Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Rick Porcello, one of The Four Horsemen of the Ben Cherington Apocalypse (along with Hanley, Pablo, and Rusney), is going to win the Cy Young Award in 2016. The man with the 4.92 ERA last season is going to take home the award for the best pitcher in the AL this year. The dude with the honey glazed hat who was an instant bust after signing an $82.5 million extension before Cherington ever saw him throw a pitch in Boston is now the best pitcher on the team and will be named the best in the league.
Why am I so definitive in my prediction that Porcello is going to win the Cy? Well I haven't written in a while so I felt like I should be bold, but I also took a look at the AL Cy winners from the last 10 seasons to see if there were specific stats that voters focused on over others and I found some interesting results.
Before we get into why I think he will win, let's go over why he wouldn't be a bad choice to win. I think a lot of people have heard that Porcello has gone 11 straight starts pitching at least 7 innings and giving up no more than 3 runs while his team has been in the middle of a very competitive pennant race. For those looking for a strong narrative you can't really beat this one this year. He is performing excellently in traditional metrics (3rd in ERA, 9th in Strikeouts, 1st in WHIP, 2nd in Innings) and really well in advanced metrics as well (5th in both versions of WAR, 1st in SO/BB ratio, 2nd in ERA+). A vote for Porcello is completely defensible and is getting more defensible every week.
This performance presents a good case, but it's not like he's the only option. The AL is littered with good not great options this season which is a huge reason why Porcello has a great chance at this. Corey Kluber is first in Baseball Reference WAR and ERA+. Chris Sale is first in Fangraphs WAR (and weirdly tied for first in hit batters with Porcello, possibly channeling their inner Pedro's to get to the top of the Cy voting). Masahiro Tanaka is first in ERA. Justin Verlander is first in Strikeouts. David Price is first in Innings (a good indicator of health and how deep into a game a pitcher goes while keeping his team competitive). All of these pitchers also rank well in every category like Porcello, so you can potentially argue for each candidate*.
*There is some group of voters who will definitely vote for Zach Britton, the dominant closer for the Orioles. He is in line to set the record for ERA in a season (though not *qualified* ERA) and has been a perfect 45 for 45 in save opportunities this year. But he has pitched just 1/3 the amount of innings of the top starters I've mentioned and the voters have actually not voted heavily for closers in the last 10 years with the top finisher being Francisco Rodriguez finishing 3rd in 2008 when he set the single season saves record with 62. Britton's performance is certainly historic this year but not quite sure it's enough given the low innings.
So with no clear candidate emerging based purely on the facts, it's a good idea to look at what the voting block gravitate towards. I decided to look at nine major stats and how the AL Cy winners fared in each category over the last 10 years. Those stats were Wins, ERA, Strikeouts, Strikeout to Walk ratio, WHIP, Innings, ERA+ (ERA relative to league average), and the 2 forms of WAR from Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. While I didn't find anything "conclusive", I did find a lot of interesting trends that could shed light on who will win this year.
Wins are still VERY popular
In the last 10 years, 7 of the AL Cy Young winners also led the league in wins including the last 5. Especially important was winning 20 games. Only twice in the last 10 years did a 20 game winner lose the award to a non-20 game winner. In 2010 Felix Hernandez won the award while finishing 18th (!) in Wins. C.C. Sabathia won 20+ that year, but finished 3rd in the voting. Luckily for C.C., he won the Cy in 2007 with 19 wins, while Boston's Josh Beckett finished with 20+ wins and 2nd in the Cy voting, in possibly the most debatable Cy season during this period. If Porcello takes the Cy it will be because of Wins. His 21 Wins lead the league by 2 and, if you know math like I do, make him the league's only 20 game winner. J.A. Happ has a chance to join him (though not the resume to take the Cy) and Kluber has 3 starts left to get to 20 wins exactly. If Kluber does get there, I think Porcello loses his biggest trump card and the award. But if Kluber falls short then I really believe Porcello will take it. Despite the fact that individual pitcher wins are largely meaningless, Cy voters can't quite separate themselves from it especially if that number starts with a "2".
ERA and WAR also matter
7 of the last 10 ERA leaders and 7 of the last 10 Baseball Reference WAR leaders have won the Cy, making these stats equally predictive to the Win. ERA has almost become the compromise stat that traditional voters are willing to "give" stat-focused voters. "Ok, I get that a starter who gives up 1 run in 9 innings and loses still pitched a great game, but giving up that 1 earned run makes him a great pitcher and I don't need no convoluted number with some fancy Ak-Ro-Nim to tell me that." "You mean like ERA?" "Fuuuuuck. Yooooooou." Any way, ERA and bWAR are the numbers that vaulted Hernandez from 18th in Wins in 2010 to the top of the Cy voting. Nobody has finished worse than 5th in ERA and 3rd in bWAR and won the Cy. Porcello is 3rd in ERA (good!) and 5th in bWAR (but only 0.3 away from 2nd) so he's in good shape but...
Finishing 1st in 2 of these 3 matters most
In 9 of the last 10 seasons, the Cy winner finished 1st in 2 of the 3 categories just discussed. The only season this didn't happen was 2007 when Sabathia finished 2nd in Wins, 5th in ERA, 2nd in bWAR, but he also finished first in Fangraph WAR, SO/BB ratio, and Innings. That season also had no clear winner and a lot of similarly valuable pitchers, so maybe this is the season we should look at most closely. If we did that then this post would be double the length and so so so exciting you guys, but I will spare you for now. I will point out that this is the only season the SO/BB ratio leader won the award. The 2016 SO/BB ratio leader? Rick Porcello.
But back to finishing first in 2 of Wins, ERA and bWAR. Porcello is pretty likely to finish the season first in Wins. He is almost definitely not going to finish first in bWAR as he is behind Kluber by 1.2 WAR. He would probably have to throw a no hitter and a 15 strikeout game while Kluber throws 3 duds, so let's look at ERA. Currently, Tanaka is running a 2.97 ERA, 0.11 better than Porcello. If Tanaka stays at this level until the end of the season (and second place Sale doesn't pass him), Porcello would have to throw 7+ innings in each of his final 2 starts and allow 1 or 0 earned runs, something he has done 5 times this season already. It's certainly not likely, but Tanaka could have a bad start or two leaving the ERA race open for Porcello.
Do I think Porcello is the best pitcher in the AL this year and would I vote for him if I were so lucky to be in the BBWAA? No, probably not. I would probably vote for Kluber or Sale. But Porcello has been very good this season and does very well in some of the categories that AL Cy voters traditionally vote on. The vote is definitely wide open this season, but if I weren't still paying off my wedding and had money to bet on a baseball awards vote, I would go with Porcello.