2017 NL Cy Young Award

November 19, 2017
Unfinished Business, Upcoming Events
 
Before diving into the main article, there’s some unfinished business from my prior article about young players in history, both those that took off like a rocket and sustained their early success, as well as those that trailed off.  There were a few comments posted that I never circled back to because, after a certain amount of time, people stop going back to old articles to look for new comments.  So, I’ll acknowledge them here.
 
Member DHM pointed out that Ted Williams, had he not missed time to World War II, would have been far and away the highest ranking under-25 left fielder.  As it was, he was #2, only a few points behind Frank Robinson anyway.  I agree….I didn’t really micro-analyze the results for gaps like that, but it’s a fair point.
 
Also, on the sub-topic of Hall of Fame starters who got off to slow starts by age 25, members W.T.Mons10 and mrbryan pointed out, respectively, that Jackie Robinson and Hoyt Wilhelm could have been mentioned.  Again, I agree.  When I pulled my results, I only pulled in players who had some track record by age 25.  The pull did not account for players like Robinson or Wilhelm who debuted at later ages.
 
So, again, thanks to all of those who posted their comments and observations.
 
Also, on the topic of "upcoming events"….in the next week or so I will kick off our annual "How Well Do You Know your BBWAA?" contest, in which Bill James Online members can submit their predictions on what percent of the vote each Hall of Fame candidate will receive in the balloting this year.  So, look for that……
 
On to the main article.
 
The 2017 NL Cy Young Award
 
I thought we were seeing a first this year.  I was wrong….
 
In 2017, Clayton Kershaw led the NL both in wins (18) and ERA (2.31).  However, he did not win the Cy Young award.  In a rather one-sided decision, he finished 2nd to Max Scherzer, who took home 27 of the 30 first place votes.
 
I was mildly surprised by this.  Not disappointed.  Certainly not angry.  Just a little surprised.  I had anticipated that voters would lean towards Kershaw based on leading the league in both of those categories.
 
I was wrong….
 
So, I thought I’d sit down to write a quick article on the historical nature of this.  I had anticipated that it had never happened before where a pitcher had led in both of those categories but failed to win the Cy Young award. 
 
Wrong again…
 
Turns out it has happened once previously.  I went back and checked all seasons going back to 1967, when the Cy Young award first started giving out separate awards to each league (from 1956-1966, there was just a single, combined award given to Major League pitchers, so I did not include those).
 
There were 23 instances where the same pitcher either led or tied for the league lead in both wins and ERA.  21 of those took home the Cy Young award.  Those 21 instances are below, listed chronologically:
 
Year
League
Pitcher
Team
Record
ERA
1972
NL
Steve Carlton
Philadelphia Phillies
27–10
1.98
1974
AL
Catfish Hunter
Oakland Athletics
25–12
2.49
1975
AL
Jim Palmer
Baltimore Orioles
23–11
2.09
1978
AL
Ron Guidry
New York Yankees
25–3
1.74
1985
NL
Dwight Gooden
New York Mets
24–4
1.53
1986
AL
Roger Clemens
Boston Red Sox
24–4
2.48
1989
AL
Bret Saberhagen
Kansas City Royals
23–6
2.16
1994
NL
Greg Maddux
Atlanta Braves
16–6
1.56
1995
NL
Greg Maddux
Atlanta Braves
19–2
1.63
1997
AL
Roger Clemens
Toronto Blue Jays
21–7
2.05
1998
AL
Roger Clemens
Toronto Blue Jays
20–6
2.65
1999
AL
Pedro Martínez
Boston Red Sox
23–4
2.07
2002
NL
Randy Johnson
Arizona Diamondbacks
24–5
2.32
2006
AL
Johan Santana
Minnesota Twins
19–6
2.77
2007
NL
Jake Peavy
San Diego Padres
19–6
2.54
2008
AL
Cliff Lee
Cleveland Indians
22–3
2.54
2011
NL
Clayton Kershaw
Los Angeles Dodgers
21–5
2.28
2011
AL
Justin Verlander
Detroit Tigers
24–5
2.40
2012
AL
David Price
Tampa Bay Rays
20–5
2.56
2014
NL
Clayton Kershaw
Los Angeles Dodgers
21–3
1.77
2017
AL
Corey Kluber
Cleveland Indians
18–4
2.25
 
There are just 2 instances where the pitcher leading in both of those categories did not win the Cy Young.  As mentioned previously, one was Kershaw in 2017.   The other occurred in 1984.
 
