Here we are in MLB awards season again, and life is still pretty darn good for former Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Already the owner of Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and Most Valuable Player awards, the 35-year-old finally won his first World Series ring with the Houston Astros last year. He returned with another monster campaign in 2018, and while his legacy is now assured, no doubt he would love to finally add a second Cy Young Award to his career achievements.
Verlander has a heck of a good case. He led all American League pitchers in fWAR and in WARP (Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR), though he finished behind Blake Snell, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber by Baseball Reference’s WAR calculation. While each of those three will show up on voters ballots — as will Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole — Verlander’s combination of workload and dominance might be the kicker used by voters to untangle a messy award picture.
Writers have been grappling with these issues since the season ended. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic cited workload as a key deciding factor in his column on the subject, in which he proclaims Verlander as the top choice for the Cy Young. Keith Law of ESPN made a similar argument, and actually ranks Snell fifth overall. Verlander has a stronger case on the basis of his strikeouts, walks, and workload.
On the other hand, as Jayson Stark of the The Athletic, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, and CBS Sports decided, some will find Snell’s season too strong to overlook. As the AL leader in ERA and wins, Snell has a lock on two of the most significant traditional metrics used to evaluate a pitcher’s season. While wins aren’t widely used to evaluate a pitcher anymore, runs, earned or not, still form the fundamental basis for how pitchers are graded. As a result, Snell seems like the consensus choice and likely favorite to take home the hardware.
What do we value in a starting pitcher, and how do we weigh those various factors? On Wednesday, we will get a look at how the Baseball Writers Association of America answers those questions, at least for the 2018 season.
2018 AL Cy Young Candidates
While Chris Sale sputtered out entirely in the second half of the season with shoulder issues, it’s worth a look at just how dominant he was in his 158 innings of work. Had he topped 180 innings, even with diminished performance, he would have his first Cy Young locked up. And that perspective sheds some light on the issues at hand.
In terms of ERA, Snell is over a half a run better than Verlander. He also has 21 wins in 31 starts compared to Verlander’s 16 wins in 34 starts. We’ll leave pitcher wins out of this, as voters still weighing a team statistic as a part of the Cy Young voting probably aren’t going to change their mind. When you combine that shiny 20-win threshold with an ERA of 1.90, you’re going to have a lot of voters on your side.
The problem with that perspective is that Sale only threw 17 2⁄3 fewer innings than Snell. This isn’t much of a margin, and neither player’s total even approaches the vague 200-inning threshold that has generally held sway over the past quarter century. Sale also dominated Snell by a full run in FIP, with only a slightly higher ERA (2.11). Sale too leads Snell in two of the three major WAR calculations.
If workload doesn’t matter quite so much as it once did, it would seem to favor Sale more than Snell. In terms of starting pitcher usage, progressive BBWAA voters probably aren’t the type to be swayed by wins or a “lowest ERA is the winner” methodology to begin with. If voters who are more open-minded about workload split their votes between Sale and Snell to a greater degree than expected, it could have opened the door for Verlander instead. Yet, support for Sale’s candidacy has been rather quiet, and he isn’t even a finalist.
Verlander, on the other hand, wins most of the advanced metrics. He posted a 2.78 FIP to Snell’s 2.98 mark. Verlander’s fantastic strikeout numbers and extremely low walk rate wwere enough to make up for the fact that Snell prevented home runs more effectively. Verlander also has his own case to make in more traditional terms, like total innings and total strikeouts. He punched out a ridiculous 290 batters in 2018, easily the best mark of his career. He also cranked out another 34 starts and threw 214 innings, second in the American League to Kluber, who nipped him by one inning. He threw nearly 40 more innings than Snell, and was arguably on a per inning basis, despite the much heavier workload.
Verlander, of course, famously lost two previous Cy Young awards in 2012 and 2016, where he also looked like the clear winner. David Price was probably close enough to make it a coin toss in 2012. Verlander’s rare MVP award for a pitcher the year before may have generated a bit of backlash, as well. In 2016, Verlander’s body of work appeared substantially better than eventual winner Rick Porcello. However, Verlander was inexplicably left completely off the ballot by two writers, which was enough to tip the balance in a contest that probably shouldn’t have been as close as it was.
The 2018 version is a bit trickier. Because of the disparity in workload and changing views on that subject around the game, Snell’s historically low ERA, and the looming shadow of pitcher wins as a thing to care about, it’s difficult to forecast not just the winner, but how voting for some of the other candidates may affect the final vote tallies. There aren’t perfect distinctions between an argument based on advanced metrics versus more traditional statistics. It’s possible sabermetrically-inclined writers are going to tip toward Verlander, while more traditional ones are going to like Snell’s ERA, but it’s not even close to a perfect dividing line this season.
The Cy Young awards for both leagues are set to be announced Wednesday night around 6:00 p.m.