If I Were Important: 2013 NL Cy Young

I'll spare you the suspense.

I’ll spare you the suspense.

When you have a brand new blog and are hoping to attract readers, you should do the exact same posts every single other blog is doing, ensuring that yours gets lost in the shuffle. Wait, that’s the opposite of what you should do? Oh well, too late.

I am not, nor will I ever be, important enough to have an actual vote in baseball awards. That’s okay. I’ve accepted it. That won’t stop me from pretending. My first series of posts will be my picks for the four major regular season awards, because I am boring and uncreative, and also a great salesman. Here is how I would fill out my National League Cy Young ballot, if I were important enough to have one.

The actual Cy Young ballots allow for only five players per ballot. I had originally planned on expanding this to a top 10, just because. But after spending an inordinate amount of time trying to decide how I should rank Jhoulys Chacin, A.J. Burnett and Mat Latos in the 6-8 spots, I realized I was, in fact, spending an inordinate amount of time trying to rank Jhoulys Chacin, A.J. Burnett and Mat Latos in the 6-8 spots. Maybe they knew what they were doing when they decided to limit it to five.

5. Jose Fernandez

Prior to this season, Fernandez was a 20-year-old who had never pitched above high-A. By the end of the season, he was a 21-year-old who had just dominated at the highest level of baseball in the world. Again, he had never pitched in AAA. He had never even pitched in AA. That didn’t stop him from striking out 27.5% of the batters he faced (4th highest rate in baseball among starters) while putting up a 2.19 ERA (2nd).

Fernandez mainly sticks to his fastball, which averages around 95 MPH, and his phenomenal curve, which he throws about a third of the time. He gets away with throwing it so often because he can make it do things like this, and this and this. The only area he has to improve is control. His 8.5% BB% isn’t bad by any means, but it’s not yet elite. And let me be clear, if the only knock a 21-year-old has is that his walk rate is okay but not elite, then he’s doing just fine.

You’d have to go back to Dwight Gooden in 1985 to find the last time a pitcher had performed as well as Fernandez did in his age-20 season. The only recent example who comes close is Felix Hernandez in 2006. Fittingly enough, Hernandez is the pitcher to whom Fernandez is most often compared. He may not be King yet, but he’s well on his way. Just imagine how good he’d be if he could pitch against his own team.

I expect Fernandez to do well in the actual voting. I could see him finishing as high as second thanks largely to his miniscule ERA. But when it comes to Cy Young voting, I’m big into innings pitched. Fernandez logged over 170 innings before the Marlins shut him down, but 170 dominant innings just don’t match up against 230. Speaking of which…

4. Matt Harvey

Harvey’s season was also shortened, but it was an injury instead of an innings limit that cut his short. Before he went down with a torn UCL, Harvey was just about the only one who posed a threat to Clayton Kershaw. At one point in the season Harvey may have even been the favorite to win MVP, let alone Cy Young. His season was over before it should have been, but not before he gave us 178-1/3 incredible innings.

How incredible?

His 2.27 ERA ranked third in the majors, just a hair higher than Fernandez. What’s more is his peripherals suggest his performance was more repeatable. Harvey was first in the majors in both FIP* (a microscopic 2.00) and xFIP* (2.63). He also induced swings and misses at a higher rate (12.5%) than every starter in the majors other than Yu Darvish. At just the age of 24, Harvey looked poised to firmly implant himself in the conversation as one of the very best pitchers in the game. Just goes to show that it might not be a good idea to get attached to a pitcher.

* – Those are fielding independent pitching and expected fielding independent pitching, respectively. You can read about them here and here, respectively.

If there’s a mark against Harvey’s 2013 it’s that his opposition was very, very weak. His opponents’ OPS ranked 587 out of the 726 players who threw a pitch last year. Starting four games against the Marlins went a long way to driving that down. If it weren’t for that he could very well rank even higher despite his limited work, but facing such weak opponents does make his stellar performance look slightly (and only slightly) dimmer.

(Also, he’s just a great sport.)

3. Cliff Lee

If I were to tell you that a pitcher went a month where he gave up 8 earned runs over 39 innings while striking out 54 and walking only 1, would you not immediately guess that the pitcher was Cliff Lee?

That’s what Lee did in September, and it’s as fitting an end to a Cliff Lee season as you can get. Lee led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio for the third time in the last four years and now ranks sixth all-time in that category for his career. He’s often been overshadowed, whether by Halladay, Verlander or now Kershaw, but Lee has been consistently great since his breakout season of 2008.

Some might be surprised at just how great. Lee has thrown at least 210 innings with an ERA no higher than 3.22 in every year since 2008. If you’re into wins above replacement you could argue that Lee has actually been the best pitcher in baseball over the last six seasons. He leads all pitchers in Fangraphs’ calculation of WAR at 37.1 since ’08 with Justin Verlander right there with him at 37.0. I understand not everybody’s a believer in WAR, but leading every other pitcher over the course of six years is indicative of him being one of the best handful of pitchers in the game.

