The Tigers' Max Scherzer is said to be a lock for the Cy Young award according to some prognosticators. Scherzer is out front on the strength of a 19- 3 Won- Loss record. He also boasts a league leading WAR of 5.9, is second in strikeout ratio at 9.96 K's per nine innings, and is among the leaders in ERA at 3.01.
There is another Tiger pitcher who is having a fantastic season, and who should be listed near the top of Cy Young ballots. Anibal Sanchez has been over shadowed somewhat by Scherzer's near record victory pace, but Sanchez is the league leader in ERA with a stellar 2.50 mark. That's well ahead of second place Yu Darvish. Sanchez is also right on Scherzer's heels with a K/ 9 ratio of 9.67, and is third in WAR among AL pitchers at 5.5 WAR.
Sanchez also leads the league with the lowest Home runs per nine innings ratio of just 0.43 HR/9. Two criteria seem to keep Sanchez in Scherzer's shadow. One is that his 14- 7 won- loss record doesn't get the oohs and aaahs of Scherzer's 19- 3 record. The other is that Sanchez missed some time earlier in the season on the disabled list.
Despite the time off, Sanchez has out paced all but two other starting pitchers, Scherzer and the Mariners' Felix Hernandez in pitcher WAR. That's quite impressive, considering Sanchez lost three or four starts. Averaging his WAR over the number of starts, Sanchez would lead the league. His WAR is 0.4 ahead of Chicago's Chris Sale, and a full win ahead of the Rangers' Yu Darvish, despite throwing 30 to 40 fewer innings.
There is a campaign, mainly led by the MLB Network's Brian Kenny, to ban the mere mention of pitcher wins from the Cy Young discussion. He has a point, in that pitcher wins are heavily dependent on the work of team mates. Wins are dependent on run support, and bullpen support, as well as timing that is outside the starting pitcher's control. Still, Scherzer's other statistics are plenty justification to give him the Cy Young award this season.
Unlike the league's Most Valuable Player award, which is given to the player who makes the most valuable contribution to his team, the Cy Young is given to simply the league's most outstanding pitcher. So, the impact on the team should not weigh as heavily in the criteria as it does for MVP.
In my book, pitcher wins are nice on a starting pitcher's stat sheet. They are an indication that, when a particular pitcher took the mound, his team won, he left them with a lead, and he threw more innings than any other pitcher for his team that day. They're not meaningless. But there are numerous other statistics, including ERA, WHIP, WAR, FIP, and the K/9, HR/9 and BB/9 ratios that are more important in the Cy Young discussion.
That leaves us, then with the simple fact that Sanchez missed some starts due to injury, but otherwise has had as fine a season as any other pitcher in the league. Even considering the missed time, a strong case can be made that Sanchez is second only to Scherzer in terms of his production on the mound this season.
Here are the rankings of the leading candidates for the American League's Cy Young award :
(through Friday's games)
One thing that stands out on this chart is that the five pitchers listed are consistently among the top five or six in the league in each category. For what it's worth, Justin Verlander would be seventh in fWAR, the Rangers' Derek Holland would be sixth, and Doug Fister ranks Eighth.
Pitcher WAR is a function of Fielding Independent pitching, which is a product of strikeout ratio, home run ratio, and walk ratio. A pitcher's performance in those categories is placed in an average baseball setting independent of any help from fielders in making outs. Sabermetricians tell us that FIP is a better predictor of future performance than ERA, which is partially dependent on fielding and some degree of good fortune.
For a definition of these statistics, click on the heading for the glossary definition at fangraphs.com Here is the link to the full chart of statistics that these rankings are based on.
In terms of what Cy Young voters look for, the last five winners in the American League have led the league in ERA. When the award was first given in 1956, for about a decade, the winner was the pitcher with the most wins.
It stands to reason that Sanchez fares better when using ratios as opposed to counting stats, as his missed starts will not count against him. But David Price of the Rays was awarded the Cy Young in 2012, while Justin Verlander threw 27 more innings, or the equivalent of three complete games. Price had the edge in ERA and Won- Loss record, but Verlander had the better strikeout ratio, and a significantly higher WAR.
With three weeks left in the season, and probably three more starts apiece, Scherzer is going to finish with the best record. In fact the Cy Young award is his to lose at this point. But let's not lose sight of the performance that Anibal Sanchez is putting on this season. On a given night, Sanchez is at least as likely as Scherzer to have a dominating performance. When the Tigers traded their top pitching prospect and shelled out $ 80 million to extend him for five more seasons. The way things look right now, it was worth all that, and more.