2016 Cy Young Ballots

This year’s MVP votes were pretty straightforward. Mike Trout was easily the best player in the American League, and while some people won’t vote for him because his teammates are awful, few will deny he was the most effective player in the league.  I’m sure someone will invent a reason why Kris Bryant wasn’t the most valuable player in the NL, but I haven’t yet figured out on what grounds that argument will be based.

The Cy Young awards are different. Reasonable people may disagree about which pitcher was the best in each league.  Was it the most dominant pitcher, regardless of volume of innings?  Was it the guy who ate up a ton of innings and got a lot of guys out too?  Was it the guy who best used his excellent defense to keep runs off the board?  Was it the guy who kept runners off the bases and succeeded despite his team’s defense?  Let’s take a closer look:

National League

This is a hard one.  What makes a pitcher valuable?  Is it ERA?  If so:

  1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 1.69 (in too few innings to qualify for the title)
  2. Rich Hill, Dodgers 2.12 (in too few innings)
  3. Kyle Hendricks, Cubs 2.13
  4. Jon Lester, Cubs 2.44
  5. Noah Syndergaard, Mets 2.60

ERA certainly matters, but the top two guys threw fewer than 150 innings and the next two guys pitched in front of the best defense we’ve seen in years.  That doesn’t discount any of these pitchers, but the decision can’t end here.  How about FIP?

  1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 1.80 (in too few innings)
  2. Noah Syndergaard, Mets 2.29
  3. Jose Fernandez, Marlins 2.30
  4. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals 2.92
  5. Johnny Cueto, Giants 2.96

These look like more dominant pitchers than the first five guys, but the guy at the top retired 104 fewer batters than the second guy and 212 fewer than the fifth guy.  Volume matters, so let’s apply volume to FIP and adjust for park factors.  That’s fWAR:

  1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 6.5
  2. Noah Syndergaard, Mets 6.5
  3. Jose Fernandez, Marlins 6.2
  4. Max Scherzer, Nationals 5.6
  5. Johnny Cueto, Giants 5.5

I like this list the most so far, but it’s still topped by a guy who pitched for 2/3 of the season and compiled fWAR by striking out guys and not walking anyone.  Was he still the most valuable pitcher by aggregated run prevention?  That’s rWAR:

  1. Max Scherzer, Nationals 6.2
  2. Johnny Cueto, Giants 5.6
  3. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 5.6
  4. Tanner Roark, Nationals 5.5
  5. Carlos Martinez, Cardinals 5.4

These are some new names.  There’s not much consensus this year between FIP-based WAR and RA9-based WAR.  Of course, at this point, we know neither measure is ideal, right?  Pitchers can’t control how the defense plays behind them, but some have proven better at influencing weak contact, right?  Let’s check Baseball Prospectus’s Deserved Run Average:

  1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 2.03 (in too few innings)
  2. Jose Fernandez, Marlins 2.23
  3. Rich Hill, Dodgers 2.63 (in too few innings)
  4. Noah Syndergaard, Mets 2.71
  5. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals 2.85

So the short-timers are back and the Cubs whose defense got everybody out are nowhere to be found.  Let’s apply volume again.  That’s WARP:

  1. Jose Fernandez, Marlins 6.5
  2. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 5.8
  3. Noah Syndergaard, Mets 5.6
  4. Madison Bumgarner, Giants 5.5
  5. Jon Lester, Cubs 5.3

So the most valuable pitcher in the National League was Kershaw. Unless it was Scherzer.  Or Fernandez.  Or one of the three qualified ERA leaders.  I’m stumped.  Let’s try something I’ve used the last few years: a hybrid approach using Fangraphs data that gives full credit to FIP wins (strikeouts, walks, homers), half credit to BIP wins (what happens when the ball is put in play), and quarter credit to LOB wins (everything else that keeps runs off the board):

  1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers 6.975
  2. Max Scherzer, Nationals 6.425
  3. Johnny Cueto, Giants 5.8
  4. Noah Syndergaard, Mets 5.775
  5. Kyle Hendricks, Cubs 5.675
  6. Jose Fernandez, Marlins 5.65
  7. Madison Bumgarner, Giants 5.625
  8. Jon Lester, Cubs 5.575
  9. Jake Arrieta, Cubs 4.825
  10. Tanner Roark, Nationals 4.325

