Who can predict what a bunch of sports writers are going to choose to care about at any given moment? Take the Cy Young Award. One year it’s decided by pitcher wins, the next it’s WAR, the next it’s ERA, then it’s…??? I picture a bunch of pigeons in the park milling about pecking at the sidewalk when a toddler runs full speed into the middle scattering them in all directions. That’s the AL Cy Young vote, and see if you can get a handle on that. So instead of attempting to figure out who the voters will think is the best pitcher in the American League, let’s eliminate the middle man and try to figure out who the best pitcher in the American League actually is.
We can start with the easy part which is figuring out the top two contenders are Chris Sale (the reason this article is appearing on this website) and Corey Kluber of the Indians. You could, should you want to do such a thing, make a case for Luis Severino of the Yankees, Justin Verlander of the Tigers/Astros or even our own Craig Kimbrel, but realistically none of those guys are likely to get any first place votes. Relievers don’t typically win the Cy Young in seasons when there is an outstanding and thus deserving starter unless they do something insane like not allowing a run all year. And even then, they usually don’t win. Kimbrel has been fantastic this season but he has given up 10 runs so, even with a strikeout percentage over 50 percent, it’s not happening for him. Verlander has been fantastic in the second half and had he put together two halves like like it he’d be among the frontrunners to win, but he didn’t, and in fact his first half was pretty mediocre. Throwing 104 innings of 4.73 ERA ball, even when you follow it up with excellence, isn’t going to get it done. So Kimbrel and Verlander are out. We’ll leave Severino in for now and move on to the next paragraph.
Let’s now take a step into the weeds for a moment and mention that defining “best” is, at best (see what I did there?) difficult, and at worst problematic and impossible. If you’re of the sabermetric sort, we could agree that Wins Above Replacement is the way to go, but then which one? There are three and they’re all calculated differently. On the other end of the spectrum there are pitcher wins, which to me are statistical garbage, but to others have varying relevance. This is why this kind of thing is never as clear cut as we’d like it to be. Sometimes there isn’t an answer to the question we ask, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t spend time trying to learn the answer. So here we are.
This is Baseball Prospectus so let’s start there. By WARP, Chris Sale is the leader by about a half win (8.09 WARP to 7.67 for Kluber). Severino is fourth in the AL with 5.45 behind the two above and the Rays’ Chris Archer. Archer has had a pretty impressive season but two things are holding him back from being a finalist here. His ERA is four point who cares that’s too high to win the Cy Young Award, and he’s 9-11. Pitcher wins are, as previously noted, statistical garbage, but a losing record is going to be a tough hurdle to overcome especially in comparison to his competition. But back to BP. So Sale has a half WARP lead over Kluber, but you could make a counter argument for Kluber which is this: Sale has thrown 18.1 more innings. That’s typically cited as a reason to vote for Sale, but with their WAR figures so close, it’s Kluber who has been more valuable on a per-inning basis.
So there’s that. But this actually gets more interesting as we move on to other forms of WAR. Over at FanGraphs they have Sale leading Kluber and Severino 8.2 to 6.9 and 5.6, respectively. So by their math, Sale has been worth over a win more than Kluber and at that point we get beyond the vagaries of the formulas and start to have a real difference in value. But then we get to Baseball Reference. They have Kluber ahead of Sale, 7.6 to 6.2, with Severino down at 5.2 so that tells us two things. First, Severino ain’t winning this so enough about of him. Second, huh? I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of how these stats are calculated, so instead, let’s do something that we probably shouldn’t do and add all the WAR numbers up. When you do that, Sale gets to 22.5 and Kluber gets to 22.2. With that little math mistake buried 800 words deep, let’s just say that the totality of the WAR numbers have Kluber and Sale as extremely close in value, too close to make any kind of decision on who is better.
So let’s go more mainstream and see if that helps. Both pitchers have 17 wins (as of this writing), both are striking out right around 35 percent of the hitters they face (Sale is at 36.3 percent, Kluber at 34.6 percent) and walking about five percent (Sale is at five percent, Kluber at 4.7 percent). Both have given up 20 homers, three wild pitches, and neither has balked. To this point it seems like a draw, but there are two separators. The first is Sale has 300 strikeouts (Kluber is at 252). Even if it did happen in this era of increased strikeouts, reaching 300 strikeouts is a serious and notable accomplishment. Unfortunately for Sale, that pretty neat accomplishment doesn’t necessarily mean he’s better than Kluber. Still, voters (to the extent we can know what they’ll do) might think it does. That is, if they can get over the second thing, which is the difference in ERA. Kluber’s ERA is 2.35 which leads the American League by a lot, 0.40 over the second place pitcher who happens to be Chris Sale.
It feels bizarre to pin the outcome of this on two starts after about 30 have already elapsed for each pitcher, but that’s how close it is. It’s close enough that two starts matter, one way or the other.
That’s a monumental advantage for Kluber. Voters will probably see it and vote for Kluber, but here’s the thing: by FIP it’s Sale who has the huge advantage, 2.19 to Kluber’s 2.46! But by DRA, it’s Kluber who is up, 2.00 to 2.12!
Taking this all in as much as I can with an exploded head, it seems to me that while he’s been on the mound, Kluber has probably been the incrementally better pitcher. So the answer to all of this depends in part on how you value the extra 18.1 innings that Sale has thrown and in part on what we don’t yet know, namely what happens in the next two starts that each pitcher has before the season ends. It feels bizarre to pin the outcome of this on two starts after about 30 have already elapsed for each pitcher, but that’s how close it is. It’s close enough that two starts matter, one way or the other.
Kluber’s next two will be in Seattle on Sunday and at home against the Chicago White Sox, though the Indians might hold him out in preparation for the playoffs. Sale’s next two scheduled starts are at home against the Blue Jays and Astros, though like Kluber, Sale may not take the hill at all for the second one. So maybe it isn’t two starts at all, but one more start.
For now, if forced to vote, I’d pick Sale because of the extra innings he’s thrown, the lower FIP, and, I’ll admit, because I think the 300 Ks is pretty darn cool. I had hoped to finish this piece off by making a definitive statement. I had hoped to show who was really the better pitcher. But it’s close. It’s extremely close! It’s so close that there really isn’t a correct answer. At least not right now, and with likely only one or two starts remaining for each pitcher, probably forever.
Photo by Patrick McDermott – USA TODAY Sports