After 22 starts, Johnny Cueto is having the best year of his career. He leads the league in innings pitched and hits per 9 inning, and he is having a career best in almost every measurable category: ERA, ERA, Home Runs per 9 innings, BB%, and K%.

So, that raises the following question: is this the year we bring the Cy Young Award back to the Queen City?

Tom Tango (the guy who wrote The Book), and Bill James both created models to predict Cy Young voting. Tango’s model looks at four variables: innings pitched, strikeouts, and wins. Bill James uses a bit more complicated model by also including saves, shutouts, losses, and a bonus for a pitcher playing for a first place team.

By comparing these predictions to past votes, James and Tango conclude that Tango’s model has been better at predicting recent voting trends (2006-present) while James’ model is better at predicting voting behavior prior to 2006. So, what do these two models say about Cueto? (It is worth noting these projections are updated daily, so it might have changed by the time this article is posted.)

Tango’s model predicts Cueto would come out on top if the voting took place today, winning the Cy Young award (68.5 points). Second place, by a small margin, is Adam Wainwright (68.0 points). In the discussion, but several points behind both of them is Clayton Kewshaw (60.3 points). Tyson Ross is a distant fourth (56.3 points. Although it is worth nothing that under Tango’s model, Kershaw is closer to fourth than second).

James’ model, because it includes a bump for first place and penalties for each loss a pitcher takes, has a different order. Under this ordering Kershaw is first (134.2 points, these are different scales, so you cannot make point comparisons between the Tango model and James’) followed by Wainwright (131.2 points), and then Cueto (119.6 points).

Here are basic pitching stats and fWAR for Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright.

CY Charts

Since the season is only two-thirds complete, it’s worth looking at some of the predictive stats to see which pitcher’s numbers are likely to change as they year plays out and in which direction.

CY Charts2

Here are their breakdowns:

The Enemy: Adam Wainwright Wainwright has had a great first half compiling a large number of wins and keeping his ERA at Maddux-like levels. Yet his K% is not in line with the other elite pitchers on this list. His saving grace in the K/BB ratio is a low BB%. Because he has been lucky with home runs per fly ball so far, his SIERA and xFIP are pessimistic about the direction of Wainwright’s ERA, while his FIP is more positive. His lack of strikeouts means that Wainwright has benefitted from a lot of balls falling for outs. His low BABIP backs up this story and, along with his low home run rate, helps explain why his ERA is so low at this point of the year.

Our Guy: Johnny Cueto Bill James’ model loves Cueto’s ability to pitch deep into ballgames. There might be something to say for a pitcher who can give a dominating performance for seven or eight innings each time they take the ball. Given his low ERA, it is probably unlucky that Cueto has experienced 6 losses this year (two have been with 2 and 1 ER). Yet, the predictive measures are not bullish on Cueto. His FIP is the highest of any pitcher on this list, and his xFIP is the second highest. Cueto limits the number of balls that enter play through strikeouts at a good clip but he has the highest walk rate of any of our four possible Cy Young candidates. Cueto has by far the lowest BABIP of the bunch. Cueto has a history of out-pitching his predictive stats in part because he benefits from great defense. Yet, his BABIP is extremely low, even in comparison to his previous seasons. Even a mild regression in this category, combined with a few more losses, will probably be enough for voters to look elsewhere.

The Dark Horse: Stephen Strasberg Strasberg makes this list for a few reasons:

  1. I used FanGraphs to sort by WAR, and because they use FIP, it values strikeouts.
  2. His BABIP has been absolutely terrible in the first half (.353)
  3. King Felix showed that CY voters have the ability to look beyond the top line stats when it comes to voting.

Strasberg sports a strong strikeout-rate while only walking the second-fewest number batters. His FIP and xFIP are in the range of other pitchers that have won the award in the past. In fact, his xFIP and SIERA are both lower than all the NL Cy Young winners since 2008.

Yet Strasburg’s win-loss record isn’t his biggest barriers to winning his first Cy Young Award. No, that’s the guy out in LA.

