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Separating Clayton Kershaw and Johnny Cueto

While Clayton Kershaw is going to win the Cy Young award, a few voters might be tempted to consider Johnny Cueto. Here's why they shouldn't.

Joe Robbins

I'm going to start with a questionable premise, but it leads to a very worthwhile conclusion. Maybe that's a horrible lede, but this is obviously about Clayton Kershaw, and you're going to read anything that has to do with Clayton Kershaw. The premise is that some people might consider voting for Johnny Cueto for the National League Cy Young, but the conclusion is that the only case for Cueto isn't a very strong case at all.

If you're someone who leans more on the fielding independent side of things, Clayton Kershaw is the Cy Young and there's simply no argument. He leads second place by more than 2.0 fWAR and has done it in fewer innings. If FIP is your framework of choice, you don't need one ounce of convincing because the difference is simply too large for there to be any sort of debate.

But if you're a runs allowed devotee, things are a bit closer. Kershaw has a 1.94 RA9 in 190.1 IP, and Cueto has a 2.65 RA9 in 227.2 IP. Kershaw pitches in a much more pitcher friendly park, so you want to add about 0.10 runs per nine to his mark. Basically, the argument for Cueto is that he's thrown about forty extra innings while not trailing Kershaw's RA9 mark by all that much.

If you've seen my recent piece on the AL Cy Young, you know I'd still favor Kershaw with only these facts presented. Kershaw has a 7.5 RA9-WAR and Cueto has a 6.9 RA9-WAR. Kershaw has the lead because he's been a good bit better, even in fewer innings and I personally care more about inning for inning than total value.

But there will be people who trumpet Cueto's innings pitched total as a reason to give him extra consideration. They will speak first about his ability to beat his FIP and then they'll talk about the value of an innings eater. Sure he didn't do what Kershaw did inning for inning, but look at those extra innings. They must be super valuable!

That's a reasonable argument, but it also ignores a really important aspect of pitching that we hardly ever take into account: The runners they leave on base when they exit the game.

Here's the thing about Cueto's great ERA or RA9: it's a bit misleading because Cueto's bullpen has been unusually good at stranding his runners (13 for 17), while Kershaw's bullpen has only been slightly better than average (2 for 3) at the same. To evaluate this phenomenon, I created a version of RE24 that is scaled to RA9 and then compared it with a park adjusted version of RA9.

Cueto's RE24/9 is 0.40 runs higher than his park adjusted RA9, indicating that if his relievers had performed in line with league average, he'd have a whole lot more runs in his column than he does.

This method essentially charges Cueto for all of the runs he allowed while on the mound and for the run expectancy of the base-out state when he left the game. If you run Kershaw through the same system, he only adds about 0.10 runs to his total. For reference, Cueto benefited the most from good relief pitching this year compared to Justin Verlander, who was penalized the most for poor relievers behind him (5 for 14).

If this is a bit hard to understand, think of it like this. Cueto left the game in quite a few jams, and his relievers bailed him out more often than you would expect. Cueto had nothing to do with that, but those relievers kept his runs from scoring and that allows his RA9 to look quite good.

I don't mean to argue that this suggests Cueto has had a poor season, but rather to say that the idea that he's been close enough to Kershaw to warrant a real debate doesn't hold up when you consider the runners they left on base for their bullpens to clean up.

One thing I found out last offseason was that the performance of bullpens varies a great deal even across the five starters of one major league team. It's easy to understand that a team with a bad bullpen will allow more inherited runners to score, but it's not as obvious that those runs are not evenly distributed to all of the starters.

Using RE24 is a great way to examine this. Normally, we think of RE24 as being useful for relievers more than starters, but it's actually super useful for starters as well because it captures the right amount of credit for each runner that they leave for their relievers to finish off. If you leave with the bases loaded and no outs but your pen strikes out the next three hitters, RA9 says you allowed zero runs, but that wasn't really the case because you stranded the runners. So this method allows for deductions if you leave lots of runners for your relievers or credits if your relievers allow too many of them to score.

I plan on putting together a post that summarizes the leaders and laggards for the entire season, but for now, this allows you to put your mind at ease. Kershaw is the Cy Young and Cueto is simply a very good starting pitcher. But I suppose you probably knew that anyway.


All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

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