unwinnable debates

There Is No Right Answer to the National League Cy Young Debate

Three pitchers dominated the National League in 2015, each in different ways. But only one of Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Jake Arrieta can win the Cy Young.

by Matthew Kory
Oct 7 2015, 6:49pm

Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Clevenger has played for the Baltimore Orioles for parts of three seasons as a backup catcher. He was born in Baltimore and went to high school there as well, which makes this a "local boy makes good" bit, one of those nice little stories the sports world gives us from time to time—for one team and its fans, at least. You see, Clevenger, along with Scott Feldman, came to Baltimore from the Chicago Cubs as the return for Jake Arrieta.

That is the same Jake Arrieta who won 22 games and was possibly the best starting pitcher in the National League this season—which is saying something, too, because the National League also has Clayton Kershaw, who just became the first pitcher since Randy Johnson to strike out 300 hitters in a season. The extra weird thing is that Kershaw might not even be the best starting pitcher on his team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. That title might belong to Zack Greinke, whose 1.66 ERA was the best in baseball and who seems to have time-traveled from the era when Bob Gibson or Don Drysdale were throwing at hitters' heads as a way of saying hello.

Read More: Watching Clayton Kershaw, Who Makes It All Work

We know that ERA isn't the best statistic to classify pitchers, but as hundred-year-old stats go, it could be worse. So if you're casting a vote for the Cy Young based on that, you're probably going with Greinke, whose ERA is 0.11 better than Arrieta's 1.77 and a whole 0.47 better than Kershaw's 2.13, a yawning chasm that I hesitate to even mention lest you, the reader, read into it too deeply and fall. Hopefully you've strapped yourself to your seat of choice before reading this. I apologize for forgetting to note the necessity of this previously.

Perhaps the "E" in ERA irks you, though. Perhaps you believe that pitchers should be responsible for all runs that cross the plate on their watch. In that case, you might be interested to hear that both Arrieta and Kershaw have allowed seven "unearned" runs while Greinke has given up only two. If you include all runs, Greinke's "run average" goes up to 1.77, while Arrieta's jumps to 2.04 and Kershaw's to 2.40. Sounds like a vote for Greinke is in the offing, you weirdly particular vote-having so-and-so!

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There are better stats than ERA and RA for distilling the truest essence of how a pitcher has pitched. We've all seen pitchers throw perfect pitches only to give up singles or doubles when a batter weakly dunks the thing over the outstretched glove of a charging fielder. One step farther, or a player shifted a few feet to the left, and that nubber is an out. There is also the matter of when these hits happen. If a team gets six hits in the course of a game, that's bad; if they put them all back-to-back, they're going to score a bunch of runs and a pitcher who has given up just six hits in nine innings is penalized well beyond what he deserved. We are still searching for the statistics that can convey this reality.

As defined by FanGraphs, Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, "measures what a player's ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing." By FIP, our previous leader, Greinke, actually ranks fifth, behind Kershaw, Arrieta, Gerrit Cole, and Jacob deGrom. Kershaw is the only pitcher in the league with a sub-2.00 FIP, meaning he's the one who has pitched best, independent of factors out of his control; his lead in the category is significant, 0.36 over Arrieta and 0.77 over Greinke.

Then there's the much-derided Wins Above Replacement. I myself love WAR—not war, which is good for absolutely nothing—and consider it a pretty great concept. It has its flaws, admittedly slippery defensive numbers chief among them, but it's still the best method we have for determining in one number who played baseball best. What's more, WAR is a cumulative stat, meaning that it gives more credit for more innings pitched. If you look at the FanGraphs leaderboards, you'll see Kershaw with 8.6 WAR, comfortably in front of Arrieta (7.3) and Greinke (5.9). So there you go. Kershaw gets the vote. Problem solved.

Harness the power of HAIR. — Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Except not really, because there are numerous versions of WAR. There's the FanGraphs one listed above, but Baseball Reference has one as well, and that one ranks Greinke first (9.3), then Arrieta (8.6), and then Kershaw (7.5). The reason for the difference is, in essence, that BR uses ERA in its calculations while FanGraphs uses FIP, which means we're kind of back to the earlier problem. Baseball Prospectus also has one—it's called WARP, but it's the same idea—based on a proprietary stat called DRA (Deserved Run Average). BP's leaderboard goes Kershaw (7.9), Greinke (7.6), and Arrieta (7.4), in that order.

If I had a vote, and I most assuredly do not, I'd vote for Kershaw. He threw more innings, had more strikeouts, and the numbers that try to show what should have happened like him better. If you're more concerned with what did happen, then you probably should vote for Greinke. Or Arrieta. Or maybe Kershaw. It's your imaginary vote, so go for it. Vote for Kyle Kendrick if you want, because while it may not be right, it sure is funny.

The best part about this debate is that no matter whom you pick, provided it's not Kyle Kendrick, you're right. The worst part is that everyone—including the people with actual votes—will be a little bit wrong. Renaissances are tricky that way, and in a year in which three pitchers can make a roughly equal claim to the Cy Young Award, the deserving candidates who lose will outnumber those who win.

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