The Guy Who Should Win: Clayton Kershaw Clayton Kershaw is having one of the best pitching seasons since 2000, when Pedro Martinzez dominated the league (1.74 ERA, 18-6, 9.9 fWAR). Kershaw is striking out batters at an absurd rate while rarely giving out a walk. The scary thought is that this might just be how good he is. His career BABIP (.270) is not too far off of his mark this year. The predictive stats don’t indicate a regression. His FIP and xFIP show that he has not been particularly lucky with his HR/FB ratio. His SIERA is in line with his current ERA, meaning that for a pitcher with his strikeout rate, this is not an unusual pitching line.

Kershaw leads all of baseball in ERA, FIP, WHIP (0.81), complete games (four) and K% for starting pitchers, while leading the NL in strikeouts to walks, BB%, and winning percentage.

It is hard to see a way for Cueto to overcome this, but perhaps Kershaw could fall flat in a few starts near the end of the season. Cueto might get on a roll and get to 20 wins (he probably has 9 more starts) and toss a series of good starts that propels the Reds to the post-season. As Tango and James point out with their models, voters are not fixated on using advanced stats to determine who had the best year, but many times vote for the best stories. Voters might also be tired of writing Kewshaw’s name on their ballot, since he has won two of the last three years.

Awards are anyone’s guess, but at this point, it is fairly clear that Clayton Kershaw is having the best year in the NL.

15 Responses

  1. neil

    Nice rundown, but you guys should really start having someone copy edit…

    • Vicferrari

      I vote Neil as next RLN copy editor

  2. droomac

    Thanks for the information. Wow, this information really confirms how much the game has changed in a very short period of time. It’s like 1968 all over again! . . . Also, I agree that Kershaw is the guy. Part of the reason he will win is the LA/first place team thing, but he really deserves it at this point.

    One of the things I most like about today’s game is his looping, perfectly located and paced, curve. That pitch is a thing of beauty. It’s even better when I get to listen to Vin Scully at the same time, two masters of their respective crafts applying their wares for all to see.

  3. LuckyInKY

    Unless Kershaw slips up, he is undoubtably going to win the Cy Young. He is having the best season of any pitcher I have seen in my lifetime. This has been a great season of pitching overall.

  4. zaglamir

    It’s hard for me to believe that Tango’s model doesn’t put Kershaw way out in front as well. It seems like his ridiculous K%, he should get a leg up.

    Based on what I’ve seen this year, my personal voting would go Kershaw – Cueto – WainCrybaby; but all three have been worthy.

    • JRS1972

      Kershaw missed the first 6 weeks of the season with a back strain.

      • zaglamir

        Right, but he’s more than made up that deficit in strikeouts, wins, etc. The only thing that’s really suffered due to that is his IP.

  5. cfd3000

    Hershiser wins, Danny Jackson second. I mean, Kershaw wins, Cueto second. And probably deservedly so.

  6. Giant E

    Should Chapman be in the discussion?

  7. baltimorechop

    BRef WAR:

    1. Kershaw 5.3
    2. CryBaby 4.7
    3. Cueto 4.3

    As much as I want Johnny to win, I can really only see one way it happens (minus the Tommy John fairy visiting the other two guys):

    1. Cueto needs to beat Wainwright outright
    2. Cueto needs to have at least 40 more IP than Kershaw
    3. Cueto needs to lead the league in Wins
    4. Cueto needs to stay within .25 ERA of Kershaw

    By doing so, Cueto would have a chance by hopefully winning the following blocs of Cy Young voters:

    1. Most wins = best pitcher, right? Bloc
    2. He pitched the most, therefore must be more valuable, Bloc
    3. His ERA is worse, but he pitched in a much harder park, Bloc

    Shockingly, the park factors for Dodger Stadium and GABP are crazy close this year (Dodgers 98 batting, 96 pitching; Reds 99 for both). I honestly think that the Reds have such terrible hitters this year, and have such good pitching at the same time, that they are skewing their park factor. It’s making it appear as if the park is turning into a pitcher’s park. Honestly, who thinks Kershaw would have a 1.71 era pitching his home games at GABP?

