Jacob deGrom is among the elite pitchers in the game vying for a Cy Young, but does the New York Mets ace have the award locked up already?
Jacob deGrom is at the center of the Cy Young award conversation for a second straight year. Unlike last year though, the New York Mets starter is not the clear frontrunner. In fact, there is no clear choice at all right now.
Early in the year, Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu seemed to have the Cy Young locked down. However, an ERA of 7.48 in August has allowed others to crawl back into consideration. Ryu still leads the National League in ERA, but that’s just about it.
In any given year, the Cy Young conversation is usually limited to three or four pitchers, but that’s not the case this year. The race is so wide open that there are five pitchers who could realistically win the award.
1. Jacob deGrom
9-8, ERA: 2.61(3rd in NL), FIP: 2.79(2nd in NL), XFIP: 3.17(2nd in NL), IP: 190(5th in NL), Ks: 239(1st in NL), fWAR: 6.2(2nd in NL), bWAR: 6.9(1st in NL)
Jacob deGrom has been dominant this year. There is no question about that. He is top three in every single major pitching statistic in the NL, with the lone exception being innings pitched. Jake leads the leagues in strikeouts, and will likely top 250 strikeouts for a second straight year. He has a 1.69 ERA in the second half. He leads NL pitchers in bWAR. There is little that deGrom hasn’t done at an elite level this year.
There are two big knocks on deGrom this year. The first is his record, yet again. For whatever reason, the Mets don’t win when he’s on the mound. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with personal win-loss record, but rather the team’s record in games he pitches. The Mets are 12-18 in deGrom’s 30 starts, and that’s an issue for some voters. It didn’t matter last year when deGrom was clearly the best pitcher in baseball, but that’s not the case this year. It’s a tight race, and his lack of winning could become a major issue even if it’s not indicative of his ability as a pitcher.
The other knock on deGrom is voter fatigue which is very real and needs to be talked about. Voters don’t like repeat winners of major awards, this is true in any sport. When a player is dominant for so long that it becomes their norm it makes those seasons less special, and therefore voters tend to lean towards other candidates. deGrom could be subject to that fatigue this year, due to his unbelievable season last year. There is no question that deGrom has been elite this year, but he’s also nowhere near the player he was last year, and that sticks in the minds of voters. The Mets ace has no doubt regressed from his dominant 2018, and that could unfairly taint the way voters look at his 2019.
2. Max Scherzer
10-7, ERA: 2.81(5th in NL), FIP: 2.37(1st in NL), XFIP: 2.92(1st in NL), IP: 166.1(21st in NL), Ks: 233(3rd in NL), fWAR: 6.4(1st in NL), bWAR: 6.0(2nd in NL)
Just like last year, deGrom’s main competition is Max Scherzer. The three-time Cy Young winner has been absolutely phenomenal this year. He’s either first or second in almost every major statistical category. The only exceptions being ERA, where he trails deGrom and Mike Soroka by a very small margin, and strikeouts. That said, Scherzer’s strikeout numbers are incredibly impressive considering his innings pitched. Scherzer has dealt with some injury issues this year that have limited him to just 25 starts, compared to deGrom’s 30. That means Scherzer will fall short of 200 and maybe even 180 innings pitched. That lack of innings is a big deal in Cy Young contention.
Only two Cy Young award winners this century have pitched fewer than 200 innings. One of them was Blake Snell, but he threw 180.2 innings, which is more than Scherzer will throw this year. The other pitcher to win a Cy Young and throw fewer than 200 innings is former Dodgers closer, Eric Gagne.
He threw just 82.1 innings on his way to the Cy Young award in 2003. The last time a starting pitcher won the Cy Young award and threw fewer than 180 innings was in 1994 when David Cone won it, and his innings were limited simply because of the season ended abruptly with a players’ strike.
Now the argument can be made that Scherzer has been so dominant that the innings don’t matter, similar to Snell last year, but that’s not the case. Snell, like deGrom, was the runaway favorite for the award due to his 1.89 ERA and his 21 wins. Scherzer is not going to win 20 games this year, nor is he going to run away with the ERA title. While Scherzer has been great, there is a very real possibility that injuries have kept him from pitching enough to win the Cy Young award this season.
