With a Cy Young Award race for the ages taking shape in the National League, Jesse Rogers and Mark Saxon debate which ace is most deserving of the 2015 award.
Rogers: Jake Arrieta's value to Cubs too great to ignore
For some reason, when it comes to the Cy Young Award, we don't measure a pitcher's value to his team as much as we do with a position player and the corresponding MVP award. Maybe it's simply because the latter honor has the word "valuable" in it, but if the Cy Young Award is the MVP award for pitchers, then value to the team should be just as important as statistics.
It's under this premise that Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta has a claim to the prestigious award over Los Angeles Dodgers teammates Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. In short, they should split the vote for leading their team to the playoffs while Arrieta has gone at it as a solo act, considering the next-best starter's ERA on the Cubs is a run and a half higher.
Plus, according to ESPN Stats and Information, Arrieta is 9-1 and the Cubs are 10-3 as a team when he's on the mound after a loss. He's been their skid stopper while anchoring several second-half winning streaks behind a historically low post-All-Star break ERA (0.95). And his second-half numbers are being achieved as he continues to set a career high in innings pitched, flying by 200 for the first time. The notorious workout freak is showing no signs of tiring, actually performing better at a time of the year when most arms are ready for an offseason of rest. We can argue if August and September statistics should have more meaning than numbers accomplished earlier in the season, but the fact remains the Cubs have been on a second-half tear just as Arrieta has raised his game.
But if numbers are what drive you: The Cubs' righty matches Greinke and Kershaw over the course of the season, not just the second half. Greinke's 1.65 ERA might be the driving force behind his Cy Young Award bid -- as it should be -- but now that Arrieta has dropped his ERA to 1.96, would it really be a stretch to give him the award? Both are earned run averages we haven't seen in two decades, and frankly, a vote for one of the three players isn't a vote against the other two. All three are Cy Young Award-worthy, but only one can win the award.
When the highest praise comes from his opposing peers and not just from his teammates or diehard fans, that's when you know he's arrived at an elite level. The opposition rarely wants to acknowledge the competition, but in Arrieta's case his repertoire on the mound can't be ignored. "His stuff is as good as anyone's out there," San Francisco Giants All-Star Buster Posey said earlier this season. "He comes across his body with a 96 mph sinker. Or maybe 89-93 mph cutter. With a plus-curveball. It's going all sorts of directions."
You hear it over and over again. Arrieta's stuff has always been great, but he hasn't always commanded the strike zone. Now he's nearly unhittable.
In fact he was. Arrieta no-hit Greinke and Kershaw's Dodgers in his last start of August, at fabled Dodger Stadium on Sunday Night Baseball, with more than just his competition for the award watching from the other dugout. Presumably, a bloc of voters was watching as well, and maybe it was on that night they were convinced the "best pitcher in the league," as teammate Jon Lester calls him, deserves to be recognized as such.
Saxon: Zack Greinke's real-world run prevention should earn him the Cy Young Award over anyone, including teammate Clayton Kershaw
We may have reached the tipping point, an oversaturation of information when it comes to trivialities like who should win baseball awards.
People who dig deep into the numbers have made convincing cases that Kershaw should be the 2015 Cy Young Award winner for the same reason he was the 2014 winner, the 2013 winner and the 2011 winner. He's the best pitcher in the National League.
In fact, if you work very, very hard to isolate each pitcher's efforts from the background noise of fielding plays behind him, the hitting of his teammates while he's in the game or simple misfortune, Kershaw clearly has been the most dominating pitcher in 2015. His FIP (or fielding independent pitching) is 2.09, the best in the game. His xFIP, a similar concept that seeks to correct bad luck on home run balls, is 2.17, also the best in baseball.
Of the three leading contenders in the National League, Kershaw clearly has had the most rotten luck. Anyone who watched his first couple of months can attest to that. What was wrong with Kershaw? Not much, other than everything beyond his control turning out bad. The batting average on balls put in play (.283) against him is significantly higher than Arrieta's (.255) or Greinke's (.231). His home run-to-fly ball ratio (10.4) is higher than either of those guys.
But even Kershaw seems to think Greinke is going to win the award this year, saying last week, "I don't think Zack has much to worry about."
Greinke shouldn't have much to worry about, for a simple, elegant reason, one that doesn't require much effort at all. Greinke has allowed significantly fewer runs, just 40 (38 earned), good for a remarkable 1.65 ERA (Kershaw has allowed 59, 52 of them earned.) If it stays right where it is, he would finish the season with the lowest ERA in a full season since Greg Maddux (1.63) in 1995.
People can argue that FIP or xFIP are better measures of a pitcher's efforts in a vacuum, but when was the last baseball game that got played in one of those? (No Metrodome jokes, please.) A pitcher's value to his team is in actual run prevention, not expected run prevention. Actual runs allowed get managers fired, not expected runs. Actual runs allowed end the hopes of a fan base for a season, not expected runs allowed.
Greinke does rely more on luck than Kershaw or even Arrieta because he has made himself into more of a contact pitcher since his previous Cy Young Award, when his fastball had more zip and he put more spin on his slider. He has 87 fewer strikeouts than Kershaw's 272 and 24 fewer than Arrieta's 209.
But Greinke also makes some of his own good luck. He might be the best fielding pitcher in baseball, a fifth infielder on days he pitches. Kershaw also is a good fielder, but not the equal of Greinke, who should win his second straight Gold Glove.
He doesn't pitch as deep into games as Kershaw, nor look nearly as irritated when manager Don Mattingly takes him out. Greinke has admitted his body is acclimated to the 100-pitch limit and he's content to go hard for those 100 pitches, then hand the ball to the bullpen after that.
Still, he has pitched 207 2/3 innings, just 7 1/3 fewer in the same number of starts (30) as Kershaw, who leads the majors in that category as well. Granted, Kershaw's innings edge is significant, the equivalent of one high-quality start, but it's not enough by itself to tip the debate in Kershaw's favor.
Voters have learned to look beyond crude measures like wins and losses to pick a Cy Young Award winner, but have they gone so far down the analytics road to look deeper than a generally reliable number like ERA? Probably not, and in this case, that's probably a good thing.