The National League Cy Young Race Is Too Close To Callon September 24, 2020 at 7:01 pm

The National League Cy Young Race Is Too Close To Call

Last night, Trevor Bauer made a rather emphatic statement not only on behalf of his team, which is in the playoff hunt, but also for himself in the National League Cy Young race. Bauer pitched eight innings, striking out 12 against one walk and just a single run as the Reds moved above .500 to move into the eighth and final playoff spot heading into today’s action. Meanwhile, though it’s not yet clear if Jacob deGrom or Yu Darvish will get another outing to stake their claims, but Corbin Burnes pitches tonight against the Cardinals. Below you will find the NL WAR leaders among pitchers through last night’s contests:

Bauer pitched a great game, but his WAR still lags a bit behind that of Darvish, deGrom, and Burnes. While all the pitchers above, as well as reliever Devin Williams, have had very good seasons, to try to reduce this down to the players who might be placed on the ballot, we’ll work with the top 12 pitchers on the list above. Apologies to Clayton Kershaw and Max Fried, who haven’t quite pitched enough innings at a high enough level to be included below. When looking at those top 12 pitchers, here’s how they situate themselves in a few important stats:

FanGraphs’ WAR is not the only WAR metric out there. As I’ve said before in reference to both this year and last year’s AL Cy Young race:

In many ways, the versions of WAR are all trying to do the same thing, which is to credit a pitcher for certain outcomes based on the pitcher’s work. This isn’t new. It’s why earned run average tries to strip away the unearned runs. ERA, Baseball-Reference’s WAR and RA/9 WAR both look at the number of runs and then work backwards to try to arrive at a deserved result. FIP-based WAR looks at the outcomes most controlled by the pitcher (walks and strikeouts) and then adds or subtracts credit for some batted balls via the home run and infield flies, and gives credit for all outs made. Baseball Prospectus looks at the most likely outcomes given the circumstances and assigns a value.

The table below shows how the candidates rank in the various metrics here, as well as at Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference.

When we average WAR, Bauer takes the lead over the rest of the group. It looks like RA9-WAR is doing a ton of the work for Bauer, and it’s fair to wonder what’s going on. There was a question in the comments of yesterday’s piece about the difference between RA9-WAR and B-Ref’s version, and Bauer provides a good opportunity to highlight those differences. The biggest factors at play are that B-Ref’s WAR considers overall team defense for individual pitchers as well as factoring in opponent, while RA9-WAR leaves those out. While in many years a team’s defense might be the more meaningful difference between the two, this unusually short season means that opponent is having a larger effect.

This year Bauer has faced the Brewers (who have a team wRC+ of 90) three times, the Tigers (91 wRC+), Pirates (68 wRC+), and Cubs (91 wRC+) twice apiece, as well as the Royals (92 wRC+) and White Sox (116 wRC+) once each. With the exception of a solid White Sox offense, every lineup Bauer faced was in the bottom third in offense this season, which drives the gap between his RA9-WAR and B-Ref. In most seasons there isn’t going to be a huge divide between most pitchers, but this year’s gap is pronounced, and it also affects Darvish, Burnes, Kyle Hendricks, and Dinelson Lamet somewhat. That, along with defense, helps explain why Zack Wheeler fares so well at Baseball-Reference. Bauer didn’t get to pick his opponents, but if you want to consider them in your analysis, Bauer is hurt somewhat.

We also have the advantage of looking at Statcast metrics like xwOBA, which functions similarly to FIP but uses expected results on contact based on launch angle and exit velocity instead of homers. And if we were to translate to WAR, FIP-based WAR adds in pop-ups in addition to factoring for ballparks, while xwOBA should be ballpark agnostic to begin with. Here’s the xwOBA leaders along with wOBA and the difference so far this season:

The average xwOBA this year is .333, so every pitcher here is pretty clearly above average except for German Marquez. Bauer paces the group by a healthy margin, with deGrom a clear second; there is then another gap before a big group in the .280-to-.290 range. One thing to keep in mind is that the average wOBA-xwOBA this season is about negative 20 points because the inputs are based on historical precedent, so something like a juiced ball could have bumped up the expected numbers quite a bit. Given that we are dealing with just one season, looking at the players relative to the average and each other can still provide useful context. Bauer, deGrom, Darvish, Hendricks, Woodruff, Nola, and Wheeler are all relatively close to average when it comes to expectations versus results. It looks like Luis Castillo and Max Scherzer have had a bit of bad fortune, which is likely a combination of park or defense and some luck. Burnes, Lamet, and Marquez have all done better to some degree than the expectations from their contact.

If were to turn the xwOBA figures into WAR and add them to the prior WAR table, it would look like this:

When combining all WAR, Bauer has a pretty cleat edge. deGrom is currently listed as the Mets’ Saturday starter, so he might not be done yet. While we might hesitate to overstate a single start, remember that Bauer’s outing last night represented 11% of his entire season in innings. One strong start in this shortened season is the equivalent of three in a normal year. Burnes doesn’t come out well in xwOBA because he is somewhat similar to his peers, but he also has an innings deficit, one he will try to close somewhat tonight.

Bauer raised his wAVG above by nearly 0.5 in one start. If things stay pretty much where they are and we don’t factor in opponent, he is the pretty clear favorite. If deGrom, Burnes, or Darvish put together one more great start, they are going to end up pretty close to Bauer.

The question then becomes how much a voter might discount Bauer’s numbers due to a weaker schedule. Darvish and Burnes have had only slightly tougher opponents, while deGrom’s four starts against the Marlins (97 wRC+) represented his weakest challenges this season. In most seasons, the schedule is going to even out or at least be close over 30-plus starts. That’s not the case this year, and it’s unclear precisely how much that should be a factor for Cy Young voters. It is tough to find separation, and the short schedule makes these choices even tougher.

As I did with the AL Cy Young candidates, here’s the xwOBA-based WAR for all NL pitchers with at least 150 plate appearances against this season:

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