After 22 starts, Johnny Cueto is having the best year of his career. He leads the league in innings pitched and hits per 9 inning, and he is having a career best in almost every measurable category: ERA, ERA, Home Runs per 9 innings, BB%, and K%.
So, that raises the following question: is this the year we bring the Cy Young Award back to the Queen City?
Tom Tango (the guy who wrote The Book), and Bill James both created models to predict Cy Young voting. Tango’s model looks at four variables: innings pitched, strikeouts, and wins. Bill James uses a bit more complicated model by also including saves, shutouts, losses, and a bonus for a pitcher playing for a first place team.
By comparing these predictions to past votes, James and Tango conclude that Tango’s model has been better at predicting recent voting trends (2006-present) while James’ model is better at predicting voting behavior prior to 2006. So, what do these two models say about Cueto? (It is worth noting these projections are updated daily, so it might have changed by the time this article is posted.)
Tango’s model predicts Cueto would come out on top if the voting took place today, winning the Cy Young award (68.5 points). Second place, by a small margin, is Adam Wainwright (68.0 points). In the discussion, but several points behind both of them is Clayton Kewshaw (60.3 points). Tyson Ross is a distant fourth (56.3 points. Although it is worth nothing that under Tango’s model, Kershaw is closer to fourth than second).
James’ model, because it includes a bump for first place and penalties for each loss a pitcher takes, has a different order. Under this ordering Kershaw is first (134.2 points, these are different scales, so you cannot make point comparisons between the Tango model and James’) followed by Wainwright (131.2 points), and then Cueto (119.6 points).
Here are basic pitching stats and fWAR for Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright.
Since the season is only two-thirds complete, it’s worth looking at some of the predictive stats to see which pitcher’s numbers are likely to change as they year plays out and in which direction.
Here are their breakdowns:
The Enemy: Adam Wainwright Wainwright has had a great first half compiling a large number of wins and keeping his ERA at Maddux-like levels. Yet his K% is not in line with the other elite pitchers on this list. His saving grace in the K/BB ratio is a low BB%. Because he has been lucky with home runs per fly ball so far, his SIERA and xFIP are pessimistic about the direction of Wainwright’s ERA, while his FIP is more positive. His lack of strikeouts means that Wainwright has benefitted from a lot of balls falling for outs. His low BABIP backs up this story and, along with his low home run rate, helps explain why his ERA is so low at this point of the year.
Our Guy: Johnny Cueto Bill James’ model loves Cueto’s ability to pitch deep into ballgames. There might be something to say for a pitcher who can give a dominating performance for seven or eight innings each time they take the ball. Given his low ERA, it is probably unlucky that Cueto has experienced 6 losses this year (two have been with 2 and 1 ER). Yet, the predictive measures are not bullish on Cueto. His FIP is the highest of any pitcher on this list, and his xFIP is the second highest. Cueto limits the number of balls that enter play through strikeouts at a good clip but he has the highest walk rate of any of our four possible Cy Young candidates. Cueto has by far the lowest BABIP of the bunch. Cueto has a history of out-pitching his predictive stats in part because he benefits from great defense. Yet, his BABIP is extremely low, even in comparison to his previous seasons. Even a mild regression in this category, combined with a few more losses, will probably be enough for voters to look elsewhere.
The Dark Horse: Stephen Strasberg Strasberg makes this list for a few reasons:
- I used FanGraphs to sort by WAR, and because they use FIP, it values strikeouts.
- His BABIP has been absolutely terrible in the first half (.353)
- King Felix showed that CY voters have the ability to look beyond the top line stats when it comes to voting.
Strasberg sports a strong strikeout-rate while only walking the second-fewest number batters. His FIP and xFIP are in the range of other pitchers that have won the award in the past. In fact, his xFIP and SIERA are both lower than all the NL Cy Young winners since 2008.
Yet Strasburg’s win-loss record isn’t his biggest barriers to winning his first Cy Young Award. No, that’s the guy out in LA.
The Guy Who Should Win: Clayton Kershaw Clayton Kershaw is having one of the best pitching seasons since 2000, when Pedro Martinzez dominated the league (1.74 ERA, 18-6, 9.9 fWAR). Kershaw is striking out batters at an absurd rate while rarely giving out a walk. The scary thought is that this might just be how good he is. His career BABIP (.270) is not too far off of his mark this year. The predictive stats don’t indicate a regression. His FIP and xFIP show that he has not been particularly lucky with his HR/FB ratio. His SIERA is in line with his current ERA, meaning that for a pitcher with his strikeout rate, this is not an unusual pitching line.
Kershaw leads all of baseball in ERA, FIP, WHIP (0.81), complete games (four) and K% for starting pitchers, while leading the NL in strikeouts to walks, BB%, and winning percentage.
It is hard to see a way for Cueto to overcome this, but perhaps Kershaw could fall flat in a few starts near the end of the season. Cueto might get on a roll and get to 20 wins (he probably has 9 more starts) and toss a series of good starts that propels the Reds to the post-season. As Tango and James point out with their models, voters are not fixated on using advanced stats to determine who had the best year, but many times vote for the best stories. Voters might also be tired of writing Kewshaw’s name on their ballot, since he has won two of the last three years.
Awards are anyone’s guess, but at this point, it is fairly clear that Clayton Kershaw is having the best year in the NL.