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It’s 12:20 a.m. on the west coast; do you know who your Cy Young favorite is?

by on September 28, 2015

I began writing this post before Jake Arrieta threw seven innings of one-hit, nine-K baseball against the Pirates tonight on national TV, so this may now read more more like an affirmation of emerging consensus than the contrarian counterpoint it would have felt like a week ago.

But it sure looks like the NL CY Young Award belongs to Jake Arrieta this year.

A week ago I might’ve told you it was a toss-up between Arrieta, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw, with no right or wrong answer. I still would’ve argued for Jake of course, but mostly because I’m a an obnoxious Cubs homer. But now that argument has the added benefit of being correct.

Now, there’s still going be some subjectivity involved in the decision because everyone puts different weight on different stats, and it would be far from a travesty if this year’s BBWAA reps decide to recognize one of the Dodgers instead, but the events of the past week have made it hard to see Arrieta as anything other than the frontrunner.

So what’s happened over the last seven days to change the calculus? Let’s see:

  • Arrieta: 16 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 1 BB, 20 K
  • Kershaw: 5 IP, 3 R, 6 H, 1 BB, 9 K
  • Greinke, meanwhile, hasn’t pitched since Sept. 18th

If these horses were neck-and-neck coming into the home stretch, it’s pretty clear which one has pulled ahead, at least for the moment. “At least for the moment,” I say, because Greinke and Kershaw are lined up for the next two games against a desperate Giants team. But of course, even if each of them throws a complete-game shutout, they still won’t have matched Arrieta’s seven-day performance.

Of course, while complete-game shutouts are rare events, surely all three of these pitchers are fully capable of doing just that on any given day. Or are they? This brings me to something that I had not previously realized, but learned from this Dave Cameron’s deep-dive at Fangraphs into the statistical differences between the three candidates:

Zack Greinke has not thrown a nine-inning complete game all season.

Greinke is credited with one complete game this year, but it was of the eight-inning type in a 2-1 loss in San Diego on June 13th. Of course it’s not like he can’t go the distance; after all, he did so six times in his 2009 AL Cy Young season and he’ll have two more shots at it this year. But this still makes it feel like his (indeed very dominating) season hasn’t been quite as dominating as his 1.65 ERA makes it seem, especially considering Arrieta has thrown four nine-inning complete games (three shutouts) this year, and Kershaw has thrown three (two shutouts).

Furthermore, as Cameron shows, Greinke’s inability to finish games doesn’t look like a coincidence: Greinke has run into trouble the fourth time through batting orders. He’s only faced 14 hitters the fourth time through, and they’ve torched him to a slash line of .308/.357/.538. Arrieta, meanwhile, has held 26 fourth-look hitters to an almost impossibly low .115/.115/.154. Kershaw, too, has been dominant (.184/.225/.316) – slightly higher than Arrieta’s numbers, but just as impressive, given the higher sample size (40).

This is enough evidence that Arrieta and Kershaw have been dominant in a way that Greinke has not. This is not to say Greinke hasn’t been pretty damn dominant and awesome this year: he has been! And as Cameron makes clear, he’s been the most consistent of the three, meaning that while he hasn’t had as many 4+ ER starts or any (!) sub-6 IP starts, he also hasn’t achieved the same heights as the other two.

All along, Zack Greinke’s Cy Young case has rested on his superlative ERA. This was the case Jayson Stark made explicitly at ESPN earlier this month. A big part of Stark’s case, however (and not a completely ridiculous one), was that no one who finished with an ERA under 1.60 had ever not won the award. Of course, Greinke’s ERA is now above that magic line. But more importantly, we can see that Greinke’s league-leading ERA is so low because he hasn’t been able to do a thing that both Kershaw and Arrieta have been able to do (continue to dominate a lineup late into a game), and so has not been asked to do so by his manager. In most other years, Greinke’s numbers would be good enough to win the Cy Young, but this year, even that minor shortcoming is enough to knock him back to third place.

So how do we choose Arrieta over Kershaw? Cameron notes that Kershaw has had much less help from his bullpen, which has allowed far more of his inherited (bequeathed?) runners to score (6 of 9) than have the relievers following Arrieta (2 of 8) or Greinke (1 of 7). Now, all inherited runners are not created equal, so it’s not pure luck we’re dealing with, but even if we knock Kershaw’s ratio down to Arrieta’s level, it only lowers his ERA to about 2.08, still a quarter-run higher than Arrieta’s.

Another argument for Kershaw is his 281 strikeouts. He has an outside shot at being the first 300-strikeout pitcher since 2002. That’s awesome! But take a look again at his last start. Five innings, three runs, six hits against the Diamondbacks. I listened to that particular game on the radio and… Vin didn’t make it sound like he looked all that good. But he did strike out nine guys. Which translates to more than 16 K/9. Which is very, very good. But what this also says to me is that sometimes strikeouts aren’t as good an indicator of pitcher value as we act like they are (although they are very valuable, Kershaw sure would’ve given up a lot more than three runs if he weren’t also striking guys out). Just looking at one game is just anecdotal evidence, I know, but since the gaudy strikeout numbers are the driving force behind Kershaw’s superior FIP (you didn’t really think I was going to forget FIP, did you?!), that’s enough for me to brush aside the difference between his 2.11 and Arrieta’s 2.45 (before Sunday’s action, by the way).

So this is where the subjectivity comes into play. WAR doesn’t really settle things much (Fangraphs has them ordered Kershaw, Arrieta, Greinke; Baseball Reference has them ordered Greinke, Arrieta, Kershaw). Now, if Greinke wins his final two starts, he almost certainly joins Arrieta in the 20-win, sub-2.00 club, but I’m pretty thoroughly convinced by Cameron’s analysis that Greinke isn’t the guy. So we’re essentially choosing between Kershaw’s sexy strikeout totals and Jake’s sexy ERA and Win totals.

Now, yes, ERA and (especially) pitcher-wins are flawed, but this isn’t a case where those numbers are masking flaws and pumping up an inferior candidate. This is a case where those results-based metrics are serving as a tiebreaker between two equal candidates. Maybe this is why I have sympathy for Stark’s Greinke argument, but I just don’t see how you deny the Cy Young to the guy with the 21-6 record and the 1.82 ERA.

Forget it Chinatown, it’s Jake.

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