Mike Boddicker of the Orioles led the AL with 20 wins and a 2.79 ERA in ‘84.  However, he did not win the Cy Young award.  Willie Hernandez, who had a bit of a legendary season for the World Champion Tigers that year (winning the MVP as well), took home the Cy Young award.   In fact, Boddicker wasn’t even runner-up.  He finished 4th.
 
Here are the results of that 1984 AL Cy Young balloting.  I included ERA+ and rWAR just as benchmarks for reference, but obviously the voters of 1984 didn’t have those metrics at their disposal, since Big Brother didn’t bother to calculate and supply them (my homage to Mr. Orwell, thank you very much…..)
 
Rank
Name
Tm
Vote Pts
1st Place
IP
H
W
L
ERA
SV
SO
ERA+
rWAR
1
Willie Hernandez
DET
88
12
140.1
96
9
3
1.92
32
112
204
4.8
2
Dan Quisenberry
KCR
71
9
129.1
121
6
3
2.64
44
41
152
3.3
3
Bert Blyleven
CLE
45
4
245.0
204
19
7
2.87
0
170
144
7.2
4
Mike Boddicker
BAL
41
3
261.1
218
20
11
2.79
0
128
139
5.1
5
Dan Petry
DET
3
0
233.1
231
18
8
3.24
0
144
121
3.5
6
Frank Viola
MIN
2
0
257.2
225
18
12
3.21
0
149
131
4.4
7
Jack Morris
DET
1
0
240.1
221
19
11
3.60
0
148
109
2.5
7
Dave Stieb
TOR
1
0
267.0
215
16
8
2.83
0
198
146
7.9
 
Of course, this era was kind of a heyday for closers winning the award.  From the mid-‘70’s to the early ‘90’s, 4 closers took home the Cy Young award in the AL – Sparky Lyle in ’77, Rollie Fingers in ’81, Willie Hernandez in ’84, and Dennis Eckersley in ’92.  In the NL, in that same general era, there were 4 more…..Mike Marshall ’74, Bruce Sutter ’79, Steve Bedrosian ’87, and Mark Davis ’89.  So, in the course of 16 seasons, there were 32 Cy Young awards given, and closers won one-fourth of them.
 
After Eckersley’s award in ‘92, there was a gap of 10 seasons without a closer winning the Cy Young.  Eric Gagne won the NL Cy Young in 2003, but we haven’t seen one since, as the image of the closer as someone who could be considered the best pitcher in the league has kind of faded into the ether.  Oh, you can still find closers among the leaders in the balloting here and there, but they’re not usually serious contenders.  They no longer appear to be deified to the same degree that they were 25 to 40 years ago.
 
What’s kind of interesting about 1984, I think, is not so much that Hernandez and Quisenberry finished above Boddicker, but that Bert Blyleven did.  After all, Hernandez did take home the MVP that year, and Quisenberry finished 3rd in the MVP balloting.  Again, closers were frequently placed on a pedestal in that era.  However, compared to Blyleven, Boddicker had 1 more win and a slightly better ERA, although Blyleven had a better winning percentage and a more impressive strikeout total.  I suspect that, with the focus on the 2 dominant closers, the fact that Boddicker led the league in both wins and ERA may have been largely ignored, with the voters ultimately seeing not much difference between Blyleven and Boddicker.
 
So, What Does This Mean?
 
When we witness something like we did with the 2017 Cy Young, I start to wonder whether it has any significance in terms of how the voters are leveraging the information at their disposal, and whether they are starting to place more value on different things than they traditionally have.
 
First, to level set the review, here is a list of the top 2017 NL Cy Young finishers, along with some key metrics for each pitcher:
 
Rk
Name
Vote Pts
1st Place
Pitch rWAR
IP
W
L
ERA
SV
HR
SO
ERA+
H/9
1
Max Scherzer
201
27
7.3
200.2
16
6
2.51
0
22
268
177
5.7
2
Clayton Kershaw
126
3
4.6
175.0
18
4
2.31
0
23
202
180
7.0
3
Stephen Strasburg
81
0
6.5
175.1
15
4
2.52
0
13
204
176
6.7
4
Zack Greinke
52
0
6.0
202.1
17
7
3.20
0
25
215
149
7.7
5
Kenley Jansen
22
0
2.9
68.1
5
0
1.32
41
5
109
318
5.8
6
Gio Gonzalez
18
0
6.6
201.0
15
9
2.96
0
21
188
150
7.1
7
Robbie Ray
6
0
5.0
162.0
15
5
2.89
0
23
218
166
6.4
8
Jacob deGrom
2
0
4.4
201.1
15
10
3.53
0
28
239
119
8.1
9
Jimmy Nelson
1
0
3.3
175.1
12
6
3.49
0
16
199
126
8.8
10
Alex Wood
1
0
3.3
152.1
16
3
2.72
0
15
151
154
7.3
 
