There are many ways to judge a pitcher. Some people like ERA. Some like FIP. Some like using component numbers like strikeouts, batting average allowed, or swinging strike rate,. If you're a nerd, you may have heard of RE24 or SIERA or something else that has a clever acronym. You have options and when asked to determine who is worthy of the Cy Young award, you have to decide what kind of numbers matter. If you have an American League ballot this year, or if you're just a person who pretends to have a ballot, you have an interesting choice.
Before breaking it down in detail, let's use WAR to gather a collection of candidates. Using fWAR, the top tier of AL starters is: Felix Hernandez, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Phil Hughes, David Price, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, and Jose Quintana. Using RA9-WAR, the tier is: Hernandez, Kluber, Lester, Sale, Scherzer, and Garrett Richards. Fortunately, that leaves us with five guys who made both lists and since we're only interested in picking the best guy, we can start from there.
Felix, Kluber, Lester, Scherzer, and Sale. That's one heck of a list. If I had a vote, and assuming nothing major changes over the next two weeks, the second city ace would have my vote. Chris Sale deserves the Cy Young.
Let's throw together the WAR leaders so we can get a sense of the starting point:
You'll notice that each pitcher is somewhere in the 5 to 6.5 WAR range depending on where you think the dividing line between fWAR and RA9-WAR should be. If you're big into RA9-WAR, Felix looks best. If you're a FIP person, you're going to have to make a tough call, right? Well, maybe not. Look at the last column. All of these pitchers are having very good seasons that are hard to distinguish from one another, but Chris Sale is right with them in cumulative stats and he's thrown forty to sixty fewer innings.
Take a second and think about that. Sale is within one win of the lead in fWAR and 1.3 wins of the lead in RA9-WAR, and he trails both leaders by 50 to 60 innings. Normally, you look at a guy's total innings and assume someone can't win the Cy Young without a nice innings pitched total, but Sale is nearly their equal in raw value in far fewer innings. And I'm a believer in the Cy Young going to the best pitcher in the league, not the most valuable pitcher.
If that distinction sounds fuzzy, allow me to clear it up. I would rather award a pitcher with a 2.00 ERA or FIP in 180 innings than a guy with a 2.50 ERA or FIP in 220 innings. I won't vote for a Cy Young who tossed only 95 innings (unless he was nuts), but if a pitcher, like Sale, is sufficiently close in overall value, I want the rate stat king over the guy who used innings to run up the score. I was a Matt Harvey supporter in the 2013 NL race until he got injured and backed Anibal Sanchez for the AL crown, just so you know I'm not making this up for good blog fodder.
All five of these guys are close enough to make a case, but here's the case for Sale.
|Chris Sale||24||30.3 %||5.4 %||0.61|
|Felix Hernandez||31||26.6 %||4.9 %||0.62|
|Jon Lester||30||24.8 %||5.5 %||0.66|
|Corey Kluber||31||26.8 %||5.4 %||0.59|
|Max Scherzer||30||28.3 %||6.9 %||0.76|
Sale leads the group in strikeout rate pretty comfortably and trails Felix in walk rate. His home run rate is clustered right with the leaders despite playing in a very hitter friendly home park. If you like these fielding independent stats, Sale is certainly a strong choice. Let's package them together:
Sale has the best FIP and FIP- while being in the middle of the pack in xFIP and xFIP-. But as we know, xFIP is more of a forecast than a retrospective evaluation, so we don't want to regress home run rate. So, by FIP and FIP-, Chris Sale is the best pitcher in the league this year. And when we shifted into fWAR, he's at 5.3 compared to the leader at 6.0. The difference is innings. If you gave him 210 innings at this rate, he'd lead fWAR with 6.8. You don't want to make up innings, but that gives you a sense of what drives the difference.
If you let Chris Sale pitch 47 more innings, but called them 5.00 FIP innings, he'd still have a 3.01 FIP for the year. So basically, Chris Sale and a complete zero starter would still be among the best starters in the league.
But you may not love FIP, so let's turn it over and look at runs based numbers. By RA9-WAR, Sale was second only to Felix and he has a nice lead in ERA and ERA-:
Sale's also second in RE24, which is a cumulative stat that works alongside innings pitched. Basically, if you care about rate stats, Sale is the best of the group. He leads comfortably in ERA and FIP while pitching in a tough park. He was also the leader in hard-ht ball suppression as of last week. The only knock on Sale's season is innings pitched. So how much should that matter?
If you give Sale 210 innings, he's the clear leader in both flavors of WAR. This is part philosophical and part practical. Philosophically, when it comes to the Cy Young I'd rather go with the guy who was better inning for inning than the guy who earned his value by racking up innings. Those innings matter, but the gap here is reasonably small. If Felix had 8 WAR, we wouldn't need to go into the weeds, but everyone is really close. When asked to pick, I want Sale.
But practically speaking, how else would you distinguish this group of pitchers? I'm comfortable saying the winner isn't Scherzer. I'm probably okay with cutting Lester out of the picture. But it's still three names who are having very similar seasons.
Additionally, the White Sox and Indians have very bad defenses while the Mariners have a decent one. In a toss up, you probably give a little boost to Sale and Kluber over Felix. You can't just attribute even defense, but it's probably safe to say Sale probably had a few more innings extended via bad defense than Felix did.
I won't argue that it's an ironclad argument that is immune to counter-arguing, but I'd cast my vote for Chris Sale as it stands today. He's been the best starting pitcher, inning for inning, in the AL this season and he's thrown enough innings to put himself into the top tier. Since WAR isn't a precise measure of value, you're left to decide exactly how much you want to tweak things to decide among similar choices.
Felix has to deal with the Angels and A's while Kluber and Sale didn't, but quantifying the difference is tricky. You could make the case for another one of these guys, but Sale is my pick. If you want to award the best inning for inning starter in the league, he's the guy, and it's clear. If you're someone who wants to load up on innings pitched, you probably have a different idea. It's also worth making the distinction that his lower inning total is due to injury rather than racking up a bunch of five inning starts.
In a bleak year for the White Sox, they've at least been treated to a fantastic season from one of the game's premier arms. He doesn't get the publicity that he probably deserves, but he's probably 80 percent of Clayton Kershaw at about 25 percent of the cost. At the very least, Chris Sale ought to finish in the top five of the balloting and there's a very strong case that he's number one.
Just ask everyone who swings left-handed. If they aren't paralyzed by fear, they'll tell you to vote for Sale.
Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, the Site Educator at FanGraphs, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow @NeilWeinberg44