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Corbin Burnes: The Analytics Pick for the NL Cy Young? Not Necessarily

The cases for Wheeler and Buehler in the 2021 NL Cy Young race.

Corbin Burnes won the NL Cy Young in 2022. Not a shocking development by any means, and one that awarded the likely most dominant pitcher in the National League on a per at-bat basis in 2022. However, there’s so much to discuss within this one award and the landmark it represents in baseball’s history, more specifically voting history.

I’ll tell you this right now, Corbin Burnes does not have a shot at this award 20 years ago, he doesn’t win it 10 years ago and if you push me, I’m not even sure about five. Gone are the days where pitcher wins are a relevant category in the voting process, and we have the likes of Zack Greinke, Félix Hernández, and Jacob deGrom (in that chronological order) to thank for that.

Nonetheless, what do you do when the single biggest problem with any process, in this case, a voting process, gets fixed. Alright, you managed to convince the collective group—however, you did so regardless of whether it was objective methodology or just pure pressure. It happened and now there’s a new era.

Do you stop there and just let this new wave of thought take over with no policing it, or do you become more diligent and aware of other potential pitfalls that may arise from a scenario that wasn’t the standard for this process until a few years ago?

 

Where Am I Getting At With This?

 

Corbin Burnes, by all reasonable accounts, shouldn’t have won the Cy Young in the National League for the 2021 season. The Brewers ace was a dominant performer on the mound and for his 167 innings of work, pound for pound, there wasn’t anyone better.

However, we shouldn’t stop here, as there’s more to the Cy Young award than just the best pound-for-pound picture in that year.

For this discussion, I’m gonna be focusing on three pitchers:

Max Scherzer finished ahead of Walker Buehler in this race and the three-time Cy Young winner has, in his own right, a pretty decent case for the award. But with the understanding that one of the drawbacks with Scherzer is the lack of innings due to missed time, I’m going to leave him out—just don’t consider that a knock on his marvelous 2021 campaign.

Before we dive into what the numbers have to tell us, let’s first focus on a very simple question, even if it may seem on the surface like a futile exercise.

 

What are the Requirements and Which Should Decide Who Wins the Cy Young Award?

 

There are more intricacies to judge the Cy Young award than the MVP, which often goes to the best hitter. Regardless of unlucky breaks and even the farthest possible distance one could imagine in a single season between the production result and the expected one based on the quality of contact, it’s easier to see and recognize the best hitter and give him the award based on production—and not expected production (after all the results are what they are after a single season and that’s what you’re judging).

A pitcher’s final result and the numbers at his box score are more susceptible to factors beyond his control and his duel with the hitters at the plate. No one can argue that Cardinals pitchers as a whole saw inflated results due to the best defense in the big leagues. Or that on the opposite end, Luis Castillo had to adjust his approach and suffered, pitching behind a Reds field of misplaced defenders.

Throughout a full season, a pitcher still controls a good enough portion of his final results, that one shouldn’t be all that hesitant about giving out a Cy Young award based on a more rudimentary assessment of run prevention and innings pitched—even though every case has its exception.

For instance, a pitcher can and should win even if he doesn’t match up in innings pitched, but there’s a path towards that. To me, he needs to have the same advantage towards the other candidates that a pitcher who wins the MVP does.

In other words, he needs to be head and shoulders above the competition to make up for the lack of innings, otherwise, it doesn’t make a ton of sense.

 

How Do I Look at Things?

 

One of the biggest mistakes to be made is to assume or even strive for a strict set of rules that tells you who to vote for. Any efforts in that should exist to give you a baseline of what the result is bound to be if you’re highlighting these aspects.

The Cy Young predictor, for instance, is there to mostly tell us what a more conservative vote in line with what was done in the ’80s and ’90s would ultimately choose. It’s not there to tell us that the following pitcher should win the award.

There’s no available formula with an effective enough rate that dismisses the need for a case-by-case analysis and the acknowledgments of any number of intricacies that come into play.

Instead, what one needs to do is keep an open mind and analyze multiple angles to reach the fairest conclusion about the deserving winner.

It’s ok to look at the top candidate in terms of runs allowed with as many innings pitched as the top arms, but you need to look at how that pitcher compares with other candidates.

Now that we’ve extensively discussed different aspects that have led up to this debate and what should be the main focus, let’s return to our initial three pitchers and compare Burnes, Wheeler, and Buehler.

 

A Rudimentary Look at Run Prevention

Going strictly by the result, one would be hard-pressed not to vote for Walker Buehler. The Dodgers ace pitched to virtually the same outcome as Corbin Burnes, but with 40 more innings pitched or five more starts.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing Buehler and even our leader, Nick Pollack has openly stated that the Dodgers’ right-hander would be his choice, but before getting into the specifics of his case, let’s go over different criteria.

 

Quality of Contact, Strikeout, and Walk percentages

This is where things get tricky and several points to be properly acknowledged.

  • You’re able to understand why moving forward, Buehler is the one possibly projected for the biggest regression. Although none of those three numbers are anything to roll your eyes at, they don’t jump out like Wheeler’s and Burnes’.
  • One can easily understand why more pedestrian underlying metrics may have affected Buehler’s candidacy, even if inadvertently.
  • Burnes was pound-for-pound the best of the three, but if I’m emphasizing these metrics, I can’t help but vote for Wheeler. He is virtually too close with Burnes in quality of contact to not get the nod once you factor in the fact he pitched 46.1 more innings
  • Wheeler’s 2.78 ERA is a little higher than Burnes’ 2.43, but understanding that their quality of contact was extremely close and that like I said, Wheeler pitched 46.1 more innings or roughly 27% of Burnes’ entire season, there’s not much to go away from the Phillies ace.

 

Different Methods Can’t Escape Buehler or Wheeler

 

Corbin Burnes was great—he is great—but between the fact that Buehler managed equal run prevention with a significant innings advantage, and that Wheeler allowed virtually the same quality of contact with the innings edge, how can you go away from either one of those?

The gap between Burnes and either one of those other two is selective in only a few categories and it’s not big enough to make up for their gap towards Burnes in innings pitched.

Walker Buehler was a more run-of-the-mill ace with his strikeout and quality of contact numbers; however, he managed equal run prevention in a larger sample size without otherworldly efforts from his defense in comparison with Burnes.

Zack Wheeler allowed an extra 1.05 run for every 27 innings that he pitched. If your main focus is just quality of contact—in other words, what the pitcher truly can control—then Wheeler is close enough there to win the award because of his league-leading 213.1 innings pitched.

 

Conclusion

 

Corbin Burnes was superb and with the same number of innings or perhaps even a closer margin, he takes home the award. However, you cannot argue overwhelming superiority over Buehler or Wheeler to dismiss the very simple fact that either pitched a lot more often than Burnes with tremendous results.

The Brewers ace might have been the more dominant pitcher, but Wheeler and Buehler were more valuable, and ultimately that’s what you should be voting for.

As far as Buehler or Wheeler, it becomes a matter of whether you favor Buehler’s edge in run prevention with metrics that may not sniff Wheeler’s (or Burnes for that matter) or if you give Wheeler the edge, for being more or less as dominant as Burnes, but with a slightly worse final result given that he allowed more runs per nine than the other two.

 

Photos by Leslie Plaza Johnson, David Kirouac & Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)

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