And, from the BBWAA web site, here is the complete breakdown of ballots by 1st through 5th place votes that each candidate earned:
Player, Team
1st
2nd
3rd
4th
5th
Points
Max Scherzer, Nationals
27
3
 
 
 
201
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
3
25
1
1
 
126
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
 
1
23
3
2
81
Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks
 
1
3
15
9
52
Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
 
 
2
5
6
22
Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
 
 
1
5
5
18
Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks
 
 
 
1
4
6
Jacob deGrom, Mets
 
 
 
 
2
2
Jimmy Nelson, Brewers
 
 
 
 
1
1
Alex Wood, Dodgers
 
 
 
 
1
1
 
Scherzer and Kershaw were the only candidates to be named on all 30 ballots, with Strasburg appearing on 29.
 
One initial reaction to all of this could be to simply conclude that voters are placing more emphasis on rWAR.  After all, in comparing Kershaw to Scherzer, Kershaw had the "traditional" edge in wins (and winning percentage) and ERA, but Scherzer easily outdistanced him in both rWAR and strikeouts.  However, I think there’s more to it than that.
 
For example, Scherzer had an additional 25 innings on Kershaw, as Kershaw missed a significant amount of time.  Perhaps there’s some subliminal value placed on reaching 200 innings pitched level.  More on that later…. 
 
One other factor in Scherzer’s favor was his rather impressive hits per 9 innings pitched figure of 5.7.  That is one of the lowest figures for a qualifying pitcher in history.  Here are the top 10 seasonal figures:
 
Rank
Player
Year
Hits per 9 IP
1
Nolan Ryan
1972
5.26
2
Luis Tiant
1968
5.30
3
Nolan Ryan
1991
5.31
4
Pedro Martinez
2000
5.31
5
Ed Reulbach
1906
5.33
6
Dutch Leonard
1914
5.57
7
Max Scherzer
2017
5.65
8
Carl Lundgren
1907
5.65
9
Sid Fernandez
1985
5.71
10
Tommy Byrne
1949
5.74
 
As a quick sidebar….there are some interesting names on there. 
 
Ryan (twice) is no surprise, as he is the career leader in this category (6.56 hits per 9 innings).  Neither is Pedro, who’s #12 all-time (7.07), or even El Sid, who checks in at #4 for his career (6.85)
 
Tiant’s 5.3 figure was achieved in the 1968 "Year of the Pitcher" (#11 on the all-time list is Dave McNally’s 5.77 mark, also from 1968, while Bob Gibson’s 5.85 from that same season was #19).  Again, no surprise that someone from that rather stingy year shows up on the list.
 
Leonard’s result occurred during his historic 1914 season when he achieved his record 0.96 ERA. 
 
Reulbach and Lundgren achieved their results in back-to-back seasons for the Cubs during their great run from 1906-1910 when they won the NL pennant 4 times in 5 seasons, and batting averages were historically low.
 
Perhaps the most interesting name on the list, then, is Tommy Byrne.  Byrne had a decent year for the Yankees in ’49 on the surface – 15-7, 3.72, and he led the league in strikeouts per 9 innings with 5.9.  However, he also gave up 179 walks in 196 innings pitched, a "nifty" 8.3 walks per 9 innings pitched.  Ouch.  Of course, that wasn’t unusual for Byrne, as he gave up nearly7 walks per 9 innings for his career as a whole. 
 
In any case, Scherzer’s rather stingy hit totals were among the best in history, and that certainly helped his case.
 
In comparing the 2 pitchers further…..Kershaw did lead the league in ERA with a 0.20 edge on Scherzer, but when you look at ERA+, which adjusts ERA relative to the league and ballpark, they are much closer, with Kershaw’s 180 just a little better than Scherzer’s 177.
 
