When Max Scherzer went head to head with the National League’s All Star starter in Matt Harvey of the Mets and came away with the win, he accomplished something that only two other pitchers have done in the history of the game. Scherzer is only the third pitcher in baseball history to post 19 wins against only one loss. But that does not, and should not automatically qualify him as the winner of the Cy Young award, given to the league’s most outstanding pitcher.
There was a time when the Cy Young award was just handed to the pitcher with the most wins. After all, Cy Young’s claim to fame is that he has more wins -- 511 victories to be precise -- than any other pitcher in the history of the game. Young is not known for his ERA; he doesn’t even rank in the top 50. He isn’t among the all time leaders in strikeouts, or WHIP, or FIP, either.
There is one other category where Young is the all time leader, and that is pitcher wins above replacement, or WAR. In 22 seasons spanning from 1890 through 1911, he posted a WAR of 170.3, easily better than Walter Johson and Roger Clemens, who are next on the list. If we check the rankings for WAR in 2013, we see that Scherzer holds the edge over the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez by 5.6 to 5.5 on Fangraphs. According to Baseball-reference, the two are tied atop the league at 5.8 WAR apiece.
Pitcher WAR is determined by taking the number of runs allowed by a pitcher, adjusting for home park and defense, and subtracting a number calibrated to runs allowed by a "replacement level" pitcher, and converting the total run differential into wins based on league averages. A complete description of pitcher WAR is here.
But baseball does not live by WAR alone, either. Unlike the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award, the criteria is not the amount of value that a player provides to his team. It is for the most outstanding pitcher, regardless of the impact on his team’s won- loss record. Pitcher wins are very dependent on run support, bullpen support, and factors outside the control of a starting pitcher.
The voters for the Cy Young award appear to have moved on from pitcher wins as the holy grail of pitching, giving the award in 2010 to Hernandez with a record of 13-12, and to Zach Greinke of the Royals the previous season with 16 wins. In both cases the respective pitcher led the league in ERA. In fact, Justin Verlander led the league in ERA in 2011 and won the award, while David Price did the same in 2012. The last five AL Cy Young awards have gone to the league's ERA leader.
Hernandez leads Scherzer in ERA, but he does not lead the league. If you're going to give the award to the qualified pitcher with the best ERA, that distinction currently goes to the Tigers’ Anibal Sanchez, with a 2.46 ERA. When you adjust for ballparks, Sanchez has the best ERA+ at 171, Scherzer is third at 154, and Hernandez is seventh at 139. (100 being league average).
WAR is one statistic that attempts to sort out the runs that a pitcher would be responsible for using only the factors that he can control. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) uses strikeouts, home runs, and walks per nine innings, along with an adjustment for balls in play to calculate an ERA like number that is independent of luck or defense. That number is compared with replacement level, then converted to wins to get pitching WAR. Hernandez holds a slight lead over Scherzer in FIP, but Sanchez again leads the league.
So if we’re not using Wins, not using WAR, and not using ERA, what statistics should be considered when naming the league’s best pitcher? I suggest using combination of statistics including ERA, FIP, WAR, strikeouts, WHIP, hits per nine innings, and some more advanced metrics, which I'll get to below, rather than relying on one number as the ultimate measure of pitching performance.
A look at the statistical leaderboards shows that Hernandez leads the league in rWAR and innings pitched, Scherzer leads in wins, fWAR, win/loss percentage, walks plus hits per inning (WHIP), hits per nine innings, and he leads King Felix in strikeouts and strikeout ratio.
Anibal Sanchez leads the league in ERA, FIP, fewest home runs per nine innings, adjusted ERA+, and is second behind the Rangers’ Yu Darvish in strikeouts per nine innings. Sanchez belongs in the Cy Young conversation on his own merits.
In fact, four Tiger pitchers- Scherzer, Sanchez, Verlander, and Doug Fister rank among the top eight starters in the American League in pitcher WAR through Sunday’s games. All five Tiger starters rank in the top 14 in FIP.
Here are some more statistics to consider. The top ten in the league in each category are found here on Baseball_reference.com:
Adjusted pitching runs considers a pitcher’s total contributions to a team’s runs using linear weights. Scherzer leads with 29 runs saved, Darvish and Sanchez follow with 28 and 26, respectively. Hernandez is fifth with 24.
Adjusted pitching wins is basically the same statistic, converting the APR to wins. Scherzer leads with 3.1 wins, followed by Darvish and Sanchez. Hernandez is sixth with 2.5.
RE24- measures the pitcher’s effectiveness given the actual situations that they pitched in versus the league average in those situations, using the 24 base/ out situations (for example, no outs and bases loaded, or one out with a runner on first, etc). Scherzer leads the league in this category. Hernandez is third, Darvish second, and Sanchez sixth.
Win Probability Added (WPA)- is a situational, leverage dependent statistic that calculates the probability of winning vs the average pitcher. Scherzer leads the league, the Tigers’ Joaquin Benoit is second, and Hernandez eighth.
Situational Wins- WPA divided by a leverage index which takes the leverage situation out of WPA and converts it to a context neutral situation. Scherzer leads the league, with Darvish second, Hernandez third, and Sanchez fourth.
All of these statistics provide a measure of how well pitchers perform in either a neutral context or in the actual context that their performance occurred. In either case, Scherzer comes out ahead of Hernandez.
We see the same names appearing among the leaders in most pitching categories, with Scherzer, Hernandez, and Sanchez consistently among the leaders, and with Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda also hanging around near the top.
So who should be given the Cy Young award? I would hasten to add that there is over a month left in the 2013 season -- a full one sixth of the season -- so judgment should be withheld until all the numbers are tallied. But so far, the fact that Scherzer is ahead of Hernandez in the critical categories of fewest hits and base runners allowed, as well as strikeouts and adjusted ERA+, would give him a slight edge on my score sheet.
The fact that Hernandez has pitched more innings should work in his favor, although the Cy Young voters did not give Verlander that benefit when they gave the award to David Price last season. Price, by the way, leads the league in strikeouts to walks (K/BB) and BB/9 ratios, but is absent from the leader board in most other categories. The fact that Anibal Sanchez missed a few weeks on the disabled list works against him. Otherwise, he could be as deserving as any pitcher in the league.
So, for those who don’t want to see the Cy Young award simply given to the pitcher with the most wins, do not assume that’s the reason that Max Scherzer could win the award. There are plenty of other reasons, independent of wins, to give the award to Scherzer.