Maybe the Correct Choice for NL Cy Young Wasn’t Trevor Bauer

In a year of small samples, we need to look beyond results.

A week ago, Shane Bieber won the American League Cy Young Award. I was thrilled! And then, not long after, Trevor Bauer won the NL Cy Young! I was decidedly not thrilled! I have a storied history of not being the biggest Bauer fan — in fact, I am quite the opposite — but there is a strong case to be made that either Jacob deGrom or Yu Darvish was more deserving. Perhaps the argument should be made that both were. And so, here is why Bauer is perhaps a misguided choice for the NL Cy Young Award.

First, the results! Let’s look at the darned results!

Bauer overwhelmingly received the bulk of the first-place votes. Darvish got a few, and deGrom didn’t squeak out anything better than a few second-place votes. Bauer won in a landslide that definitely should not have been a landslide.

Let’s consider some important metrics:

NL Cy Young Candidates, Peripherals

Now, I handpicked which metrics to use here, but you’ll notice that Bauer doesn’t lead in any of these categories — and they’re all quite important. Darvish leads in CSW and fWAR. deGrom leads in K-BB% and swinging-strike percentage. Lamet leads in wOBAcon. These aren’t the only metrics to consider, but they’re awfully important.

Let’s take a look at some more Bauer-friendly metrics:

NL Cy Young Candidates, Peripherals, Again

Bauer leads nearly all categories here! The thing is, the latter four are all based, in part, on luck. Alex Chamberlain has shown us that wOBAcon (as well as xwOBAcon) are noisy from year to year, so we shouldn’t necessarily treat gains in xwOBAcon and wOBAcon as skill, unless there are significant changes like switching out a sinker for a four-seam fastball and adding a splitter.

Remember when Bauer had a career year in 2018? It was from a legitimate bump in skills — he raised his swinging-strike percentage from 9.1% in 2017 to 13.3% in 2018 — but the bulk of it came from lowering his xwOBAcon to .340, which is well below the league-average and his former career average. Now? He’s lowered his xwOBAcon to .300 — which isn’t sustainable in the slightest — and his swinging-strike percentage of 12.8%, but it’s lower than the 13.3% he posted in 2018. Either way, it isn’t particularly high, and if you look at Chamberlain’s pitch leaderboard, he had the second-highest strikeout percentage minus deserved strikeout percentage (behind my beloved Bieber), and by deserved strikeout percentage, he’s ranked between Carlos Carrasco and Ian Anderson, at 28.4%.

The voters tend to dig this kind of profile! Blake Snell won in 2018 with similar numbers, but he had stronger peripherals to support it. The thing is, there are more factors to take into account. Here are the same players, with each of their divisional rivals, by wRC+:

NL Cy Young Candidates, Divisional Rivals, By wRC+

 

Darvish and Bauer faced incredibly weak competition. Now, obviously, these numbers aren’t perfect. But I think it’s fair to cite them to catch the broad strokes, and the broad strokes sum it up pretty easily for us:

  • Bauer and Darvish faced subpar competition, 13% below league-average
  • Lamet faced league-average competition
  • deGrom faced above-average competition, 7% above league-average

I don’t think it’s as instructive in general, but I think it’s important to look at wOBA by team, too:

NL Cy Young Candidates, Divisional Rivals, By wOBA

Again, Bauer and Darvish benefited from facing some pretty weak lineups. None of them even cracked league average. On the flip side, deGrom faced the toughest competition, but Lamet’s was nearly equal by wOBA, too. Clearly, the tables I cited above with their peripheral metrics above aren’t apples to apples. These are pitchers with different parks, opponents, fielders, weather, and so on. We can’t directly compare metrics without considering their respective contexts.

As a parting note, we’ll look at a few run expectancy versions of fWAR:

NL Cy Young Candidates, By WAR, WPA/LI, And REW

 

And so, as I alluded to earlier, I think that we should be weighing things like overperforming wOBAcon as little as ever, as well as considering the statistics from the top table (e.g., K-BB%, SwStr%) as much as ever. The amount of noise that exists in batted ball data in a 60-game shortened season is significant, and I personally am not willing to back the decision to make Bauer the NL Cy Young Award winner. Especially when it’s come against significantly weaker competition — that should matter a lot!

Given all of this information, I think my ballot would look like the following:

  1. Jacob deGrom
  2. Yu Darvish
  3. Trevor Bauer
  4. Dinelson Lamet
  5. Luis Castillo

I’m not wedded to this list, but I’m pretty set on the top three. I can see the argument for swapping Darvish and Bauer, but I think deGrom is undoubtedly the most deserving recipient of the NL Cy Young award. Despite facing tougher competition (i.e., a whole 20% stronger), deGrom edges Bauer and Darvish in K%, K-BB%, xFIP, DRA, SIERA, pCRA, swinging-strike percentage, and hard-hit percentage. If you want to make the argument that Bauer posted the best numbers in terms of results, perhaps you should consider the table above, in which Darvish leads the group in all three metrics.

You may not agree with my rationale, and you almost certainly do not agree with my entire list. All I know for certain is that the voters are significantly at odds with my ballot.  Given what I know about the voters, I’m not at all surprised that they went with the pitcher with the shiny ERA in favor of the pitcher with the best WAR or the pitcher who dominated nearly every metric across the board. So it goes within a sport that is dominated by dinosaurs.

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Michael Ajeto

Michael writes about the Mariners at Lookout Landing, while doing other analysis here at Pitcher List. You can follow Michael on Twitter @dysthymikey, or you can not.

2 responses to “Maybe the Correct Choice for NL Cy Young Wasn’t Trevor Bauer”

  1. Avatar Rocket says:

    Met’s fan checking in. I do not think deGrom should have been this years Cy Young Award winner. No doubt all three are elite but, watching Bauer when he is on is really a show. It sometimes looks like he is playing “whiffleball” with hitters completely fooled. Three stats that jump off the page for 2020. 1.73ERA/.79WHIP/.159BAVG. Yes and the man pitched most of his games in the Great American Ballpark. Just a of the few reasons why Bauer won the majority of the first place votes.

    I hope 2021 as a Met’s fan we will have a 1-2 punch of deGrom and Bauer or will it be Bauer and deGrom? If Thor can reemerge look out.

  2. Avatar Vince says:

    60 games to me doesn’t a cy young award make. We will never know what might have happened in another 100 games. It deprived DeGrom of the chance for a third award. I’m a Mets fan and if DeGrom had been the winner I would still think it was tainted. Same goes for all 60 game awards.

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