So what does it all mean?  Does it imply that voters are leaning more heavily on WAR that ever before?  Does it mean that pitchers wins are being de-emphasized, which has been the case in some prior Cy Young award results (for example, Felix Hernandez 2010)?  Although, on the other hand, just last year, Rick Porcello won the AL Cy Young despite finishing behind both Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber in rWAR, with the edge likely given to Porcello due to his 22 wins, as opposed to Verlander (16 wins) and Kluber (18).
 
I suppose my conclusion would be that, while I do think that both of those trends are occurring, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the scales have undeniably tipped.  If WAR carries that much weight, for example, why wouldn’t the voters who opted for Scherzer over Kershaw also place Strasburg over Kershaw as well?  Kershaw and Strasburg had nearly identical innings pitched, strikeouts, and ERA+, but Strasburg had a considerably higher WAR (6.5 vs. 4.6).
 
So, I suspect that analyzing this year’s vote may be more complicated than simply concluding that WAR has taken over.  I certainly suspect that WAR played a significant part, but I don’t think the voters blindly awarded it to him based on that one piece of information.  I think Scherzer was close enough in things like wins and raw ERA that the voters felt that Scherzer’s extra workload, more impressive strikeout numbers, and his stinginess with hits allowed gave him an edge. 
 
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a "historic" occurrence would have been of a different type if Kershaw had actually won the award.  You see, if Kershaw had won the award, it would have represented the fewest innings pitched that a Cy Young award-winning starting pitcher had ever thrown in a full season.  The closers who won the award, of course, all had thrown relatively few innings (except for Marshall in ’74, who threw an amazing 208 1/3 innings of relief that year).  And, technically, the "lowest" by a starting pitcher would have been by David Cone, who won the Cy Young in 1994 while throwing only 171 1/3 innings, but that was a strike-shortened season. 
 
Kershaw, with 175 innings, would have set a new low-water mark for starting pitchers winning the Cy Young award in a full 162-game schedule.  The previous low?  Kershaw again, with 198 1/3 in 2014 (which was the year he also won the MVP).
 
And, I think, that may have been the clincher for some voters.  Kershaw (and Strasburg, for that matter) had only a few innings more than the minimum that a pitcher needs to qualify for the ERA title (162).  I suspect that Scherzer’s extra 25 innings pitched carried enough weight in the final analysis among the top 3 contenders (Scherzer, Kershaw, Strasburg) to tip the scales.  That may just have been too few innings for some voters to put Kershaw above Scherzer, despite Kershaw’s advantage in wins and ERA.  They may have felt that he just missed too much time.
 
In short, I feel like there’s evidence that the voters considered a broad range of factors.  They didn’t do the traditional knee-jerk reaction of giving it to Kershaw as the dual leader in wins and ERA, but I also don’t think they gave to Scherzer simply because he led the league in WAR.  I think they considered several categories of performance.  And, if that’s the case, I think they served the award well.  Scherzer is a worthy winner, even if I was personally a little surprised.
 
A Final Thought
 
As a final thought…..I think Scherzer is just about a lock for the Hall of Fame now.  He has joined the rather exclusive list of 3-time (or more) Cy Young winners (source: baseball-reference.com):
 
3-Time Cy Young Award Winners (*denotes Hall of Famer)
Roger Clemens (7)
*Randy Johnson (5)
*Steve Carlton (4)
*Greg Maddux (4)
Clayton Kershaw (3)
*Sandy Koufax (3)
*Pedro Martinez (3)
*Jim Palmer (3)
*Tom Seaver (3)
Max Scherzer (3)
 
All Hall of Famers except Clemens (who will probably be in someday), Kershaw (who’s essentially a lock) and, now Scherzer.  Scherzer is sitting at 141 wins right now, so if he hung up his spikes today, I’m sure a lot of voters would not be willing to elect someone with such a low career total.  But, I think Scherzer’s going to be around a while, and I think he’s got at least another 100 wins in him.  I think he’s as good as in.  And I think this year put him over the top with his seasonal accomplishments.  Now, I think to satisfy enough of the voters, he mostly needs to add a bit more "bulk".  But I think he’s essentially as good as in.
 
As always, thanks for reading.
 
