The city of Chicago has a pitcher who, among starters, has a legitimate case at claiming the Cy Young Award.
He just isn’t on the North Side.
Welcome to the Cy Young Tracker here on MLBMayhem.com, a weekly look at who has the inside track at winning the most coveted pitching award in all of baseball. Each Monday for the rest of the season (so, you know… three Mondays…), I’ll unveil who ranks as the Top 10 among starting pitchers as most deserving to take home the Cy. And, since there’s talk of it in the American League, I’ll give a nod to Zach Britton of the Baltimore Orioles as he seems to be the one reliever with a real shot at claiming the Junior Circuit’s version of the award.
First, the parameters. How does this get tabulated? What is a good score? Are people really asking these questions, or am I just hoping they are because that means they’re critically analyzing this determination?
The Cy Young Tracker looks at two things when trying to name the best pitcher in each league:
- Where they rank among their peers
- How often they dominate a game
The first point is easy. For that, I look at the Top 10 in each league in the following categories:
- Pitcher WAR
- FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching)
First place in each league gets 10 points, second place gets 9, third gets 8, and so on. I add those up (so if you lead the league in all 10 categories, you had 100 points and I stop even keeping score because at that point you should win the unanimous Cy and all exercises in proving that are redundant and moot).
The second point is where things get fun. How can we really measure “domination?” I chose to go with how many gems a pitcher throws. “Gem” is a word that’s been around in pitching jargon for decades, but it took sabermetrics deity Bill James to put an exact definition on it. A “Gem” is any starting pitching performance with a Game Score of 65 or better.
It’s hard to get a Gem; a quality start usually clocks in between a 50-55 on the Game Score meter, so a Gem is above and beyond that. It is the kind of performance that gives your team not only an excellent chance to win, but no excuse to lose.
I divide the number of Gems thrown in a year by the number of total starts, so 8 Gems in 30 starts would be a .267… this is pretty typical for a #2 (or great #3) guy in your rotation: dominant maybe once or twice a month, but not a guy you’d want pitching in a Wild Card Playoff game because their upside is so infrequent.
Okay, now that we’ve got the scoring system out of the way, let’s get to the results!
Max Scherzer has been the best (healthy) pitcher in baseball this year. He leads the league in 5 of the 10 categories looked at, including two of the three Pitching Triple Crown categories (Wins and WHIP). You can make cases for Kyle Hendricks all you want, and anyone who leads the league in ERA and ERA+ is worthy of serious consideration, but there have been five pitchers better overall than him this year.
Scherzer is dominant in 64.5% of his starts this year. For historical comparison, here are some previous Cy Young winning Gem Percentages:
Jake Arrieta, 2015: 60.6%
Justin Verlander, 2011: 64.7%
Having a Gem Percentage of over 65% puts you in historic territory:
Clayton Kershaw, 2014: 74.1%
Greg Maddux, 1995: 67.9%
Bob Gibson, 1968: 79.4%
Sandy Koufax, 1963: 75.0%
Scherzer is the kind of guy you’d want with the ball in Game 7. With respect to Jon Lester, Johnny Cueto, Syndergaard, and MadBum, this is Scherzer’s award. Etch his name into it now.
Among starting pitchers in the AL, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber are head-and-shoulders above the rest. At this moment, Sale is just the slimmest of margins ahead of Kluber thanks to his Gem Percentage: Kluber has a 43.3% rate, while Sale is outstanding in 51.7% of his starts. There are other metrics you can look at that put Kluber ahead of Sale, but this tracker uses a mix of old and new statistics to help give a more well-rounded perspective on a pitcher’s traditional and sabermetric value.
The Case For A Reliever in the AL
First off: Ugh. I don’t want to have to make this argument. I don’t like relief pitchers winning the Cy Young, even when they are having the kind of Holy Frijoles year Zach Britton is having. It just feels oily to me to give a closer the award. But here we are in 2016.
Britton leads the American League in Win Probability Added, at 5.9. Closers always have the top mark in this category, but consider Andrew Miller is in 2nd place with a 4.7. Third is the Blue Jays’ Roberto Osuna with 3.5, so Britton has a substantial lead in this category. Wade Davis led the AL last year, and he posted just a 4.3 WPA. So Britton is as lights-out as they possibly come and the numbers back that up.
(Quick note – Britton’s WPA is 81st-best in baseball history this year, but you don’t have to go back too far to find one much better… Zach Greinke posted a 6.88 Win Probability Added last year, preposterous for a starter).
When the field is as crowded at the top as it is in the AL this year, and no one pitcher has put together a string of butt-kickings that voters can keep on their mind while casting ballots, a closer is perfectly capable of sneaking in and stealing the Cy Young Award.
Kluber has won it before, and Sale has done his share of slicing and dicing opponents as if they were White Sox throwbacks, but neither has been able to set themselves apart. Don’t be surprised if either one ultimately takes the trophy home, but this is likely to be Britton’s year.