Upon the announcement of the Cy Young Award winners of 2018, it would be no exaggeration to say that the impact of the decisions made by voters carried greater significance than many years in the past.
This year was about which stats matter. By what measure is a particular player worthy to receive the award? In the age where analytics and various forms of statistical data orchestrate great influence on the game from all angles, it was the interest of all who are involved with, and indeed simply all who follow the game at close quarters, where the Cy Young votes would land this year.
The National League quandary was as easy to solve as many, including myself, argued it should be, with Jacob deGrom receiving 29 out of 30 first place votes.
DeGrom had what was quite simply one of the most dominant seasons by a starting pitcher that I, and many others, have seen for a long time. His 1.70 ERA was the best in the Majors by .19, and the best in the NL by a not-even-close .67 (next best was Aaron Nola of the Phillies, who finished 3rd in the voting). He amassed 269 strikeouts, and set a record of consecutive quality starts.
Yet, despite all this he finished the season with a record of just 10-9. He made a simply ridiculous nine starts in which he gave up no more than one run over six innings or more, where he was not credited with the win. This debate was had more than enough during the course of the season and does not need to be had again here; however, rest assured that with such damning statistics, Jacob deGrom is a more than worthy winner of his first Cy Young award for managing to have such an incredible season on such an inconsistent and, for large parts of the season, poor team.
Snell’s quality over quantity
Now, to Blake Snell. No one can doubt that Snell’s figures were outstanding, posting an AL-leading 1.89 ERA over 180 ⅔ innings, with an MLB-leading record of 21-5, and 221 Ks to go with it. It was easily the best season of Snell’s career. Yet, if we look at the other leading AL Cy Young candidates, Justin Verlander recorded an ERA of 2.52, over ⅓ of a run more per 9 innings on average compared to Snell, and Corey Kluber’s ERA stood at 2.89 at the end of the regular season. Yet by pitching 214 and 215 innings respectively, these two have had a much larger sample size than Snell, so can the difference in ERA stand up to that much scrutiny?
Snell has won this award, it should also be noted, on the back of the Tampa Bay Rays embracing the general move within the game towards greater use of relief pitchers; be it through analytically-driven match-ups, or through the idea that pitchers should not go through the lineup more than twice due to the average increase in opponent batting average, the Rays have been pioneers of change in this department. He has undoubtedly had great success this year, but having pitched an average of just 5.8 innings per start, the question can be posed as to whether his AL-leading ERA and win percentage truly mean he deserves to win the Cy Young at the expense of the rivals he was up against.
For example, if this vote is a sign that the approach to the voting for Cy Young awards in future years is going to favour quality over quantity, then surely that must bring in the top relievers as candidates for the award, if not now then in years to come. For example, Blake Treinen went 9-2 over 80 ⅓ innings with 38 saves and an incredible 0.78 ERA for the expectation-surpassing Oakland Athletics this past year. Away from the postseason chasers, Edwin Diaz managed an ERA of 1.96 with 124 Ks over 73 ⅓ innings, with a massive 57 saves tying him for second all-time for the number of saves in a season and the Seattle Mariners boasting a 100% record in games where Diaz entered a game with a lead.
Relevance, your honour? Well, neither of these two have the depth of innings that is usually necessary to win a Cy Young award – as relievers, they are never going to reach the levels of any starting pitcher, whether used in the traditional sense or otherwise. What are we now saying is the criteria? Are the writers of baseball now stating that you have to pitch around 180 innings to be worthy of consideration for the award, rather than the traditional 200 mark? Is there an argument to suggest that Treinen showed, in situations of much higher-leverage than those regularly encountered by Snell, that if the innings count is of less importance in the modern game he is worthy of strong consideration?
There is, after all, a general rule in baseball that relief pitchers do not win Cy Young awards, ever. After all, if Zach Britton did not win the award in 2016, when recording a scarcely-believable 0.54 ERA over 67 IP, then no RP could ever win one, surely?
If Snell’s victory shows us anything, it is that attitudes in baseball are changing. This article should in no way be seen as a criticism of Snell: he has had a marvellous, dominant season in Tampa and is as worthy a candidate as any in the race to win this season’s award. However, it is without question a sign of the decline in the appreciation of the traditional starting pitcher, and if the value attributed to the number of innings pitched is decreasing, then it could well be not only a sign of things to come in terms of how teams manage their pitching staff over the coming years, but also where the Cy Young award may land in 2019 and beyond.