I’ve been accused by friends of being a fipster, and it’s true that I prefer strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed as a measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness to run prevention.  That said, preventing runs matters, and I can’t ignore Baseball Prospectus telling me that the late Jose Fernandez was the league’s most valuable this year.  My official ballot, which could change with a stiff wind, looks like this:

  1. Kershaw
  2. Scherzer
  3. Syndergaard
  4. Fernandez
  5. Hendricks


American League

Let’s look at all those same stats for the AL.  Starting with ERA:

  1. Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays 3.00
  2. Justin Verlander, Tigers 3.04
  3. Michael Fulmer, Tigers 3.06 (in too few innings to qualify)
  4. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees 3.07
  5. Corey Kluber, Indians 3.14

Then FIP:

  1. James Paxton, Mariners 2.80 (in too few innings)
  2. Yu Darvish, Rangers 3.09 (in too few innings)
  3. Corey Kluber, Indians 3.26
  4. Rick Porcello, Red Sox 3.40
  5. Chris Sale, White Sox 3.46

Again, we’ve got a few starters who had great years in limited action.  I used 100 innings as my threshold for all these lists, so the two names at the top above were a surprise. Let’s use fWAR to see who held that great FIP through a long season:

  1. Rick Porcello, Red Sox 5.2
  2. Justin Verlander, Tigers 5.2
  3. Chris Sale, White Sox 5.2
  4. Corey Kluber, Indians 5.1
  5. Jose Quintana, White Sox 4.8

So… this is going to be pretty close, isn’t it?  Let’s look at rWAR:

  1. Justin Verlander, Tigers 6.6
  2. Chris Sale, White Sox 6.5
  3. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees 5.4
  4. Jose Quintana, White Sox 5.2
  5. Rick Porcello, Red Sox 5.0

Baseball Reference seems to think this is a two-man race.  Does Baseball Prospectus agree?  Here’s DRA:

  1. Yu Darvish, Rangers 2.56 (in too few innings)
  2. Michael Pineda, Yankees 2.58
  3. Cole Hamels, Rangers 2.65
  4. Chris Sale, White Sox 2.69
  5. Carlos Carrasco, Indians 2.69

Not by this measure.  Pineda had a 4.82 ERA and a 3.80 FIP.  Apparently, his 2016 was among the most extreme miscarriages of justice we’ve ever seen on a baseball field.  Onto WARP:

  1. Chris Sale, White Sox 7.0
  2. Justin Verlander, Tigers 6.8
  3. David Price, Red Sox 6.5
  4. Cole Hamels, Rangers 6.2
  5. Corey Kluber, Indians 5.9

Ok, we’re back to those two names.  Finally, my hybrid WAR:

  1. Justin Verlander, Tigers 6.05
  2. Rick Porcello, Red Sox 5.825
  3. Corey Kluber, Indians 5.575
  4. Chris Sale, White Sox 5.5
  5. Jose Quintana, White Sox 5.1
  6. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees 5.1
  7. Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays 4.675
  8. David Price, Red Sox 4.35
  9. JA Happ, Blue Jays 4.075
  10. Marco Estrada, Blue Jays 3.875

In the NL, I see eight starters who could reasonably win the Cy Young award. In the AL, it’s probably six.  None of these guys stands out enough to prevent a reliever like Zach Britton from stealing the real award (though Rick Porcello’s winz will probably be enough).  I’ll save the relievers for their own award.

As to my ballot, the top spot comes down to Verlander and Sale, who threw almost the same number of innings with the same fWAR, rWAR within a tenth of a win (in favor of Verlander), and WARP within two tenths (in favor of Sale).  Verlander had more strikeouts, Sale had fewer walks.  Here’s my tiebreaker: Verlander threw his 227 2/3 innings in 34 starts; Sale threw his 226 2/3 in 32.  That means Sale went deeper into games, on average, sparing his bullpen, and accumulating the same value in slightly fewer opportunities.  Basically, I’m choosing dominance over volume, though neither candidate has an obvious advantage in either of those domains.

  1. Sale
  2. Verlander
  3. Porcello
  4. Kluber
  5. Quintana
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