Cy Young voters haven’t seen him that way, though. After winning the award in 2008 by virtue of his 22 wins, Lee has only once again finished in the top 5. That was in 2011, when he won 17 games. Those two seasons notwithstanding, the W has eluded Lee for much of his career. As such, so have Cy Young votes. The same could very well happen this year, as voters will probably not give enough attention to his sub-3.00 ERA over 222-2/3 innings because they won’t be able to see past him only earning 14 wins. I wonder if Lee is a Brian Kenny fan.

2. Adam Wainwright

Wainwright hasn’t suffered from that problem, having won at least 19 games in three out of his last four seasons. This last season may have been Wainwright’s best yet. His 19 wins tied Jordan Zimmermann for most in the NL. More importantly (at least to me), he led all of baseball with 241-2/3 innings pitched. He did this just two years removed from missing the entire 2011 season recovering from Tommy John Surgery. His 6.62 strikeout-to-walk ratio trailed only Lee, and his 2.55 FIP ranked third in the NL behind Harvey and Kershaw.

Perhaps more remarkable than Wainwright’s results are how he obtained them. Wainwright added a four-seam fastball when he returned from Tommy John Surgery last year, and he took that even further this year.

At the age of 31, Wainwright has reinvented himself. He has become a true four-pitch pitcher, no longer relying on the sinker that had been his bread and butter his entire career. The Cardinals signed Wainwright to a 5-year extension last March worth nearly $100 million. That might just be money well spent.

Wainwright has never won the Cy Young award. He finished third in the voting in 2009 behind his teammate Chris Carpenter and Tim Lincecum in what was probably Lincecum’s best season. He then finished second in 2010 by losing out to Roy Halladay, a future Hall of Famer who was still in the prime of his career. Now in 2013 Wainwright had what could have been his best season yet and it’s not even a real possibility that he can win the award.

1. Clayton Kershaw

Surprise!

Kershaw is amazing. I could end right there and it’d be the most decisive thing in this whole post. His curveball is going to be remembered as a thing of legend. Among pitchers since 1919 with at least 1,000 innings pitched, Kershaw is the all-time leader in career ERA. The major caveat there is that he’s only 25 and doesn’t have his post-prime years weighing down his career averages. You could also look at it another way: He’s only 25 and he’s already the best pitcher in baseball. There may have been some debate before this year but he’s now firmly supplanted Justin Verlander as the undisputed best in the game (Verlander, by the way, had only recently taken that title from Halladay. The lesson, as always, is that pitchers are fickle. Kershaw at least has age on his side).

This year Kershaw had a career high in innings pitched (236, fourth consecutive year over 200) and a career low walk rate (5.7%, less than half of what it was when he entered the league in 2008). His greatness has become such that he’s drawn comparisons to that other great Dodger lefty with the once-in-a-generation curve.

From 1961 to 1966, Sandy Koufax had what is universally recognized as one of the greatest stretch of seasons a pitcher has ever had. In just a few years he went from a flamethrowing but erratic spot starter to maybe the greatest left-handed pitcher ever. Let’s see how Kershaw stacks up.

IP/yr K% BB% ERA WHIP ERA-
Koufax ’61-‘66 272 26.5% 6.4% 2.19 0.97 63
Kershaw ’09-‘13 219 25.9% 8.0% 2.43 1.05 65

Koufax’s biggest advantage is innings pitched, which is no surprise. Nobody’s going to throw 300 innings in a season again. It’s just not going to happen, and it’s probably a good thing. What I want to point out is the last column. ERA- adjusts ERA for run environment. For example, a 3.50 ERA in Coors Field in 1999 is a lot better than the same ERA in Safeco Field in 2012. An ERA- of 90 means that the player’s ERA was 10% better than average after adjusting for run environment, and 110 would mean it was 10% worse. Koufax pitched in a pitcher’s park in a pitching-dominant era and limited runs 37% better than average after adjusting for those. Kershaw pitches in the same park in an era less dominated by pitching, and he’s limited runs 35% better than average. Clayton Kershaw over the last five years has limited earned runs at about the same level as Sandy Koufax over his prime. What’s more is that Kershaw didn’t really come into his own as a bona fide ace until 2011. Those numbers could very well end up being even more impressive.

(Koufax, of course, appeared to keep getting better and better until he was forced into an early retirement, so he could have been even better as well, but that’s a story for another post).

I had a thought a few weeks ago that I lived through a golden age of pitchers but wasn’t quite old enough to appreciate it. Maddux, Johnson, Martinez and Clemens* all could be recognized as part of the select few greatest ever. I was too young to recognize that they were anything other than really good pitchers. I didn’t realize how seldom those types of talents come along.

* – Had to do it.

It sounds like hyperbole, but there’s truth to it. Kershaw could be as good as any of them. Or he could blow his arm in his next start and never be the same again. Baseball, huh?

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