There wasn't going to be any drama in the National League Cy Young voting; the only question was whether Clayton Kershaw would be the unanimous winner after going 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA and striking out 239 batters in 198.1 innings. He did, indeed, sweep the voting for his third Cy Young Award in four seasons.
The American League was a different case, however, as everyone figured the voting between Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber would be close -- and it was. Kluber received 17 of 30 first-place votes to Hernandez's 13.
What was the difference in such a close vote? In the end, I wonder if Kluber's advantage in wins trumped Hernandez's advantage in ERA. Wins aren't as important to voters as they were even just a few years ago, but in an otherwise close analysis, I would suggest Kluber's three-win edge may have played a factor.
Did the voters get the right guy? I've been saying all along that it's a coin flip; really, they couldn't go wrong with either guy (and if Chris Sale had pitched a few more innings, he might have been the guy).
Here, their basic stats:
Hernandez: 15-6, 2.14 ERA, 236 IP, 170 H, 46 BB, 248 SO, 16 HR
Kluber: 18-9, 2.44 ERA, 235.2 IP, 207 H, 51 BB, 269 SO, 14 HR
Not much to separate there, right down to the innings pitched. Hernandez had the lower ERA; Kluber had more strikeouts. Neither pitcher benefited from a high total of unearned runs. Hernandez allowed 72 runs and Kluber 68.
We get some different numbers if we dig a little deeper, however. Most notably, Kluber led Hernandez in both Baseball-Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR:
Kluber: 7.4 bWAR, 7.3 fWAR
Hernandez: 6.8 bWAR, 6.2 fWAR
The differences here come via ballpark effects, defensive support and, in FanGraphs' version of WAR, Kluber's slight advantage in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), 2.35 to 2.56.
Basically, Hernandez pitched in Safeco Field, a good pitcher's park, while Kluber had to toil with a worse defense behind him (the Indians had minus-75 Defensive Runs Saved, worst in the majors; the Mariners were minus-11). So Hernandez gets docked for Safeco and Kluber gets value added because of the Indians' poor defense. It should be pointed out, however, that Hernandez had a 2.07 ERA at home and 2.21 on the road, so it's not like he morphed into a lesser pitcher away from Safeco.
Anyway, in part because of those advantages, Hernandez allowed 37 fewer hits and thus had a much better opponents' batting line:
Hernandez allowed a .260 average on balls in play, Kluber a .318 mark. That's what caused the 37-hit difference. What's more difficult to decipher: How much of that was because of the defense behind Kluber? Maybe not as much as we think.
For example, Kluber had a somewhat sizable platoon split: .687 OPS allowed against left-handers versus .553 against right-handers. In hitter's counts, lefties destroyed him: .455/.566/.788 in 83 plate appearances. Hernandez, meanwhile, actually had a reverse platoon split -- we can chalk that up to that great changeup -- with a .519 OPS against lefties and .584 against righties. Against right-handers in hitter's count, Hernandez allowed a .422/.471/.667; not good, but not as bad as Kluber's line against left-handers, and Hernandez had just 52 such plate appearances. Basically, when Kluber falls behind lefties he pays the price, so I would argue that it wasn't all bad Cleveland defense that caused that 37-hit difference.
Indeed, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs addressed this issue:
Thankfully, a month and a half ago, Tony Blengino tackled the assignment. Blengino broke down all the batted balls in incredible detail, using data we don’t have access to, and you should read that if you didn’t, or if you forgot about it. After making all necessary adjustments, Blengino calculated that Felix had a "true" ERA of 2.29, while Kluber had a "true" ERA of 2.45. That works out to a difference of just over four runs ...
Jeff goes into more detail with things like catcher framing -- slight edge to Hernandez there, where Mike Zunino graded out better than Yan Gomes. But how much of catcher framing is created by the pitcher? Maybe Hernandez gets a few calls because he's Hernandez, not because of Zunino. It's complicated.
Anyway, Hernandez made his mark during the season when he set an all-time record with 16 consecutive starts pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer. That's pretty cool; you pitch seven innings and allow two runs and you should win. Overall, Hernandez had 22 such starts (plus two more where he allowed zero runs but didn't pitch seven innings). Kluber had 19 such starts (plus one more where he allowed zero runs in six innings).
How much do you factor in that Kluber had a big September -- when five of his six starts came against the Twins, Astros, Rays and White Sox, five teams out of the race and playing their share of September call-ups. How much do you factor that in arguably the biggest start of Hernandez's career, in the final week in Toronto, he got bombed and gave up eight runs?
So who should have won? I think Mariners and Indians fans have their decisive answers. But the rest of us ... flip a coin.
* * *
As for Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright -- better luck next year, guys. Cueto cemented himself as one of the top starters in the majors; this was his fourth straight year with an ERA under 3.00 and he increased his strikeout rate for the third season in a row.
Cueto had that great run at the start of the season, when he allowed only 10 runs in his first nine starts but won just four of those games. With a little more luck, he could have won 24 or 25 games, and while voters didn't focus on wins like they once did, that many wins may have made for an interesting debate. As it is, Cueto became just the sixth NL pitcher since 1972 to finish with a 2.25 ERA and 240 strikeouts; the previous five won the Cy Young Award.
Wainwright went 20-9 with a career-low 2.38 ERA and posted his fourth season of at least 6.0 WAR. He has finished in the top three in voting for the fourth time but has yet to win. The only other two pitchers who have endured a similar fate are Mariano Rivera and Dan Quisenberry, both of whom had four top-three finishes without winning.
But it was Kershaw's year. Well, at least until October, when it became Madison Bumgarner's year.