Last night, MLB announced the finalists for the major awards. This generated a predictable amount of snark on Twitter (then again, what doesn’t?). But beyond filling time during a slow news week, the exercise did two things: It not only told us who might win next week, it definitely told us who won’t. And that, my friends, is cause for disappointment, not derision, because where the NL Cy Young is concerned we now know that the Reds’ Johnny Cueto has no shot.
That’s not a slam on the three finalists: R.A. Dickey, Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez. All had superb seasons. But you can understand how Reds fans might be a bit annoyed to see their guy already left on the outside looking in.
My dog in this fight? Skip his not getting the honor of being a finalist -- there’s a case that maybe Cueto should be the guy taking home the trophy. First off, he’s pitching in the Great American Ballpark, which is a significantly more difficult place to pitch than Dodger Stadium or Citifield, particularly because homers fly out of the park. And when it comes to dealing with the differences between the competition they had to face, if you use Baseball Prospectus’ metrics measuring opponent quality (opponents’ True Average in this case, which incorporates park factors), Cueto is well ahead of Gio and Dickey, although he still trails Kershaw.
So Cueto already has to work at a disadvantage as far as counting stats because of where he’s pitching and who he had to face. And he nevertheless ranks up there with the leaders in the basic counting stats -- third in wins in the National League, third in ERA. Nice, but not exactly what it takes to bring home the trophy. But take it up a notch and turn to Baseball-Reference.com for some interpretive data, and you’ll find that Cueto led the NL in ERA+ (beating Kershaw 152-150), and rates slightly behind in Wins Above Replacement (5.8 to 6.2), and Wins Above Average (4.4 to 4.7).
So it really ought to be Kershaw vs. Cueto, because they’re the guys who are Nos. 1 and 2 in stats that tell you what they did, with Gonzalez and Dickey never getting in between them. Why should they? They weren’t as good on the basis of the things they could control. But Dickey and Gonzalez did finish first and second in wins, ahead of Cueto and Kershaw. And that’s because they were fortunate their teammates gave them almost a full run or more of run support than Cueto (4.1 per 27 outs) or Kershaw (4.0) -- Dickey got 4.8 runs, Gio 5.5. Of course they wound up with more wins. They pitched well, just not as well, but their teammates did more to get them those W's that still seem to draw voters’ eyes.
This really should be an argument between Kershaw and Cueto, but Cueto’s already been excused from the competition. Cueto faced tougher opponents than two of the finalists, pitching in the toughest park of any of them, and generated the most value. Set aside why he isn’t a finalist -- why didn’t he win? And the answer to that will no doubt be as varied as the 32 voters themselves. Maybe they’ll have picked Kershaw, which would be a great selection. But if anybody was going to unseat the big Dodgers lefty and win the award this year, it should have been Cueto.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.