The AL Cy Young race was not supposed to be as tight and historic as the one in the NL (see Dave Cameron’s piece here) but it deserves attention. While a first glance at the leaderboard may lead you to believe this is a five-guys race, it is pretty clear to me only three (Dallas Keuchel, Chris Sale and David Price) should have received first place votes as Sonny Gray and Chris Archer lost momentum as the season went on.
If I had a vote on the AL Cy Young award, I would have gone with Dallas Keuchel – as most voters did –and my rationale is the following:
While traditional standards force us to lean towards Keuchel and Price because of their Win totals/ERA/K slash lines of 20/2.48/216 and 18/2.45/225, respectively, a closer look tells a different story. We know baseball has changed and wins don’t mean much these days while ERA is rapidly losing value. We also know Chris Sale’s season was rather an historical one: Sale struck out 32.1% of the batters faced. That alone would put him among an elite group of pitchers, but if you add to that his minuscule 4.9 BB%, company gets even thinner. Since 1950, only Pedro Martinez (1999 and 2000) and Clayton Kershaw (this year) have accomplished at least 32% whiff rate and a 5% or lower BB%; that’s unquestionably good company. As a matter of fact, Sale’s 27.2 K-BB% ranks 8th since they started keeping those stats a century ago. That’s impressive and fun to watch but looks like it’s useless for voters. Since 1980, 12 pitchers have accomplished 270+ strikeouts in the AL and exactly 6 went on to win the CY – that includes 1997 when Randy Johnson struck out 291 in 213 innings and Clemens had 292K. This leads me to believe that the Cy Young award is not necessarily given to the most overpowering pitcher - and that’s fine. Pitching is a complex process that involves more than strikeout batters at ridiculous rates. If pitching was to be defined, it’d be closer to getting outs and minimizing damage to ultimately put your team in a position to win than to having solely K’s.
Having said that, “putting your team in a position to win” is not entirely on the pitcher’s shoulders. You can argue that Sale did everything in his power to do that – as his SIERA shows. Winning a game is a collective effort and most of Chi Sox players did (almost) everything on their power NOT to win games. They had a lousy bullpen and a disastrous defense, and even though Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto were good (probably great) at framing, Chi Sox defense was bad. No, wait, they were not been bad – they were worse. They were terrible indeed. Actually, Chi Sox ranked dead-last by UZR and was not even close. On the other hand, Price benefitted the most from pitching in front of a (greatly improved from 2014) Tigers and Jays’ defense. Houston was a little below average on defense but had a league leading bullpen which helped Keuchel by preventing inherited runners to score, thus preventing his ERA to raise after he had left the game. Price and Keuchel were very good but Sale’s individual performance is tough to match, at least from two out of the three true outcomes. Chris Sale will surely head into the offseason wondering what could have happened if his defense and offense had held his back? (Did I mention Sale’s run support ranks 61st at 3.61 while Price’s and Keuchel’s are top 7 with a bit over 5 runs per start?)
While Sale’s argument revolves around his overpowering season (especially the first half) and the ability to get a strikeout when needed, Keuchel’s one was his ability to induce weak contact and his extraordinary performance at home. Let’s see how much better Keuchel was at Minute Maid Park was than on the road:
In the graph above, positive values indicate better performance at home (e.g. Keuchel’s ERA home and away were 1.46 and 3.77. That’s a 2.31 spread). Negative values show better performance away. The result that quickly stands out is Keuchel’s performance at home was remarkably better than away. While Minute Maid Park’s ESPN park factor certainly favored pitchers, a gap that big was likely due to other factors, unknown to me at this point. I think is safe to argue that a pitcher who is able to maintain a good level both at home and away is preferred to one whose performance drops either at home or away (I am looking at you Julio Teheran). That’s definitely part of the definition of an ace and that’s what David Price gave to the Tigers and the Jays. I never fully understood how one of Keuchel’s arguments for the CY contention was his strength at home – when the underlying questions should have been what happened to Dallas Keuchel away from Houston? Even if being undefeated in his home stadium is quite unusual, truth is being hittable in the road is quite frequent.
