After two months that seemingly went by in the blink of an eye, the MLB regular season is over and season awards are right around the corner. The National League Cy Young, unlike the American League, has been a heated race all season long. Seven of MLB’s eight best pitchers, according to fWAR, belong in the NL. Who reigns on top? Is it Jacob DeGrom, Trevor Bauer, or Yu Darvish? Let’s take a deep dive into ten sabermetrics to evaluate who deserves the Cy Young.
DeGrom Clearly Behind
The first aspect of this graphic that jumps out at you is DeGrom only having the advantage in two of the ten statistics. Many fans have penciled him in as the favorite even though his K/9 is really the only data point where he’s superior, and strikeouts aren’t in and of itself enough to warrant a Cy Young. I suppose DeGrom’s success in prior seasons is the reason he’s a fan favorite, but the numbers don’t lie. This Cy Young race really comes down to Trevor Bauer and Yu Darvish, as DeGrom’s previous successes don’t carry any weight when it comes to the 2020 award.
Between Bauer and Darvish, it is very close to the naked eye. I mean, Darvish has a much higher fWAR, but Bauer has a much lower ERA. At some point, it just comes down to which stats are valued more than others. Is ERA more indicative of success than fWAR? How important is hard-hit rate? Where does FIP come into play? These are difficult questions, but I’ll try to answer them.
Don’t Overvalue ERA
ERA is a simple stat: it’s the number of runs a pitcher gives up, on average, over the course of nine innings. Its downfall is that it doesn’t take into effect other factors such as quality of contact, innings pitched, fielding efficiency, and sheer luck. It is a very uninvolved statistic that, quite honestly, is overvalued. Especially in a small sample size season like 2020, where anomalies are more prevalent.
Sure, Bauer has the lower ERA, but that does not necessarily mean he outperformed Darvish on the mound. Bauer’s 2.88 FIP means that, if he would have experienced league average results on balls in play, his ERA would have been 2.88, a full one run worse than his actual ERA. See what I mean when I say Bauer was a bit lucky this year? Over the course of a regular 162-game season, his ERA would gravitate closer and closer to his FIP, as anomalies and lucky results in the field would dissipate.
Quality of Contact Stats Favor Darvish
On the other hand, Darvish’s 2.01 ERA and 2.23 FIP means his results were much more in line with what he deserved based on fielding efficiencies and the quality of contact he gave up. I can point to Darvish’s significantly lower HardHit% and virtually identical Barrel% to prove this. Both of these sabermetrics show that batters had an easier time squaring the ball up against Bauer than they did Darvish, and is but one reason Darvish has a superior FIP. In short, while Darvish had a higher ERA than Bauer did, he actually deserved a lower ERA.
Additionally, Darvish pitched three more innings than Bauer in 2020. While this does not seem like much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, having a starter go deeper into games not only helps you win that individual game, but it also reduces the wear and tear on your bullpen over the course of the season. Now that’s valuable.
When getting into strikeouts and walks, the average fan looks at Bauer’s K/9 and immediately believes he’s superior in this regard. However, when looking at the ratio of strikeouts to walks, a much more meaningful statistic, Darvish takes the cake. The reason I say the K/BB ratio is more meaningful is because strikeout pitchers like Darvish and Bauer are typically more susceptible to walks, as they do not pitch to contact. So, it’s actually more impressive that Darvish was able to strike out that many hitters while simultaneously keeping his number of walked batters so low.
Darvish Deserves the Cy Young
To end the debate, let’s discuss fWAR, the only all-encompassing sabermetric in that graphic. The end goal of WAR is to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team. So, while we can go back and forth all day long on strikeout rate, ERA, and other raw stats, WAR is the only one that takes all data into consideration. This is what I mean when I say “all-encompassing.”
To no surprise, fWAR heavily favors Darvish. For example, a difference of 0.5 WAR is not small, it’s quite significant. And when running through the graphic above, it makes total sense, as the only real advantage Bauer has over Darvish is with WHIP. Darvish pitched more innings, had a lower hard-hit rate, a superior strikeout to walk ratio, and deserved a lower ERA based on his FIP. As a result, Darvish was significantly more valuable. Let’s not assign an elementary statistic like ERA so much value that it single-handedly determines who wins the Cy Young. As baseball fans, we’re smarter than that.