Awards Watch: Keuchel, Arrieta should take home AL, NL Cy Youngs
Awards week continues today with the Cy Young voting, with the winners announced live on MLB Network during a one-hour special starting at 6:00 p.m. ET. This is one of the most compelling years for the races in recent memory: The competition in both leagues is extremely close, and the National League Cy Young award race is one for the ages, pitting two pitchers who had historic seasons against the winner of three of the last four NL Cy Young awards.
Note: Ballots for all awards were submitted on Oct. 5, before the start of the postseason. I am a member of the BBWAA but do not have an awards vote this year. The finalists below are listed in alphabetical order. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
American League Finalists
Gray had a 2.13 ERA through the end of August but effectively fell out of this race by posting a 6.84 ERA in September. He’ll deserve his third-place finish, but will not draw any first-place votes. Those will be split between the other two finalists, Keuchel and Price, whose final numbers were extremely similar. Both of them also have strong narratives to attached to those figures.
For Price, he played a huge role in helping the Blue Jays reach the postseason for the first time in 22 years after Toronto acquired him at the non-waiver trading deadline. When he made his first start for the Jays, the team was a game behind the Twins for the second wild-card spot in the AL; he beat Minnesota in his debut to pull Toronto even in that race, then went 7–1 with a 2.05 ERA in his next nine starts before throwing a dud in his final regular-season turn. Most importantly, four of his ten starts with the Jays came against the Yankees, who were in first place in the AL East when Price was picked up. Toronto won three of Price’s starts against New York, with the lefthander posting a 1.71 ERA in 26 1/3 innings. Price also beat the Angels and Rangers during that stretch, giving him six wins against teams that were also vying for playoff positions.
Keuchel, meanwhile, was simply the most valuable player on an Astros team that improved by 16 wins over the year before, one that spent 139 days in first place in the AL West and ultimately snapped a decade-long playoff drought by claiming the AL's second wild-card spot. Moreover, his early dominance (a 0.80 ERA in his first six starts of the season) helped fuel the Astros to an 18–8 record over the first month of the season. Without that early surge, Houston may not have been as aggressive in promoting eventual Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa or 21-year-old Lance McCullers, who proved to be the Astros’ third-best starter. The team certainly wouldn’t have traded for Scott Kazmir, Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers at the non-waiver deadline, either. The Astros’ success in 2015 literally started with Keuchel, who threw seven scoreless innings in an Opening Day win over Cleveland. Without him leading the way, their season would have aligned much closer to pre-season expectations.
Those narratives are irrelevant to the discussion of who deserves this award, but you know they will influence who wins it. As for the numbers, both southpaws were effectively dead even in run prevention, with Price leading by three points of ERA and Keuchel leading by one point of ERA+. You can throw those numbers out, as well as their won-loss records, which are team-dependent stats. They are also in a virtual tie in terms of how deep into games they pitched, with Keuchel having the slightest of edges in innings per start and one extra shutout but the same number of complete games. Both allowed 17 home runs; their walk rates were just about the same, with Price walking 1.9 men per nine innings to Keuchel’s 2.0; and their total number of a base runners (hits plus walks plus hit by pitch) was nearly identical, as well, with Keuchel allowing 238 to Price’s 240.
The largest gaps were in strikeouts and innings pitched. Price struck out nine more men in 11 2/3 fewer innings, but to me, the innings difference is more significant. With everything else being so close, the 11 2/3 extra innings Keuchel threw break the tie, not only because he allowed fewer base runners and the same number of home runs despite working those extra innings, but also because eating innings in and of itself is valuable. Everything being equal (which it very nearly is here), the pitcher who threw more innings had the better season. That’s why Keuchel deserves to win this award. Why he will win it may have more to do with his league-leading 20 wins, All-Star Game start and the narrative above, but you take what you can get.
Who Will Win: Keuchel
Who Should Win: Keuchel
National League Finalists
Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
16–7, 301 K, 2.13 ERA, 175 ERA+, 0.88 WHIP, 11.6 K/9, 7.17 K/BB, 232 2/3 IP, 7.1 IP/GS, 4 CG, 3 SHO
Sorting out the AL Cy Young race is child’s play compared to this. Greinke posted the eighth-best ERA+ for a qualified pitcher in the Live Ball era. Surely he should win the Cy Young award, yes? Not so fast. Arrieta’s ERA+ was just three points lower and tied for ninth-best over the same span, and he threw 6 1/3 more innings, struck out 36 more batters and completed three more games, all of them shutouts and one of which was a no-hitter. Then there’s Kershaw, who has won the last two NL Cy Youngs and three of the last four (he finished second in the voting in the one year he didn’t win). He led the league in as many of the categories listed above as Greinke and Arrieta combined, including finishing first in the majors in innings pitched and becoming the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002 to reach 300 strikeouts in a single season.