By now, we all know that averages are misleading and that the baseball season is long. Many pitchers have a few really good starts and skew the entire season’s stats. Being consistently good is extremely hard in baseball as pitchers and batters are always changing, evolving. Therefore in my evaluation matrix, being consistent is very valuable. Take a closer look at their ERA and K-BB% performance by month:
If consistency is the name of the game then the award should be split between David Price and Dallas Keuchel. Apart from 31 shaky innings in March and April, Price logged an ERA under 2.49 every single month. So no matter whether it was a game away or at home, or in May or August, Price delivered similar results and put his team in a good position to win every time. That is quite impressive – and valuable. Sale’s ERA and K-BB% swings are too high as he mixed lights-out months (June) with quite hittable ones (September). Again, part of it can be attributed to Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Melky’s horrendous defense but not all of it. Sale’s inability to keep the ball in the park killed him, especially in September (1.93 HR/9). Truth is these large swings didn’t help his case. Keuchel was very stable per month basis though his performance decreased slightly as the season went on, even with a spike in his whiff numbers very late in the season. However, when you see how much Price and Keuchel's FIP moved from the mean it’s almost a tie. Consistency is also related to how many starts were complete disasters. If we calculate the number of starts where the SP went less than 5 innings and/or allowed 5+ runs (blow out starts), we see a tie (again) between Keuchel and Price at 3.
So far we have not talked about pitching results. We certainly do not know 100% what happens once the pitchers throws the ball but research now suggest it’s a combination of batters and pitchers’ ability. Limiting damage and inducing weak contact are certainly Cy Young-caliber skills. You can’t simply rely on your stuff to get batters out. You need to be able to induce weak contact – if that’s possible at all as new data suggest. The chart below shows groundball (GB%), Soft and medium contact and Line drive (LD%). We know the likelihood of getting outs and minimizing damage is higher if your ground ball, line drive contact profile moves in the right direction. Ground balls go for hits more regularly than fly balls but their damage is lower. Let’s take a look at the numbers:
First thing we notice is that Dallas Keuchel is a ground ball machine – at 61.7%, he ranks second among all qualified starters in baseball, trailing only Brett Anderson (66.3%). This is not a one-year fluke. Last year it was 63.7%. To better understand what this numbers mean, in the last 15 years only Dereck Lowe, Brandon Webb, Jake Westbrook and Tim Hudson had back to back 60+% GB seasons so this is not something frequent. Price’s 40.4% is certainly low and places him closer to Trevor Bauer and Ian Kennedy – which is never good. Price’s ability to prevent HR out of those many fly balls let him get away with it.
So ground balls are good, but do you know what’s great? Weak ground balls. It’s hard to get a hit off a pitcher if batters can’t put the barrel on the ball to make good contact. Warren Spahn is famously quote for saying hitting is about timing and pitching is about “upsetting timing". Keuchel’s 78% of soft and medium contact rate is the highest in the MLB. While the difference between 78.8% and 74.7% or72.3% might look small, it is not. A quick histogram not only places Keuchel’s at the top of the curve but moves back Price and Sale to average starters (again). The pattern repeats itself for Line drives (LD). Price, whose 23.1% ranks 73rd out of 78 starters, looks more similar to Ian Kennedy than to an ace. Once again, if your numbers cannot be distinguished from Kennedy’s... well, you are not having a great season. Whether is Keuchel’s stuff, intelligence or catching I don’t really know but the edge here is for Dallas and it’s a big one.
There are no specific criteria for the Cy Young award. While team performance and media narrative should not matter, they do. The media narrative was that Keuchel put the Astros on his shoulders and they breezed through part of the season. After Price was traded to the Blue Jays from the Detroit Tigers, he almost tilted the balance in his favour as the Jays jumpstarted their run to the postseason. Price compiled a 2.7 WAR in Toronto in 74.1 innings. That is 24% of the entire Blue Jays’ starting rotation WAR. Keuchel’s 6.1 WAR accounted for 35% of the Astros’ starting rotation. It is hard to argue about the impact that Price had in the Blue Jays in the final 2 month and where they would have ended if Anthopoulos had not pulled the trigger. Still, facts and narrative are two different, uncorrelated variables and I think the latter favors Keuchel. Keuchel’s Win Added probability supports that argument, though, with a subtle advantage over Price. RA9-WAR (Wins Above Replacement calculated using Runs Allowed) also favors Keuchel widely.
While King Felix’s Cy Young in 2010 set precedent, I don’t think it was enough for Sale to run away with 2015’s award. However, he was worthy of consideration even though voters thought Sonny Gray deserved a bronze medal. Both Keuchel and Price threw the ball well enough to win. We know few people remember runner-ups and it’s a shame one of them will be. Still, if I were one of the voters, I’d penciled Dallas Keuchel for a first place in the ballot. In a close-enough race, Keuchel had a slightly better season as he substituted strikeouts for weak contact while throwing more innings in front of a worse defense, adding more to his team in terms of WAR and WPA for the entire year.
By Oswaldo Gonzalez