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Cy Young Award criteria continue to evolve

Advanced metrics pushing win totals to background
August 27, 2018

While Googling some Cy Young Award-related stuff the other day (it's a wild and lavish life, but somebody's got to live it), I stumbled upon an ancient ESPN.com column from Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. Written in the olden times of 2002, the piece was titled "Wins, innings pitched matter

While Googling some Cy Young Award-related stuff the other day (it's a wild and lavish life, but somebody's got to live it), I stumbled upon an ancient ESPN.com column from Hall of Famer Joe Morgan. Written in the olden times of 2002, the piece was titled "Wins, innings pitched matter most toward Cy Young."
You might be aware that, back in the early to mid-2000s, as analysis shifted more and more toward advanced analytics, Morgan, then an ESPN broadcaster, became a go-to target of the baseball internet intelligentsia. There was even a popular web site -- FireJoeMorgan.com -- that used his name as the backbone for brutal (and hilarious) takedowns of poorly conceived or executed baseball journalism.
So I want to make it clear I'm not here to dunk on Morgan. On the contrary, I would venture to guess his argument that wins and innings pitched matter most toward the Cy Young Awards was one shared by a substantial percentage of Baseball Writers' Association of America voters at that time.
Randy Johnson was the unanimous winner in the National League that year, finishing first in wins (24), innings (260), ERA (2.32), strikeouts (334)… You name it, really. That was an easy choice.
It was more interesting in the American League. Barry Zito was first in wins (23) and fourth in innings, though, with 229 1/3 frames pitched (10 shy of his league-leading teammate Tim Hudson), he wasn't exactly wanting for workload. His 2.75 ERA ranked third and paled in comparison to that of league leader Pedro Martinez (2.26), and this was before anybody had easy access to a stat like ERA+, in which Pedro (202) was well out in front of Zito (158). But Pedro pitched 30 fewer innings and won three fewer games. The final vote was close, but Zito edged Pedro by six first-place votes.
It would sure seem that the wins and innings mattered quite a bit there.
As you know, the world at large and, certainly, the baseball world is a lot different in 2018 than it was in '02. And this year's Cy Young Award voting could be a fascinating window into how much BBWAA attitudes have adjusted with regard to wins and innings.
Do these two stats still matter most toward the Cy Young Awards? And more important, should they?
Let's discuss.
NL Cy Young Award race: Will wins carry weight?
Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola oppose each other at 7:05 p.m. ET in Philadelphia tonight for the second time in the past week, and Jacob deGrom is on the bump in Wrigley at 8:05 p.m. So it's a perfect time to take stock of an NL race in which those three figure prominently.
Our latest MLB.com poll has deGrom, despite his 8-8 record, in front with 20 of 31 first-place votes and Scherzer, who is 16-6, getting the other 11 first-place votes. Nola (15-3) is in third.
So deGrom ranks 25th in the NL in wins, but first in our NL Cy Young Award poll.

