting pitcher to ho-hum mainstay in Cy Young candidacy that his 2018, in which he led the AL with 215 innings, went 20-7 (as much as I hate to admit it, 20 wins manages to look even better in this bullpen-heavy era, even with heightened awareness that it’s a bad stat for evaluation purposes) and posted a 2.89 ERA and 3.12 FIP, could feel so boring. So while cases could be made for Luis Severino or Trevor Bauer (I will admit that it’s entirely possible I subliminally excluded him because he’s so personally insufferable), as well as relievers Blake Treinen and Edwin Diaz, I feel perfectly comfortable allying myself with Corey Kluber.
1. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets: While I’m not quite as confident about deGrom’s margin of victory as Yahoo’s Jeff Passan (who, to be clear, is much smarter than I am), who predicts a unanimous victory, I do believe that deGrom will win, and he certainly deserves the Cy Young Award. That a pitcher with a 10-9 record has commanded such attention is a testament to his merit–he led NL starters with a 1.70 ERA and 1.99 FIP while finishing just 3 2/3 innings shy of the league-lead in innings. Of the six major player awards, this was the one in which I spent the least time debating first place.
2. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals: The heroics of deGrom led to Max Scherzer falling slightly under the radar in 2018, but with the NL lead in innings, coupled with a 2.53 ERA and 2.65 FIP, would make him a worthy winner in many seasons (one could make an argument for him as the AL Cy Young winner if such things were allowed). His 18 wins, tied for first in the NL, were a testament to Scherzer’s ability to keep a sputtering Nationals team relevant throughout the majority of the 2018 season.
3. Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies: Less acclaimed nationally than deGrom or Scherzer, Aaron Nola actually topped the duo in Baseball Reference WAR (largely a byproduct of terrible Phillies defense, though said defense was more or less competent in Nola starts). While I think that is a bit of a misnomer, I think he is certainly a top three NL pitcher in 2018. In 212 1/3 innings, Nola managed a 2.37 ERA, and while he struck out fewer batters and walked more batters than many of his NL cohorts, a 3.01 FIP still isn’t anything to scoff at.
4. Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks: Patrick Corbin picked a very, very good year for his best season, as he approaches free agency. His 3.15 ERA was good but it wasn’t quite Cy Young-caliber, though his 2.47 FIP (second only to deGrom) in 200 innings helped to lift Patrick Corbin to among the NL’s top pitchers in 2018.
5. Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies: There were several worthy candidates for the final spot in my ballot, includes Freeland teammate German Marquez and Miles Mikolas, but the effort of Kyle Freeland, a Denver native who seemingly broke Coors Field’s tendency to destroy pitchers, deserves recognition. His 2.85 ERA was the best in Colorado Rockies history, and while he may have been the beneficiary of the strong left-side of the infield defense for the Rockies, his results were undeniable.