The Best Pitchers in Baseball for both AL and NL
by Tyler Young
Not so long ago, it was easy to determine who the best pitchers were in each league, find out who had the most wins. Cross check those names with the ERA (Earned Run Average) leaders, and throw in strikeouts for good measure. Did their team make the playoffs? If not, get rid of them. By this point, the list had been whittled down to two or three names and from there the Cy Young would pop off the page. Thankfully, the sport, and its voters, have evolved.
As progressive as we like to think the sport of baseball has become, there remains a faction of voters who have their doubts about giving an award to a player that has maybe won less often or played less often than his peers. These people are not wrong to place value on winning and longevity in the game, but it is misplaced when determining who put forth the most valuable individual performance over an entire season of work.
In the American League, much of the discussion about realistic candidates has revolved around workload. The Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber won the award last season and has backed it up with another impressive campaign, this time leading the league with 210 innings pitched. His biggest competition, Blake Snell and Chris Sale, have both lagged behind in innings pitched but may have bested Kluber in their impact while on the mound.
Snell leads the league with 21 wins and a minute 1.90 ERA. That’s enough to get any old school baseball fan salivating. The Tampa Bay Rays southpaw also boasts an AL-best 216 ERA+ and 7.0 bWAR. All impressive numbers, to be sure, but he’s thrown just 175.2 innings. Should he win, that would be the fewest frames for an AL winner since the David Cone accomplished the feat in 1994 with 171.2 innings for the New York Yankees.
Sale has a similar problem but to another extreme. Shoulder injuries and a pair of DL stints put a stop to what was setting up to be an historic season for the Boston Red Sox lefty. As a result, he’s thrown just 153.1 innings and looks likely to fall short of the 162 innings he would need to land on the league leaderboards. The last AL pitcher to win the Cy Young despite not reaching the 162-inning threshold was Dennis Eckersley, a reliever for the Oakland Athletics in 1992.
Should that be enough to keep Sale from winning an award that he may otherwise deserve? If he were on the league leaderboards, Sale would lead the AL in ERA+ (216), WHIP (0.854), FIP (1.98) and strikeouts per nine innings (13.4). For most voters, that would be enough to earn him the distinction of being that season’s best pitcher. But it gets murky when the innings caveat is added.
In the National League, two pitchers seem to be running away from the field, although there is a third candidate that deserves a mention.
Max Scherzer has won the award two years in a row, and shows no signs of slowing down. Pick a category and the Washington Nationals hurler probably leads the NL in it. He’s tops in innings pitched (220.2), strikeouts (300), WHIP (0.911), strikeouts per nine (12.2) and strikeouts-to-walks ratio (5.88). But it’s not clear that he is even the best pitcher in his own division.
Jacob deGrom has captured headlines all season for being the lone shining light in yet another dark season for the New York Mets. Despite leading the universe with a 1.77 ERA, 209 ERA+ and 2.03 FIP, he has just nine wins for the fourth-place team in the East. Leading in those numbers may not be as “sexy” as striking out everyone and throwing a ton of innings like Scherzer, but they may provide better value.Phi
Simply put, deGrom is more difficult for batters to square up… He limits his damage. Opposing batters have fewer doubles, triples, home runs, walks and hit by pitches against deGrom than they do against Scherzer. Batters get hits more often against deGrom (.200 BAA) than they do against Scherzer (.188 BAA), but they hit Scherzer harder (.332 SLG vs. .284 SLG). There is immense value in that, which you can see reflected in Scherzer’s notably higher 2.53 ERA and 2.65 FIP.
The fly in the ointment of the NL Cy Young discussion is Philadelphia Phillies righty Aaron Nola. His 9.8 bWAR is better than both Scherzer and deGrom. But he’s doing it without leading the NL in any one category, which is exactly why he is well behind them in fWAR (deGrom: 8.3, Scherzer: 7.3, Nola: 5.5). He’s also had a tough month of September in which he has served up nine home runs in five starts and seen his ERA jump 0.35 points. It’s been an outstanding season for the 25-year-old but, like his team, he has collapsed down the stretch and lost his chance at postseason glory.
Naming any two of the six pitchers as this season’s “Cy Young award winners” wouldn’t be wrong. They are each deserving of that distinction. While there remains some hesitance when it comes to innings totals for Sale or wins for deGrom, many of the people discussing these awards on the public stage are easily able to look past those superficial numbers and find the true value of each pitcher’s contributions. That’s encouraging.