Several weeks ago, I wrote a long piece on the possibility that Zack Greinke might have an unquantifiable yet sabermetric case for the National League Cy Young Award. It was always more of an intriguing idea than a defensible position, and award voters agreed.
Greinke placed second in Cy Young voting behind winner Jake Arrieta and ahead of teammate (and my personal preference) Clayton Kershaw. There's general agreement that these three pitchers had the best seasons in baseball, and depending on what one values, each had a rational argument for the award.
However, it seems a bit unusual that the Baseball Writers Association of America voting pool didn't lean a bit more toward Greinke. Typically thought of as a group that values more traditional statistics, they may have shed a bit of that perception by not voting for a pitcher with the lowest qualifying ERA in 20 years.
How unusual was it really for the BBWAA to vote against someone with such a gaudy run prevention metric? To answer this, I used the Lahman database, and later supplemented it with 2015 data from FanGraphs. Interested parties should see this GitHub repository containing the SQL Server scripts used to generate my data.
For the purposes of this piece, I looked specifically at Cy Young winners beginning in 1967, when the award began being handed out by league. Prior to that season (1956-1966), one award was given for both leagues.
Of the 99 winners from 1967-2015, 91 qualified for the ERA title in their year. The remaining eight were elite relievers - Sparky Lyle, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, Willie Hernandez, Steve Bedrosian, Mark Davis, Dennis Eckersley, and Eric Gagne. These pitchers were disqualified from the ERA ranking.
Since 1967, how many Cy Young winners were the qualifying ERA leader in their respective leagues? Thirty-nine out of the total 99 (39.4 percent). Given the wide range of circumstances that can influence voting - from more advanced statistical analysis or more traditional metrics to a particularly compelling narrative - having the ERA leader win roughly 40 percent of the time seems reasonably high.
How does this compare to other traditional measures of pitcher performance? Has this voting pattern changed recently (we'll say over the last decade)?
|Category||Won (Since 1967)||Won (Since 2006)|
|K / BB||19.2%||15.0%|
Among the chosen statistics, leading the league in pitcher wins is clearly the most common trait shared by Cy Young winners. This is a bit surprising, since that has been maintained over the last decade, despite advancements in the public discourse over statistics.
I was even a bit surprised to realize that Jake Arrieta and Dallas Keuchel led their leagues in pitcher wins before winning the award this season - it was never a major part of their respective narratives. It is possible that over the last decade, the best pitchers have also recorded the most wins. However, when quickly sorting leaderboards, it is clear that the top 20 seasons by Wins and fWAR over the last decade are two very different lists.
So, maybe the BBWAA is still somewhat traditional in its Cy Young voting, and they still tend to favor high win totals and a low ERA. While that doesn't directly address Greinke's loss, it should be noted that Jake Arrieta was certainly not an empty 22-win pitcher this season. He had an historically strong streak in the second half that likely influenced voters and had the seventh-most valuable pitching season of the last decade by fWAR. He is likely a better choice than Greinke.
However, what is unusual is how low Greinke's ERA was compared to the rest of the league, and how he still did not win the award. The following table is a ranking of pitchers who won the ERA title but not the Cy Young Award, ordered by unadjusted ERA+ (not adjusted for park).
|Zack Greinke||2015 - NL||1.66||3.91||236|
|Roger Clemens||2005 - NL||1.87||4.23||226|
|Kevin Brown||1996 - NL||1.89||4.22||223|
|Pedro Martinez||2003 - AL||2.22||4.53||204|
|Roger Clemens||1990 - AL||1.93||3.92||203|
|Pedro Martinez||2002 - AL||2.26||4.47||197|
|Tom Seaver||1971 - NL||1.76||3.47||197|
|Greg Maddux||1998 - NL||2.22||4.24||190|
|Jake Peavy||2004 - NL||2.27||4.31||189|
|Chris Carpenter||2009 - NL||2.24||4.20||187|
Greinke has the lowest raw ERA among these top 10, and certainly the highest unadjusted ERA+.
I'd argue that Arrieta was a better choice, if not the right one, but it does seem surprising that someone with as gaudy of numbers as Zack Greinke didn't win the Cy Young Award anyway.
Both pitchers (and Kershaw) each had career years in a season where offense actually ticked up. They'd each have won the award in most other seasons, but the Dodgers teammates each had the misfortune of being surrounded by other concurrent historic seasons in the National League.
. . .
Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.