- The 2016 Cy Young reveal didn’t pass without a touch of controversy on the AL side, but we can learn something from Rick Porcello’s narrow win over Justin Verlander.
The 2016 Cy Young voting brought with it one expected winner and one unexpected bout of controversy. In the National League, the Nationals’ Max Scherzer picked up his second award and first with Washington, easily defeating Cubs co-aces Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. But in the American League, Rick Porcello of the Red Sox topped the Tigers’ Justin Verlander by the tiniest of margins and without the most first-place votes. That prompted a vociferous reaction from model Kate Upton, who is Verlander’s fiancée; she took to Twitter to excoriate the Baseball Writers Association of America for doing to Verlander what she pointedly (and explicitly) claimed only she is allowed to do.
But does Upton have an argument? Was Justin Verlander snubbed for the AL Cy Young?
Short answer: Yes, with an “if.” Long answer: No, with a “but.”
Let’s start with the short answer. Yes, Justin Verlander should have won the AL Cy Young over Rick Porcello if you thought that his lead in certain stats—namely innings, ERA, strikeouts and Wins Above Replacement (albeit only slightly in the first two)—was enough to cancel out Porcello’s advantages in wins, walks, strikeout-to-walk rate, home runs allowed and ERA+.
Let’s move to the long answer: No, Justin Verlander should not have won the AL Cy Young over Rick Porcello, but that’s because no stat that he led in is more important or better than any stat Porcello led in or because Porcello’s advantage in his stats means more. The hang-up, then, is in determining which stats carry the most value.
This battle over what means and matters more perennially reaches its crisis point in the annual MVP discussion, where raw stats run into a wall built out of team wins and division finish. This is how you end up with an AL MVP debate where Mike Trout, the best player in baseball by virtually every objective measure, is likely going to lose to Mookie Betts, a fantastic player in his own right who is the favorite for the award mostly because his team is light years better than Trout’s. It’s a purely subjective and circular analysis: Betts’s team is better, so he must be more valuable; if Trout’s so good, why is his team so bad?
This is a fight that doesn’t normally plague the Cy Young voting, if only because that’s usually a straightforward exercise. Who’s the best pitcher in each league? Look at their stats, see who had the best numbers, pick him and move on.
This year’s AL Cy Young vote complicated that. There was no Clayton Kershaw-type whose season was so dominant that voters could simply write his name in without thinking and move on to a tougher question or a sound night’s sleep. No AL pitcher—not one of the three finalists or any of the very good starters (and one reliever) behind them—had the kind of year that we’ll look back on in awe. Instead, the debate and results looked more like your typical MVP argument than a Cy Young vote—which pitcher and set of stats most closely tracks with what I believe to be most important in a pitcher?
Porcello and Verlander (and third-place finisher Corey Kluber, brilliant and deserving in his own right) had their strengths and their flaws. Porcello had the most wins and the best control, while Verlander was a strikeout machine and the very embodiment of a No. 1 pitcher; Kluber is, in many ways, the same, just with the personality of the box that he came in when the Indians bought him from Amazon. Both Porcello and Verlander make for good comeback stories—the former from a miserable first year in Boston, the latter from a series of injuries that nearly ruined his career. Both are former first-round picks. Both were on winning teams, with Porcello’s unexpectedly capturing a division title and Verlander’s fighting for a wild-card spot into the final week of the season.
The BBWAA electorate struggled mightily to pick a favorite from that duo. Of the 30 writers who voted, only eight picked Porcello as the first-place finisher, with 14 tabbing Verlander as No. 1 on their ballots. But Porcello cleaned up the second- and third-place votes, winning 30 of those to Verlander’s seven. As such, he beat out his former teammate by just five points—the narrowest margin of victory in a Cy Young race since Tim Lincecum topped Chris Carpenter by six points in the 2009 NL voting. Lincecum was also the last pitcher to win the Cy Young despite not receiving the most first-place votes; he finished with 11 to third-place Adam Wainwright’s 12.
Verlander’s chances weren’t helped by the two writers—MLB.com’s Bill Chastain and the Associated Press’ Fred Goodall, both Tampa-based—who left him off their ballots entirely, while Porcello appeared on all 30; Chastain and Goodall both had him first. Goodall’s ballot is particularly odd: He gave his third-place vote to neither Verlander nor Kluber but to Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ (one of three the veteran lefty received despite his strong yet unremarkable season). Neither writer has come out and explained why Verlander didn’t make their cut, though Rays pitcher Chris Archer took to Twitter to note that he had never heard of nor seen Goodall in his four years with Tampa.
But leaving aside some voting irregularity from Florida, it’s not hard to see why this was a divided electorate, unable to come to consensus on who the AL’s best pitcher was and, by extension, how to determine that. Porcello had the most wins and was terrific all season, and that was likely enough for some; Verlander had more strikeouts and higher WAR figures and was also terrific all season, and that made him the favorite for others. What’s fascinating is the voting disparity: To a majority of writers, Verlander was the best pitcher in the AL, but to the electorate as a whole, Porcello was more undeniably in the top two. Verlander was the easy choice for most and a non-entity for the rest; Porcello was obvious for all of them. And while the advanced stats suggest that Verlander likely was the better of the two, that didn’t translate into broad-based support. To make a presidential allusion: Verlander won the cities and coasts, but Porcello won the heartland (party affiliations and policies aside).
No one here is wrong (with the exception of Chastain and Goodall; leaving Verlander off the ballot entirely is mystifying); both pitchers are deserving. But it’s an interesting moment to consider as we have reached a kind of milestone with regards to the statistical revolution. On the one hand, the pitcher with the most wins took home the award; on the other, his victory was narrow and almost didn’t happen. Ten years ago, Porcello might have won this race going away solely by virtue of his 22 wins; five years from now, win-loss record may not matter to the voters at all.
It’s hard (unless you’re Kate Upton) to get worked up one way or the other about who won and who lost. Future generations will not look back on the 2016 AL Cy Young vote and decry our stupidity in crowning Porcello as the league’s best pitcher. This is not Pedro Martinez losing the AL MVP in 1999 despite putting together one of the best individual seasons in major league history; this is simply one great pitcher barely edging out another in a contest of equals. But this could be an instructive vote—one that we may look back on as we continue to try to figure out just how best to value a pitcher, and one that illustrates that, for now, we’re still not quite in agreement on how to do that.