I can’t believe I’m writing this. I can’t believe I feel the need to rise up to “defend” a pitcher with a 1.59 ERA. But hey, somebody’s got to do it.
1. A Dodgers starter should win the NL Cy Young Award this year;
2. That it’s NOT Zack Greinke.
Well, they're not nominating Mat Latos, obviously. They're talking about Clayton Kershaw. And what the heck, you can never go wrong trying to make a case that the best pitcher in our solar system should win an award that is supposed to go to, well, the best pitcher in our solar system.
So I get it. I see it. I respect it. I've thought about it.
I just beg to differ. And, if you look at the award predictions made a few days ago by our esteemed panel of ESPN baseball geniuses, you'll notice that pretty much all of us differ. In fact, there were more votes for Jake Arrieta, who actually has a lower second-half ERA (0.91) than Kershaw (1.01), and whose ERA for the season is now down to 2.03.
Nevertheless, the Kershaw-for-Cy-Young campaign is definitely picking up more steam than, say, the George Pataki for President campaign. So it’s time for someone -- by which I mean me -- to lay out the case for The Other Guy.
Now clearly, a lot can change over the next four weeks. But if the season were to end today, which remains highly unlikely, Zack Greinke has to be your 2015 NL Cy Young winner. And here’s why:
Because guys with 1.59 ERAs always win the Cy Young award
Greinke goes into his start Sunday in San Diego with an ERA so spectacular that only three qualifying starters in the entire live-ball era have beaten it over a full season. Perhaps you've heard of them: Bob Gibson in 1968 (1.12 ERA), Dwight Gooden in 1985 (1.53) and Greg Maddux in 1994 (1.56).
I probably don't have to tell you what Gibson, Gooden and Maddux have in common. But I'll do it anyway. They all won the Cy Young award in those seasons.
And ohbytheway, for what it’s worth, they all won it unanimously, too.
So think about that. Since baseball started handing out Cy Young Awards 60 seasons ago, not only has no qualifying starter pitcher with an ERA below 1.60 failed to win this award -- nobody with an ERA this low has ever failed to collect EVERY vote.
OK, I acknowledge that Luis Tiant had an ERA of exactly 1.60 in 1968 and lost out to a fellow who won 31 games (Denny McLain). But McLain had an ERA under 2.00 himself (as in 1.98).
And I acknowledge that, in 1981, Nolan Ryan had a 1.69 ERA and somehow finished fourth! But it was an odd, strike-shortened season. And for more insight into some of the other forces at work, check out our Fernandomania 30 for 30 sometime.
But the point is this: To make the case that anyone other than Greinke should win this award, you’re essentially arguing that ERA doesn’t matter. And boy, is there an irony to going down that road to build a case AGAINST Zack Greinke.
That’s because in 2009, when Greinke won his first Cy Young, it was his glittering ERA (2.16) that was the single biggest reason he won. And at the time, we actually looked at that as a breakthrough. Remember? It felt like the first time voters had looked past a guy’s win total (16, in his case) and voted for the man who had -- shocker -- pitched the best. Quite a concept.
Since then, Cy Young voters have proved, year after year, that they’ve come a long way in how they evaluate candidates. But have they suddenly come such a long way that they’re now tossing 1.59 ERAs into the irrelevance dumpster, right alongside win totals? Seriously, let’s hope not. I’ll explain why in a few paragraphs.
Because this is not a career achievement award
I think Clayton Kershaw should have won the last four NL Cy Young awards, including the one R.A. Dickey won in 2012. So let’s get that out there.
I also think Kershaw is in the midst of the most dominant five-year run of starting-pitching greatness since Pedro Martinez’s amazing stretch of brilliance from 1999 to 2003 (or 1997-2001 if you prefer). So let’s get that out there, too.
But when it comes time to vote for THIS Cy Young, in THIS season, hey, sorry. None of that matters.
As fantastic as Kershaw is, as stupendous as he’s been for a lonnnngggg time, the period we’re asked to evaluate for this award kicked off on April 6, 2015, and ends Oct. 4, 2015. And there are no bonus points for overall awesomeness. Yeah, life is unfair that way. But it just is.
Because the season didn’t begin in June
If the season had merely started on June 27, this would be easy. Kershaw has made 12 starts since then. Here’s how those 12 starts have gone: 0.96 ERA, a TOTAL of 10 earned runs allowed, about twice as many strikeouts (120) as hits (61) in 91 innings, a 120-to-9 strikeout-walk ratio and a 7-1 won-lost record.
Greinke in the same span hasn’t exactly been Cy Yuk himself, by the way. He’s 10-1, with a 1.47 ERA. And opponents are hitting .168/.206/.230 against him.
But head-to-head, over their last 12 starts, Kershaw has been The Man. No doubt, right?
Unfortunately for him, we’re required as voters to count all his starts this year, not just the ones where he’s been most superhuman. And that’s where this gets interesting.
When Kershaw was 5-5 with a 3.33 ERA after his first 15 starts, there were definite indicators that he was really pitching better than those numbers would indicate. But was he outpitching Zack Greinke? ’Fraid not.
Unless, of course, you were just looking at stuff like FIP. Or strikeout ratio. And that’s where his supporters are still looking. But that brings us to our final argument . . .
Because this isn’t the Cy Whiff award
Where are the numbers that say Clayton Kershaw has pitched better than Zack Greinke in 2015? Basically, you can find them in one place on the old stat sheet: The strikeout column.
Kershaw: 251 strikeouts in 194 innings, which comes to 11.6 K’s per 9 innings.
Greinke: 169 strikeouts in 186.2 innings, which comes to 8.1 K’s per 9 innings.
All right, score one for Kershaw. But now let’s look at the other big stat columns.
We’ve already covered ERA. But what about opponents’ batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS? Greinke leads Kershaw in every one of those categories. Every one. And the difference in their ERAs is more than half a run (1.59 to 2.18).
So to really argue that Kershaw has had the better year, you’d have to look at stuff like FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), where Kershaw has a big lead (2.03 to 2.62). But remember, that’s heavily weighted toward large strikeout totals.
Or you could look at their respective Batting Average on Balls in Play, where you could try to use the numbers (.290 against Kershaw, .237 against Greinke) to suggest that Greinke has just been luckier than Kershaw.
Well, maybe in some ways, Greinke HAS been luckier. But here’s why I don’t think we can allow that to matter -- unless their stats across the board get a lot closer over the next four weeks.
Metrics like FIP and BABIP are tremendously useful tools in many ways. But what they’re really telling us is what SHOULD have happened, if data were as all-powerful as some people would like it to be.
Well, call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought that when it came time to vote, we should be voting on what ACTUALLY happened, not what theoretically should have happened according to the numbers.
And what’s actually happened this year is this: Zack Greinke has been significantly better at preventing runs than Clayton Kershaw. How do we know? Their ERAs are telling us, loud and clear.
Feel free to believe there are more incisive metrics now that help us delve deeper into the science and mathematics of pitching than we’ve ever delved before. I won’t argue you’re wrong.
But until we start deciding games based on how many runs a team SHOULD have scored, according to the data, instead of how many were ACTUALLY scored, I’m saying that it’s the real runs that matter. And real run prevention matters. And ERAs matter.
So I find it almost hilarious that I’ve had to make this case, for a man having not just a great season but a historically great season. But I did it anyway. Because someone had to.
Zack, you can thank me later. At your Cy Young victory party maybe.