deGrom, Snell rise to top as 1st-time Cy winners

November 14th, 2018

The Cy Young script has been rewritten. When the Mets' and the Rays' were announced by the Baseball Writers' Association of America on Wednesday night as the 2018 winners of baseball's most prestigious pitching prizes, it was a window into the metrics that matter most when evaluating the modern-day starter and into the way the starting role itself has been altered -- perhaps irrevocably -- in MLB.
With deGrom's runaway win over three-time winner Max Scherzer (deGrom received all but one first-place vote) in the National League, the voters laid to waste any past prestige associated with the win stat and simply sided with one of the most dominant pitching seasons of our time.
Complete 2018 awards coverage
And in Snell's close call in the American League over , the voters went with the sizzle of Snell's rate stats despite the paltry (by typical Cy Young Award standards, that is) size of his workload.

deGrom's 10 wins are now, by far, the fewest for a Cy Young Award-winning starter. And Snell's 180 2/3 innings pitched are now, by far, the fewest for a Cy Young Award-winning starter in a non-strike season.
Where do deGrom, Snell rank among Cy Young winners?
:: NL Cy Young Award voting totals ::
"I would say it's just the quality of work [that matters]," Snell said. "You look at deGrom, and he had a great ERA, and he was going deeper into ballgames than me. So you can't put the wins and losses on him as heavily. Just looking at it, I feel like it's turning more into [what is the] quality of work and what did you accomplish in those innings? I think that's the way it's going."
With ample means of measuring a pitcher's impact in the modern day, certain sacred cows don't necessarily carry the weight they once did.
Then again, it was easy to be enticed by the sub-2.00 ERAs deGrom and Snell carried at season's end.
No qualifying pitcher had a better ERA this season than deGrom's 1.70 mark. It was the best in baseball by .19 points and the best in the NL by .67. In fact, it was the sixth-lowest among qualifying pitchers since MLB lowered the mound to its current height in 1969, and deGrom's league- and ballpark-adjusted 216 ERA+ was the 24th-best mark in big league history.
"I really do love competing," he said. "That's why we play this game, to go out there and compete. Just every fifth day, it's your day and you want to stay out there as long as possible and try to put your team in position to win."
Unlike Snell, deGrom's greatness came with no caveats with regard to workload, as his 217 innings were the second most in baseball. He set records for consecutive quality starts and consecutive starts allowing three or fewer runs.
But with little help from his supporting cast (only two qualifying pitchers had a lower run support average than deGrom's 3.57), deGrom finished just 10-9. So the NL race -- in which the Nationals' Scherzer received the only other first-place vote and of the Phillies finished third -- became a referendum on the present-day value (or lack thereof) of a win stat invented in the late 1800s.

Unwittingly, deGrom became the suitable-for-framing poster boy for the win's weakness as an accurate descriptor of a pitcher's season. He made 19 starts in which he went at least five innings (the bar for entry for starting pitcher wins) and allowed one earned run or none. He won just nine of those starts -- a "conversion" rate of 47 percent in a league in which starters with such a line recorded a win 60 percent of the time.
All-time Cy Young Award winners
In the end, it boils down to this: deGrom won 10 games with the Majors' best ERA, and the White Sox's won 10 games with the Majors' worst ERA (6.13).

"My thought process," said deGrom, who never revealed his frustration with the lack of help, "was, 'Hey, take the ball every fifth day and try to put this team in a position to win and control what you can control.'"
:: AL Cy Young Award voting totals ::
So deGrom rose above not only Scherzer's 300 strikeouts and Nola's breakout year but his own win total. The previous low win total for a Cy Young starter was 13, for both Fernando Valenzuela (13-7 in strike-shortened 1981) and (13-12 in 2010).
Snell's selection, meanwhile, was a reflection of the evolving role of the starting pitcher and the diminishing emphasis on innings pitched.
Prior to Snell, no starting pitcher in a non-strike year had won a Cy Young Award with fewer than the 198 1/3 innings pitched by in 2014. The 200-inning bar has traditionally been a standard for Cy Young Award consideration, but, in a 2018 season that saw the fewest 200-inning pitchers for a non-strike year (13), that bar was abolished. Snell averaged just 5.8 innings per start and also had a two-week disabled-list stint with left shoulder fatigue.
The difficulty in determining what to do about the 33 1/3-inning gap between Snell and Verlander was reflected in the final totals. Though the only two previous pitchers in the DH era to post sub-2.00 ERAs and 20 wins were unanimous Cy Young selections (Ron Guidry in 1978 and Pedro Martinez in 2000), Snell received 17 first-place votes and Verlander, who won the AL Cy Young (and AL MVP) in 2011 and has now finished second three times, received 13.
But the southpaw Snell, 25, certainly made the most of his time on the mound to become the second Cy Young Award winner in Rays history, joining in 2012. He was the Majors' only 21-game winner, and his .178 average against and 219 ERA+ were the best in baseball. Snell's 1.89 ERA was the best among AL qualifiers. He allowed two or fewer runs in 27 of 31 starts and one or none in 21. In 12 starts against the AL's five playoff teams -- the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, A's and Astros -- Snell went 9-2 with a 2.00 ERA.

"I felt it was all confidence, honestly," Snell said. "Mechanics always felt good. For the most part, it was confidence that I could be at that level and compete day in and day out. That's what helped me get to where I'm at right now."
There was some irony in the fact that the Rays -- the first team to employ the "opener" strategy and the rare team to utilize regular bullpen days throughout the season -- also provided a Cy Young Award winner.
"I felt with the opener, I had a bigger role on the team, just because we didn't have as many starters as everyone else," Snell said. "But with that, I was excited to be the guy that they could rely on and count on. I think it helped me become better and better and believe in myself more and more."

There was a time when a starter with less than 200 innings or with just 10 wins had no reason to believe he could win the Cy Young. Wednesday's result was a reflection of how much times have changed.