I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here. A completely valid argument could be made on behalf of any one of these three pitchers. Simply surveying Wins Above Replacement finds Greinke leading in Baseball-Reference’s WAR but a distant third in FanGraphs’ WAR and in second place in Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement Player (which now uses that site’s new Deserved Run Average statistic, which adjusts for a multitude of factors, in its WARP calculations). Kershaw leads in WARP and fWAR but is third in bWAR. Averaging the three statistics puts Kershaw out front and Greinke in last, but the gap between them is 0.42 wins, with Arrieta sandwiched in the middle—hardly a large enough difference to make WAR the final word on this race.
Kershaw fares well in those advanced sabermetric statistics because he excelled in the sort of fielding-independent statistics that are most valuable for projecting future performance, but we’re not concerned about that here; we’re trying to evaluate who was the most effective pitcher in the season that has already passed. Deserved Run Average tells us that was indeed Kershaw, mostly because he didn’t benefit from the outstanding pitch framing Greinke received from Yasmani Grandal (who caught 26 of Greinke’s starts but just 12 of Kershaw’s) or the Cubs’ superior defense. Per DRA, adjusting for those things (along with several others in which the differences are less significant) closes the gap in run prevention between Kershaw and the other two, allowing his superior peripherals and major league-leading innings total to carry the day.
That’s a compelling argument based in hard math (by which I mean that the calculations are both purely objective and very difficult). I must admit, however, that if I did have a Cy Young vote this year, I would find it very difficult to vote for Kershaw for reasons that may be more subjective than I’d realized. As great as Kershaw was this season, Greinke and Arrieta (who posted a 0.86 ERA over his final 20 starts) had more memorable seasons. Given how close the overall value of all three pitchers was—arguably within the margin of error for all of that math and certainly close enough that three different formulas produce different results—I think this race should and will come down to Greinke and Arrieta, with Kershaw finishing third.
Narrowing it down to Greinke and Arrieta, I favor the latter. ERA+ tells us that, after correcting for their home ballparks, the two righties’ run prevention was essentially even, and things are just as tight in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Greinke holds slim leads in all three of those categories, but Arrieta threw more innings, struck out far more batters and allowed fewer home runs (10 to Greinke’s 14) despite throwing those extra innings and pitching in a far more homer-friendly home ballpark. Indeed, Dodger Stadium this season had a home-run park factor of 101 (a tick above neutral) according to the Bill James Handbook, while Wrigley Field’s home-run park factor was 131, the third-highest in the majors this past season behind Miller Park and Camden Yards.
Also significant to me is that Arrieta completed four games, three of them shutouts and one of those a no-hitter, while Greinke didn’t throw a pitch in the ninth inning all year (his lone complete game was a 2–1 loss on the road). That might seem fussy, but this race is close enough that those trying to rank these three almost have to be fussy. With no clear best choice, this race ultimately comes down to such fussiness.
That’s why I believe that Arrieta not only should win, but also will. Since starting Awards Watch in 2010, I have correctly predicted the winner of 37 of the last 38 BBWAA player awards. The only one I got wrong was last year’s AL Cy Young award, which went to Corey Kluber and not Felix Hernandez, as I expected. I believed then (and still do now) that Hernandez deserved that award, but what I ignored in making my pick was Kluber’s league-leading win total (18 to Hernandez’s 15) and dominant finish (1.81 ERA over his final 19 starts). This year, it’s Arrieta who led the league in wins and who was not only more dominant pitcher down the stretch, but was also historically great in his final 20 starts. He went 16–1 with a 0.86 ERA over that span, with every one of those 20 starts being quality; ten of them were scoreless, and three of them, including his no-hitter, were shutouts.
I believe that finish and Arrieta’s 22 wins (the most by an NL pitcher since Arizona's Brandon Webb in 2008) will carry the day with the voters, but I’m fully prepared to be wrong a second time, and I wouldn’t rule out a tie in this race, either. They do happen. Mike Cuellar and Denny McLain tied for the AL Cy Young in 1969, Butch Metzger and Pat Zachry tied for the NL Rookie of the Year in '76, John Castino and Alfredo Griffin tied for the AL Rookie of the Year in '79, and, most significantly, Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell tied for the NL Most Valuable Player award that same year despite voters being able to rank ten different players on their ballots. (This year’s Cy Young ballots allowed voters to rank just five.)