There’s a great race in the National League that’s going to make September really exciting. No, not the NL West division race, nor the NL Wild Card race. But the battle for the Cy Young Award. There are three prime candidates to choose from. Jacob deGrom of the Mets, Aaron Nola of the Phillies, and Max Scherzer of the Nationals. The decision is probably going to come down to what you think counts the most in considering an “outstanding pitcher”.
(NOTE: All stats current as of 9/6/18, prior to the start of the day’s games. Numbers in parentheses indicate their ranking in the NL)
There are three stats that are included in the “Pitcher’s Triple Crown” – Wins, ERA, and strikeouts.
As of this morning, here’s where our trio stands (W-L record, ERA, K’s):
deGrom: 8-8, 1.68 (1), 230 (2)
Nola: 15-4, 2.23 (2), 188 (4)
Scherzer: 16-6. 228 (3). 260 (1)
If you don’t consider the “win” to be a valid stat for a pitcher (I have discoursed on that matter here and here), then it’s pretty clear who gets the nod – at the moment.
Everyone is in agreement that deGrom’s mediocre record is due to the appaling lack of run support he’s gotten from his teammates, so I won’t belabor that point here.
As it happens, there’s some grumbling about how ERA is dependent on the defense behind the pitcher – something he has no control over. And strikeouts? Well, it’s nice when a pitcher can overpower or befuddle a batter. But it shouldn’t really matter how you get them out, should it? What you really want to do is keep runners off the bases.
There are a bunch of new stats that take these into account. ERA+ accounts for park effects and conditions across the entire sport (runs tend to go up in a hitting environment, for example). Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) tries to take defense out of the calculations. More “old school” is WHIP – Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched. How they are at keeping runners off the basepaths, in other words.
How does our trio compare when it comes to ERA+, FIP, and WHIP?
(NOTE: On ERA+. higher is better. On FIP and WHIP, lower is better)
deGrom: 220 (1), 2.08 (1), 0.963 (2)
Nola: 187 (2), 2.76 (4), 0.974 (3)
Scherzer: 186 (3), 2.73 (3), 0.878 (1)
Of course, one can roll all of the stats into the convenient and mysterious Wins Above Replacement. It happens that there are a number of ways to calculate that arcane number. Both Baseball Reference (bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR) have their own formulae, and they have versions that take into account just pitching related stats (Let’s call those versions “WARp”).
Pick your favorite.
Now, given the lack of a truly dominant “position player” in the NL, some are suggesting that one of this trio could do well in the Most Valuable Player voting. Especially since the rankings shown for WAR cover ALL players, not just pitchers. One way to use stats in that argument is to look at Win Probability Added, which is basically how much overall a player has contributed to his team’s chances of winning. I’ve written on that here. It has the immense advantage of taking the game situation into account, and it doesn’t care if you’re a pitcher or a position player.
Here’s the WPA for our trio, courtesy of Fangraphs:
deGrom: 5.69 (1)
Nola: 5.25 (3)
Scherzer: 5.27 (2)
Note that in fourth place, leading all position players, is Paul Goldschmidt with a WPA of 3.99…. Of course, you’re going to get those who still complain that a pitcher should not get the MVP, since they already have the Cy Young Award. I refer them to this essay.
I also note that recently, CBS Sports complied a list of the 50 best players in baseball. Here’s where our guys stand overall:
The next highest National League player is J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins at #15…. The awards are going to be interesting this year, because not only is one of these three likely to wind up being the best pitcher in the National League, but the best player overall…..