Who Should Finish Second for AL Cy Young?on September 23, 2020 at 5:16 pm

Who Should Finish Second for AL Cy Young?

Even though he’s still got one start to go and several other pitchers will also see playing time over the next few days, the American League Cy Young race is all but over. Last year, it was a two-horse race between Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. This year, Shane Bieber has been so dominant that no other AL pitcher can come close to his accomplishments with less than a week remaining. He leads the league in strikeouts by 25 through Monday’s games, with the distance between first and second the same as the distance between second and 18th. His 41% strikeout rate is the best in baseball, and his 2.13 FIP and 1.74 ERA pace the league as well. There isn’t a credible argument against Bieber winning the award and he should even garner support for MVP. As for second place, there are a ton of candidates.

To try to wade through the potential two-through-five slots on voters’ ballots, let’s take a quick look at pitcher WAR through Tuesday night’s games:

There are 11 players with between 1.5 and two wins on the season. Any of them would make a fine choice for inclusion on a Cy Young ballot, but we should probably dig a bit deeper. We have to set a cutoff somewhere, so we’ll consider the players on the list above. Here’s where those candidates stand against each other in a few key categories:

Bieber’s dominance is still clear. After Bieber, though, things get murky. Nearly every pitcher on the list above is among the leaders in one or more important statistical categories. Dylan Bundy shows up high in WAR thanks to solid innings totals to go along with his good FIP. Zack Greinke and Marco Gonzales have great walk numbers. Lance Lynn has pitched a ton of innings without allowing many runs. Lucas Giolito and Gerrit Cole have a ton of strikeouts. Dallas Kuechel, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun Jin Ryu are a bit behind in innings, but other aspects of their games stick out.

Here at FanGraphs, we use a FIP-based WAR, but it is not the only version out there. When I looked at this award last season, I discussed why voters might choose different versions of WAR based on their own preferences:

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.

To provide additional context to this year’s race, the table below shows how various sites have calculated WAR for the pitchers above, along with a weighted average (with Baseball-Reference and RA/9 WAR averaged along with WAR here and Baseball Prospectus‘s WARP):

When we take a higher-level view based on WAR, Lynn’s strength in run-prevention combined with good numbers here and at Baseball Prospectus put him into the second spot. Maeda’s solid numbers across the board put him in third, with Bundy, Ryu, and Cole in a virtual tie for fourth. We haven’t incorporated any Statcast numbers into the analysis thus far, so let’s take a look at the candidates via xwOBA, which includes strikeouts, walks and expected wOBA from batted balls:

Bieber leads, as expected, with Maeda a close behind. There’s a pretty close group from Giolito to Cole, with another tier from Greinke to Heaney, and Keuchel taking up the last spot. All players are above the league average of .333, though Keuchel is pretty close. Keuchel’s extreme groundball tendencies and a solid defense mean that his actual results are much better than expected. While every player has an xwOBA higher than their wOBA, the average difference for all pitchers is about 20 points, so Giolito, Lynn, Bundy, Cole and Greinke have all received pretty close to what might be expected based on xwOBA. Bieber, Maeda, Gonzales, and Framber Valdez have been somewhat fortunate, with Keuchel the extreme outlier. Ryu is the only pitcher who looks like he might have been on the receiving end of some bad luck.

We can actually take the xwOBA from above and create a rough version of WAR based on those numbers. Below you’ll find that version of WAR added to the previous table of WAR above:

Voters have different options when relying on WAR. They can choose the metric that best fits their preference for how to value pitchers and provide credit for different outcomes. If voters want to take the easy way out and average them, Bieber is still obviously first, followed by Lynn and Maeda, with Bundy and Cole rounding out the top five. Ryu and Giolito are close enough to make very solid claims as well. The rest of the group all have significant drawbacks in one metric or another, or simply are a cut below in nearly all of them. The bottom five have had good seasons, just not quite good enough to make most Cy Young ballots.

Because I already went through the effort of determining an xWAR this season, and you might find it interesting, here’s a rough xWAR based on xwOBA for all AL pitchers who have faced at least 150 batters this season:

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