The momentum behind Kyle Hendricks as a Cinderella Cy Young favorite has become palpable since the start of August. What were once raised eyebrows followed by “Hey, the Cubs’ Number Five starter has been pretty good” have snowballed into all-out declarations that Hendricks, on the strength of his MLB-leading ERA, deserves to be the front-runner for baseball’s most coveted pitching trophy. If Kyle is able to continue the run he’s been on over his past 21 starts, he’ll most certainly have most of the Chicago media and a good number of other baseball pundits in his corner.
But to this point, Hendricks is not the best pitcher in baseball. In fact, he’s not the best on his own team. And unless Jon Lester slips up in a start or two over the last couple weeks of 2016, he is the most deserving candidate from the Cubs’ historically good 2016 starting staff.
Objectively, the Cy Young Award winner if the season ended today should be Max Scherzer. He has both the quantity and rate statistics to back this up: leading the league in Innings, Strikeouts, WHIP, K/BB, and WAR while taking on a large in-game workload as well (Scherzer has thrown over 100 pitches nine times this year; by comparison, Hendricks has done so just twice). Scherzer is The Guy you’d want taking the ball in a one-game playoff over all other pitchers in the sport, especially given Clayton Kershaw’s uneven career in the postseason. Scherzer is a baaaaaaaad man. A man who’s very likely going to win the Cy Young.
But after him? Most writers are penciling in Kyle. His ERA and ERA+ are the best arguments in his favor, in addition to the novelty he provides as a relatively soft-tossing pitcher in an era of flame-throwers. This is the exact reason why many consider him the rightful winner of the Cy Young this year: He’s a pitcher, someone who relies on intelligence and preparation along with a tremendous change-up he has learned to leverage in ways few other righties can in this day and age.
But Lester? He’s been better.
Every Monday, I’ll be releasing my Cy Young Tracker, which takes a look at several factors and determines which pitchers are most likely to win the Cy Young based on 1) their prevalence among the league leaders in several important categories, and 2) how often they are dominant. When it comes to dominance, Lester blows Hendricks away:
A “Gem,” as defined by SABRmetric overlord Bill James, as “any start with a Game Score of 65 or higher.” To get a Game Score of 65 is difficult… on August 27th, Lester threw 6 innings, giving up just one run on five hits while striking out 8 against just two walks. His Game Score? 64.
What this shows is that Lester has been a front-of-the-rotation guy more often than Hendricks. The fact that Hendricks strikes people out less than any other pitcher in his stratosphere is seen as a badge of honor. My argument is that while impressive, it shouldn’t make him more deserving than others and blind voters to the competition.
Both have been great. Both have insanely low BABIP, meaning Batting Average on balls in the field of play. But this is more a testament to the Cubs’ otherworldly defense. All 5 of the Cubs’ regular starters this season are in the Top 15 in BABIP in the Major Leagues (The only other teams with more than one pitcher in the Top 15 are the Tigers and Reds, with two apiece).
A stat I like to look at more is FIP, or Field Independent Percentage. This looks at plate appearances that are only in the pitchers’ control, i.e. strikeouts, walks, home runs, etc.
In this stat, no pitcher in the Cubs’ rotation is in the Top 10. Hendricks entered the day 11th in MLB. By the end of the season, it may well be Lester who is ahead of him in this, meaning Lester is superior to Hendricks when controlling his own destiny. More on this in a future post.
The main point is not to anoint Hendricks as the best pitcher on the Cubs’ staff. Sure, Kyle is getting more of the press and is a media darling to swoop in and steal a Cy, but Jon Lester has been every bit the man the Cubs paid more than $150 million for in 2015. Soon, he may have the hardware to back it up.
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