Not long ago, the thought of Justin Verlander winning his second Cy Young Award would have been derided as wishful thinking. Yet, here we are, and the Detroit Tigers’ ace is once again the best pitcher in the American League. Whether the baseball world will recognize him as such is much less certain. The odd predilections of some BBWAA voters aside, Verlander has the strongest case among the handful of top candidates in the AL.
I'm going to dominate soon! I'm close. Doubt me if you want... We'll see. #gotigers— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) May 4, 2016
Verlander is going to lead the AL in strikeouts and innings pitched by a nice margin. He's currently second in ERA. He has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the AL. By most measures he's second in WAR among the league leaders. Since his bold, "I'm going to dominate" tweet back in early May, Verlander has been as good as his word, and is clearly the best pitcher in the AL.
He'll finish with 16 or 17 wins, a healthy total for those that care about pitcher wins. Perhaps most impressive, he's been an absolute monster in the second half as his team struggled for a postseason berth. Verlander's second half ERA stands at 2.00 over 103.1 innings. His strikeout percentage has spiked to a superb 31.7 percent of batters faced. His WHIP in that time span is a minuscule 0.85. And he's saved the Tigers' struggling bullpen by averaging almost seven innings per start. Still, April happened, and it remains the thing standing in the way of a cakewalk to his second Cy Young award.
Right from the start, we'll eliminate Chicago's Chris Sale, and the New York Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka from the conversation. While Sale's ERA and strikeout totals are outstanding, Verlander has him beaten soundly in both. Tanaka is currently leading in ERA, but his workload and strikeout totals are well below the other top candidates. And like Sale, the Yankees won't be playing postseason baseball. That shouldn't matter, but of course, to those who get a vote, it always does. Either way, whether by team success or their peripheral numbers, Sale and Tanaka don't move the needle.
The three remaining candidates are the most deserving, and each has his own distinct argument centered around either wins, ERA or WAR.
Porcello's sole argument is in his win total. This is a pretty archaic perspective on pitching at this point, but unfortunately, we've seen over the years that many Cy Young voters continue to regard wins as a pitcher statistic, rather than a team one. Those who know better will be shaking their heads if Porcello wins the Cy Young on the basis of his teammates giving him more support. His FIP is good, but Kluber's is better across the board. No, if Porcello takes home his first Cy Young award, it will be based on his win total of 22 and counting.
Really, it's Porcello who is kind of the odd man out here. He's had a fine season, and I wouldn't go so far as to say he'd be an unworthy winner. In fact, many Tigers fans, myself included, would enjoy seeing our former fifth starter named the best pitcher in the AL for 2016. There just isn't really a good argument to make that he was more valuable, or better, than Verlander or Kluber this season. Was he in the ballpark? Sure.
So, the contest really comes down to Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber, and it's a close one. These seem clearly the two best candidates for the award. However, Verlander leads in strikeouts, innings pitched, and ERA to this point. If preventing runs is your tiebreaker, Verlander wins. If you value workload, Verlander wins. Win probability added? Verlander 3.27 to Kluber 1.65. If you consider the strikeout totals, or strikeouts minus walks, as the mark of the more dominant pitcher? Verlander wins.
Yet, Kluber leads in WAR, at least for the moment. And that's where things get interesting. The Indians' ace has allowed 22 home runs in 215 innings this season. Verlander has given up 30 in 220 2/3's innings pitched. Despite having the lower ERA, it's how Verlander gave up his runs that is at issue here. His FIP is 3.55 to Kluber's 3.25, and that makes all the difference in terms of WAR. Verlander leads in strikeouts and walks, but Kluber's advantage in the third pillar of FIP, preventing the long ball, gives him the overall edge in WAR value.
FIP has its uses and some proven utility in predicting future ERA. While it has taken a little hit as batted ball data produces a better understanding of how much control a pitcher has over balls in play, it's still a very useful thing to know about a pitcher. Apart from his catcher, the only responsibility for the metrics expressed in FIP lies with the pitcher. Still, it's an attempt to consider what should have happened, and is better used to predict the future than to gauge results. It doesn't express what actually happened in terms of runs allowed this season.
Another issue with using FIP as a deciding factor, is that it gives Verlander more blame for allowing home runs, but doesn't counter that with credit for allowing so few baserunners. The very flyball tendency that has presumably caused the extra home runs, has also made things easy on a poor Tigers' outfield and produced a lot of easy outs well beyond his infield fly ball rate. It isn't just an accident or a fluke that his BABIP is .251, nor that his WHIP sits a clean 1.00. It certainly isn't the result of having a good defensive team behind him.
Such is the debate. Whether that is even the debate most voters will engage in is another question, and the answer is probably no. Barring something really unexpected -- and no Zach Britton should not, and will not, win -- it'll be one of Rick Porcello, Justin Verlander, or Corey Kluber taking home the 2016 Cy Young award. Bet on it being Rick Porcello. Method of victory? Wins and narrative.
Porcello has the appeal of being a first-timer, leading an exciting young team in Boston. Indeed, ESPN's Cy Young odds have Porcello leading, with Kluber second. But again, his only argument is in his win total, which reflects his team's success instead of his own.
Verlander has a good story to tell, too. The former MVP and Cy Young winner has returned in fairly unprecedented fashion to his former status as one of the most dominant workhorses in the game, with more strikeouts and innings than anyone, and the ERA lead over his closest competitors. He's also been outstanding since the MLB All-Star break and is clearly the one who has built momentum all year long.
Down the stretch, and really since the beginning of May, he's been the best in the AL. One more good outing will likely give him the lead in most of the WAR formulations. Kluber is simply excellent by any measure for an Indians team having its best season in years.
Of course, the season isn't over yet. While Kluber is out of action, Porcello and Verlander have a little more work remaining. As the Cy Young debate hits high gear, each will likely have another chance to make their case. In Verlander's case, carrying an inconsistent team into the playoffs is probably imperative for him to win his second Cy Young. However the playoff implications shake out, you can bet that the former teammates will have plenty to pitch for in the season's final week.