On Wednesday evening, to the surprise of nobody, New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom won the National League Cy Young Award. It was nearly unanimous, with just one voter not picking the Mets ace for the award for the league’s top pitcher (and he voted for deGrom in second place). I agree wholeheartedly with the choice of the BBWAA. Frankly, I don’t think they went far enough.
But I digress. My point is that Jacob deGrom’s Cy Young victory was not controversial. He was the closest thing to a unanimous Cy Young pick since 2014, when NL MVP Clayton Kershaw swept the first place votes for the Cy Young Award. For all of the talk about deGrom’s most notable statistical shortcoming–that his win-loss record stood at a pedestrian 10-9–the voters didn’t seem to mind all that much. The voters recognized, correctly, that 10-9 is more of an indictment of the hapless New York Mets offense than it is of the best pitcher in Major League Baseball in 2018.
This has been the case for a while. A sterling win total looks nice but ultimately, while voters might use it as a tiebreaker, they don’t generally use it as a dealbreaker in voting. Eight years ago, Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez was viewed as a controversial test case because he had a mere 13-12 record to go with an AL-best 2.27 ERA along with a league-leading 249 2/3 innings. But in the end, Felix Hernandez received 21 of 28 first-place votes and won the Cy Young Award comfortably.
The war over which statistics are the most relevant in public baseball discussion ended long ago. There may be unresolved mini-battles within analytic circles–say, how much to weigh statistics which reflect what has happened versus statistics which reflect what should have happened given the batted ball data–but the overall trend is unmistakable.
On Thursday’s episode of Pardon the Interruption, ESPN’s seminal and highly influential daily talk show in which veteran sports columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon yell about the daily sports news, Michael Wilbon railed against Jacob deGrom’s Cy Young victory. Wilbon referred to the vote as “analytical hijacking”, declaring that he shares “none of (the) values” of those who prioritize earned-run average to wins. In typical Baseball Twitter fashion, Wilbon’s take was widely ridiculed.
The most obvious reason that Wilbon’s take was so thoroughly mocked is pretty simple–it is a deeply and profoundly stupid thing to claim. Jacob deGrom had the exact same number of wins as Lucas Giolito, the Chicago White Sox starter who had the worst ERA in baseball–the notion that a pitcher’s ERA correlates absolutely to team success when the offensive unit is totally unaccounted for is patently ludicrous. In chastising the electorate’s reliance on numbers, Wilbon cites pitcher wins, which is every bit the number that any other stat is. It just happens to the number he likes, or perhaps more importantly, the number his target audience likes.
Referring to the “values” of those who voted for deGrom implies a lack of righteousness in that camp. Voting for deGrom is not supposed to make one unintelligent–it makes one immoral. Like a politician who scares older voters into believe that only electing him or her can protect older voters from the wrong-headed youths, Michael Wilbon has taken it upon himself to protect against the terrifying rise of not caring about a baseball statistic. It is not as though Michael Wilbon is dumb–the opposite is true. Wilbon is acting indignant about how awful all of this is, but whether he actually believes what he’s saying about pitcher wins or ERA, he doesn’t likely care all that much about it. Michael Wilbon is, above all, an entertainer.
And yet, as is the case with countless poorly constructed Skip Bayless soundbites, fans quickly take the bait.
Of course Michael Wilbon is acting in bad faith. Of course he’s wrong. But he isn’t fighting a losing battle–he’s fighting a concluded one. While the Moneyball revolution of the early 2000s came with an implied belief that statheads fans are smarter than front office executives, this is wildly not the case in 2018–teams spend extensively on analytics departments and hire some of the smartest analysts to front office jobs. In turn, awards voters reflect this. The revolution is over and long won and nothing is gained from shaming those who reflect what is now an extreme minority opinions. This sort of condescension was once an effective weapon in, say, the heyday of FireJoeMorgan.com, when broadcasters such as Joe Morgan reflected the standard in sports journalism. This hasn’t been the case for at least a decade.
It is pointless in 2018 to worry about a bad baseball take, despite my full knowledge that it will not stop. There is such a wide range of high-quality baseabll writing (three writers that come off the top of my head just at ESPN, the network which broadcasts Pardon the Interruption, are Keith Law, Sam Miller, and Dan Szymborski) that dwelling on one guy as a whipping boy, some boring test of virtue signaling among the sabermetric community, serves no real purpose.