Debates about sports awards are often dreary affairs. Why should the question about which multi-millionaire pro will hoist an individual trophy at the end of the season work anyone into a lather? The arguments are subjective. Someone wins the MVP or Cy Young Award. Then life moves on.
The race for the 2018 National League Cy Young award, between Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets and Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, comes with some higher stakes. Nothing too serious, mind you — we’re still talking baseball here. Plus, neither Mets nor the Nats made the playoffs. A Cy Young win for deGrom, however, would serve as a huge victory for clear-headed thinking. It’d be a triumph of common sense.
A pitcher’s job is to prevent the other team from scoring runs. No one in baseball is better at that task than deGrom. The Mets star owns a 1.70 earned run average (ERA), best in the majors. Scherzer, who’s had an outstanding year — and won three Cy Youngs in his career, including the last two National League awards — has a 2.53 ERA. Rounding up a bit, that means Scherzer’s given up one more earned run per game than deGrom. That’s a pretty significant difference.
DeGrom wasn’t just superlative this season. He was historically great. As CBS Sports reported, deGrom became just the seventh pitcher since 1933 to throw at least 215 innings with a 1.70 ERA or better. DeGrom set a new single-season record more the most consecutive starts (29) without giving up more than three runs.
The rub on deGrom is his won-loss record. He finished with a 10-9 mark, while Scherzer owns a more gaudy record of 18 wins, 7 losses. According to some pundits and fans on social media, Scherzer’s win total should give him an edge. Earlier this month, ESPN host Michael Wilbon called the Cy Young argument for deGrom “garbage.” He said that “if [deGrom] goes 8-11 and wins the Cy Young, then all the people voting for the Cy Young should be dismissed.” (Baseball writers determine the Cy Young winner). To Wilbon, wins matter.
Yes, deGrom finished 10-9. But even if he had finished with a losing record, deGrom deserves the award.
Think what you want about the analytics movement in sports. Yes, maybe advanced metrics like VORP remind you of high school physics, and you believe high school physics and baseball don’t mix. Maybe you’re miffed that the tech revolution has enabled teams to better predict where batters will hit balls, and resulted in managers shifting their fielders to the places where they can catch those balls. (Explaining why your team’s third baseman is suddenly standing in short right field). Hitters are now programmed to launch the ball over these defensive shifts, resulting in rising numbers of home runs and strikeouts. You loved more traditional “small-ball,” featuring singles and stolen bases, and curse analytics for fundamentally changing America’s pastime. Fair enough.
Data geeks, however, have done fans an important favor: they’ve made airtight cases that some traditional measures of sporting success — like wins attributed to pitchers — are wildly overvalued, if not plain useless. The metrics that matter are those that strip out factors that the players cannot control. Pitching wins do the near opposite. Wins is a statistic that’s almost entirely reliant on the acts of others. Jacob deGrom finished with a 10-9 record because his team failed to score enough runs to support his historically good pitching performances, and earn wins for the Mets. How is that at all Jacob deGrom’s fault? He’s not responsible for his .500 record. His hitters are. You can’t logically hold deGrom’s record against him.
The strongest argument for Scherzer is his strikeouts. He has struck out 300 hitters in 2018, becoming just the sixth pitcher since 1990 to reach the 300 total in a season (Scherzer could still start Washington’s final game of the season, on Sunday against Colorado). Strikeouts are crown jewels for pitchers: if a ball’s not put in play, it can’t do any damage. But runs, not strikeouts, determine the outcome of games. DeGrom allowed the fewest runs, while striking our his fair share: deGrom finished the season with 269 Ks, more than anyone on that list of pitchers who threw more than 215 innings and finished with a 1.70 ERA or better.
In most other years, Scherzer would earn the Cy Young in a cinch. He was spectacular this season. But not historic like deGrom. No starting pitcher who’s won just 10 games in a season has won the Cy Young award. Let’s hope baseball writers do the right thing, and make deGrom a standard bearer for common sense.