Dan
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

Poincare
There were actually three instances where a pitcher won a Cy Young over another pitcher who won more games and had a better ERA: the two times you mentioned and the 2005 NL Cy Young where Chris Carpenter won the award with a 21-5 record and a 2.83 ERA over Dontrelle Willis who had a 22-10 record with a 2.63 ERA.
1:50 PM Nov 20th
 
jollydodger
I think with the demise of the closer being a real Cy Young threat, voters are valuing volume. Valuing the volume of the starter over the reliever, and when all else is equal or nearly equal, valuing volume among starters. That also causes higher WAR numbers at the same time.
10:33 PM Nov 19th
 
sayhey
By the way, the '84 NL Cy is even more of a puzzler. Pretty sure Gooden would win unanimously today.​
5:07 PM Nov 19th
 
bearbyz
Bert Blyleven not only had 42 more strikeouts than Boddicker, but had a slightly better ERA+. However, Dave Stieb beat him in both categories. Stieb might have won the CY Young in 1984 with present day voters.
3:08 PM Nov 19th
 
Gfletch
I wonder if Kershaw's failure to be as impressive in the post season (as he certainly is in the regular season)plays into this. He's had good to great outings, yes, but always coupled with ordinary or even pretty bad results in the playoffs.

That shouldn't matter when voting on the Cy Young. But it can't help but influence voters.
12:43 PM Nov 19th
 
DMBBHF
Hi Wovenstrap,

Thanks for the comments, but I think you read it too quickly. I said "Quisenberry finished 3rd in the MVP balloting", which he did. He was definitely 2nd in the CY Young that year, but that sentence was referring to his finish in the MVP balloting that same year (Hernandez 1, Hrbek 2, Quisenberry 3).

It's an interesting thought on Scherzer vs. the other 3-time winners. Intuitively, the others you mentioned would be above him, but he still has a lot of career in front of him (potentially) to close the gap some. I'm sure the fact that his first 5 years were OK but nothing special plays into it. But, he's been pretty spectacular over the last 5, especially when you factor in the numerous high strikeout and/or low hit games.

When he's all done, he will still probably end up below the legends you mentioned in most people's minds, but the final gap may not be all that severe. Especially if he keeps rolling like he has been.

Thanks,
Dan
10:44 AM Nov 19th
 
sayhey
Kluber...He's so unique, I don't know where to put him on that list. The only other pitcher I can think of who got such a late start and has been so good is Randy Johnson, and you can't compare anyone to Randy Johnson (i.e., you can't reasonably expect Kluber to be Randy Johnson over the next decade). If he doesn't win another Cy Young, he won't go into the HOF. But if he does, things get interesting.​
10:33 AM Nov 19th
 
sayhey
Scherzer is definitely on the low end of that list with Palmer, but I do think he's a great pitcher.

I'd rank HOF chances in more or less this order right now:

1. Kershaw
2. Scherzer
3. Verlander (on the rebound)
4. Sale
5. Kimbrel
6. Greinke
7/8. Felix/Sabathia (where Verlander was two years ago...question marks, but still in it)
9/10. Lester/Hamels

I guess you can throw Kenley Jansen in there too.

10:28 AM Nov 19th
 
wovenstrap
You have a typo where it says "Quisenberry finished 3rd" -- Quisenberry finished 2nd.

Phrases like "low workload" and so forth don't quite capture the cognitive reason that Scherzer won. Kershaw missed a full month, and (as it happens) his team was horrendous in the month he missed, facts of which every voter was aware. Scherzer did not miss a month. That difference was too large to ignore. If Kershaw had been pitching all year but for various reasons happened to have a low IP total, that might have been different. But missing a month, you can't ignore that. (Oddly, Kluber had the same handicap, but his workload actually crept almost up to Sale's level, and he was better.)

How good is Scherzer, really? Three Cy Youngs is a tough level to crack, and he sure doesn't seem the equal to Pedro, Koufax, Seaver, Kershaw, to me. Jim Palmer .... maybe. It's possible I'm selling Scherzer short. I'd be interested if this seems out of whack to anyone else.
10:15 AM Nov 19th
 
77royals
Maybe the voters aren't using any numbers at all. Maybe they are just voting for who they think the best pitcher is.

Kind of radical, I know, but those hippies love to do things off the grid.​
10:11 AM Nov 19th
 
3for3
The concept of ERA+ was invented in 1984, in the Hidden Game of Baseball. Of course, none of the voters had access to the numbers. Also interesting was Dave Stieb, with his 7.9 WAR getting exactly one 3d place vote. Boddicker struck out 128(!).
8:33 AM Nov 19th
 
 
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