    • baltimorechop

      Before someone else lists, i guess Cueto has a 1.77 at GABP, so who knows, maybe Kershaw could have a 1.71. So I retract that statement. Overall though, I do think Dodger stadium helps (which i don’t think is a controversial statement)

    • baltimorechop

      To add on to my IP thing: Unless you count strike years (81, 94, 95) or Rick Sutcliffe, I can’t find a starting pitcher who won the Cy Young while pitching fewer than 200 IP. Even in 94 and 95, Maddux had 202 and 209. Valenzeula lead the league in 81 with 192 IP.

      Sutcliffe of course was traded midseason; so only had 150 with NL, but had over 240 overall. I think the lowest I found in a non-strike year for a starter was 213 IP. If Kershaw only gets to 180 (especially if the Dodgers re-arrange near the end to make sure he’s ready for playoffs, which could cost him a start), that might hurt his chance.

      Though, once again, Cueto needs to beat him by 40+, and be superior as much as possible to Wainwright. Otherwise, they’ll just give it to Waino.

      • zaglamir

        I agree with all of this analysis. I don’t have anything to add, just thought I’d let you know that you aren’t alone in your thoughts here.

    • BL

      In full disclosure, I am Dodger fan.

      True, Kershaw’s ERA would probably be a tick higher if Dodger Stadium wasn’t his home, but I still think he would be under 1.80. Let’s look at where Kershaw pitches most outside his home stadium (in the division). In order of Pitcher Friendly to Hitter Friendly, Petco, AT&T, Chase, Coors. If you take the average Kershaw rival division parks are more hitter friendly than pitcher friendly. Coors field is the extreme number one hitting park every year. Chase is also a top 5 hitter’s park with the warm desert air year round. Petco is normally rated very high as a pitcher’s park and AT&T is mildly more a pitcher’s park.

      Kershaw hasn’t even pitched in Petco this year. His most innings outside of Dodger Stadium is in Coors field (13 IP w/ ERA of .69 – looks like 1 ER on 2 starts). Very Impressive.

      There is another factor. Dodger’s defense is poor. Hanley Ramirez is the lowest rated fielding SS in all of MLB. This is not about unearned runs. This is about range. Andrelton Simmons for example has defensive metrics off the chart. Hanley is the opposite. I wouldn’t doubt is Kershaw is giving up 1 more hit every 2 starts just at the SS position due to range as opposed to an average SS. The Dodgers have a subpar fielding outfield as well, other than Puig. Kemp is rated as the 3rd to 6th poorest outfielder in all MLB depending on the metrics used. Ethier would also be considered below average. Misplayed balls that drop or roll to the fence are not considered errors. I would estimate, the outfield would cost Kershaw an additional ER once every 3rd start or so when compared with an average defensive. So I am claiming the Dodgers defense is below average and really could have cost him about 5-6 earned runs over an average defense. SS is a big deal in particular because the position is just so important.

      I just looked this up right now on FanGrpahs:
      Broken down statistically, in defensive runs saved (DRS) the Dodgers (rank 28th) with -27 and the Reds (rank 6th) with +15. This means that the Reds have saved 42 more runs over the season than the Dodgers not counting errors due to better range, decision making, etc. Thus, 42 runs spread over roughly 1000 Innings (Reds/Dodgers about the same amount of IP played this year up until this point) with Kershaw pitching about 121 or 12.1% of them, means Kershaw should have allowed roughly (12.1%*42) = 5 ER less with the Reds defense. That would make his ERA (121 IP/9*18) — Instead of 23 ER, it would 18 ER this year— = ERA 1.34.
      Just look at Kershaw’s (batted ball in play) BABIP, based on his other metrics, it is higher than it should be relative to DIP and SIERRA because more balls are getting through holes or dropping in front of fielders.

      So any variance for park effect in my opinion is at least if not more offset by the defense behind Kershaw. Plus he has not the benefit of pitching at Petco and had to pitch in Coors and Chase.

  8. 666wolverine

    The only way Cueto wins is if Cin finishes ahead of the other Cy Young candidates. He has no shot!