It's hard to say how reflective this poll is of the BBWAA input at large, but it seems a pretty clear indicator that, in our MLB.com group at least, we're graduating from placing not just undue emphasis but any emphasis on win totals. We saw the seeds of this when Timothy Lincecum (15 wins) and Zack Greinke (16) won in the NL and AL, respectively, in 2009, and when Felix Hernandez won the AL Cy Young Award with just 13 victories in '10.
But if you look at the last decade and where Cy Young Award winners ranked in their league in wins, those situations are still outliers.
2017: Max Scherzer 4th, Corey Kluber 1st
2016: Max Scherzer 1st, Rick Porcello 1st
2015: Jacob Arrieta 1st, Dallas Keuchel 1st
2014: Clayton Kershaw 1st, Corey Kluber 1st
2013: Clayton Kershaw 2nd, Max Scherzer 1st
2012: R.A. Dickey 2nd, David Price 1st
2011: Clayton Kershaw 1st, Justin Verlander 1st
2010: Roy Halladay 1st, Felix Hernandez 18th
2009: Tim Lincecum 4th, Zack Greinke 7th
2008: Tim Lincecum 2nd, Cliff Lee 1st
deGrom is threatening to tear this thing up, and it's beautiful. Because what we're seeing from deGrom, who is first in the NL in ERA (1.71), ERA+ (216), FIP (2.07) and homers/nine innings (0.4), might be the greatest example yet of the silliness of the win stat.
There are a lot of ways to illustrate the point, but consider this: deGrom has 14 starts this season in which he's gone at least six innings and given up one or zero earned runs. His record in those games is 6-2 with six no-decisions. Scherzer has three fewer starts of that caliber, and in those outings, he's 7-1 with three no-decisions. Nola has 14 such starts, and he's 12-0 with two no-decisions.
We don't know how tonight will turn out, let alone how the rest of the year will turn out. By season's end, there might be genuinely good arguments against deGrom getting the NL Cy Young Award.
But his won-loss record will not be one of them. It simply shouldn't matter.
AL Cy Young Award race: Should innings have impact?
Chris Sale is leading the AL in ERA (1.97), ERA+ (221), FIP (1.95), WHIP (0.85), strikeouts per nine innings (13.5), Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement (6.4), FanGraphs WAR (6.1), and, ergo, our MLB.com poll.
But Sale is absent from the Red Sox's rotation because of a shoulder issue, and those lost innings could crater his case by year's end. (Sale ranks just 10th in the AL in wins with 12, but his wins situation obviously isn't quite as stark as deGrom's, so we'll focus on innings here.)
Sale has thrown just five innings in the month of August. As a result, he will likely fall well shy of the 200-inning mark. Even if Sale returns in time to make six starts in September (and at the moment, who knows?), his average innings per outing would take him to a total of about 184 for the year.

The lowest innings total for a Cy Young Award-winning starter in a non-strike year was Kershaw's 198 1/3 in 2014. Given that historical precedent, the smart bet is on Sale (and Trevor Bauer, who ranks third in our poll but might not return to the Indians' rotation until just before the end of the regular season) falling back in the race.
You can likely rule out any relievers winning the AL Cy Young Award (if Zach Britton couldn't finish higher than fourth in 2016 after one of the greatest relief seasons in history, it's hard to imagine the likes of Blake Treinen or Edwin Diaz will fare much better this year), so the safest picks right now are Kluber, Verlander and Gerrit Cole, all of whom have sub-3.00 ERAs and are on pace for north of 200 innings.
Is that fair to Sale, Bauer and the Rays' Blake Snell (another guy with Cy Young Award-worthy stats who is on pace to finish shy of 200)?
Well, you can look at this one of two ways:
Option A: Reaching 200 innings is more rare than ever and, therefore, should matter more than ever. In that aforementioned 2002 season, there were 42 pitchers who reached 200 innings. That's significantly more than the 2016-17 seasons combined (30 pitchers).
Makes sense.
Option B: The Cy Young Award standard needs to be recalibrated for modern times.
Unfortunately for those who prefer their world to be black and white, this makes sense, too.
When Kershaw won (unanimously, I might add) with that paltry (by Cy Young Award standards) innings total in 2014, he finished in the 85th percentile for innings pitched as a starter that season. Martinez was in the same percentile when he came up just short in '02.

We obviously don't know where Sale will finish or how the rest of the league will finish this season. But last year, the 85th percentile for innings pitched as a starter was just 168. Sale, Snell and perhaps Bauer (who was at 166 innings when he suffered a stress fracture in his right leg) can still cruise past that.
So while a possible total around 180 innings might not sound like much when compared to generations past, it holds up as a significant workload in today's relief-heavy environment. Heck, these days, merely qualifying for the ERA title (162 innings) is a feat. In 2002, there were 83 qualifiers. Last year? Just 58.
Full disclosure: I'm an AL Cy Young Award voter this year, and at this moment, I have no idea whether I'll lean toward Option A or B. A lot is going to happen between now and the end of the regular season.
But I do believe that falling short of 200 innings shouldn't be the absolute disqualifier it's generally been in decades past. Same goes for what will be a weak win total by deGrom.
The game has changed, and the way we evaluate these awards cases has to change with it.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.