3. Hyun-jin Ryu
12-5, ERA: 2.35(1st in NL), FIP: 3.12(4th in NL), XFIP: 3.43(6th in NL), IP: 168.2(18th in NL), Ks: 148(21st in NL), fWAR: 4.4(6th in NL), bWAR: 4.6(7th in NL)
Ryu was the runaway favorite for the Cy Young award until August. He was pitching to a 1.53 ERA entering the month. After a disastrous month of August that saw him pitch to a 7.48 ERA, Ryu has allowed for challengers. He suffers from a couple of knocks to his candidacy.
The first is his lack of innings. Like Scherzer, Ryu isn’t going to reach 200 innings this year. He has dealt with injuries, and the Dodgers have been stingy about limiting his innings as they prepare for the playoffs. The 168.2 innings pitched is already the most in Ryu’s career. It’s possible the Dodgers are getting close to shutting Ryu down until the playoffs. But even if they don’t, it doesn’t look like Ryu will get much past 180 innings if he even gets to that number.
The next issue is Ryu’s wins above replacement (WAR) numbers. Unlike Scherzer and deGrom, Ryu doesn’t have big WAR numbers. He isn’t top five in either fWAR or bWAR, and that’s going to hold him back as well. WAR has become an incredibly important stat to voters because it illustrates to them how a player has played the whole year in a way no other stat can. The fact Ryu is lagging behind will definitely hurt his candidacy.
Lastly, Ryu’s strikeout numbers will hurt him in a major way. Voters often to point to strikeouts as the stat that best demonstrates dominance. Whether or not that’s fair is up for debate, but it’s often the case. Ryu will not strike out 200 batters this year, and that’s a major problem. The last time a Cy Young winner threw fewer than 200 strikeouts was Rick Porcello in 2016 when he struck out 189. The issue is Ryu isn’t likely to even get to 170 this year. The last pitcher to win a Cy Young while striking out 170 batters or fewer was Cliff Lee in 2008.
With all of these numbers working against Ryu, it’s hard to see him setting a new standard of what a Cy Young pitcher is this year, even with his league-leading ERA.
4. Sonny Gray
11-7, ERA: 2.80(4th in NL), FIP: 2.87(3rd in NL), XFIP: 3.39(7th in NL), IP: 170.1(14th in NL), Ks: 199(11th in NL), fWAR: 4.3(7th in NL), bWAR: 5.8(4th in NL)
Sonny Gray has been one of the best surprises in baseball this year. He left the Yankees for Cincinnati in the offseason and has found his groove again. Gray is top five in most major categories. His big misses like Ryu are strikeouts and innings pitched.
The big difference between Ryu and Gray is that Gray is better liked by bWAR, which is often what is used by voters. Gray will top 200 strikeouts this year barring a sudden injury. His FIP and ERA are phenomenal on top of that.
Really the only holding Gray back is the fact that he hasn’t thrown enough innings. If he was on par with deGrom in innings, it’s possible his number would be a lot closer. As it stands, it would take a special end to the year for Gray to come out of this fight with the Cy Young award.
The one thing that Gray does having going for him is his ballpark. Great American Ball Park is one of the best home run hitters parks in baseball. The fact that Gray has managed to limit offense in that park is a huge deal. Voters don’t often take park metrics into account, but if they did, Gray would get the biggest boost of anyone on this list by a large margin.
5. Stephen Strasburg
17-6, ERA: 3.49(13th in NL), FIP: 3.29(5th in NL), XFIP: 3.22(3rd in NL), IP: 196(1st in NL), Ks: 235(2nd in NL), fWAR: 5.3(3rd in NL), bWAR: 5.9(3rd in NL)
Strasburg has an interesting case for the Cy Young this year. He has some of the best peripherals in the major leagues. His FIP and XFIP are both phenomenal, and he has the lowest hard-hit rate allowed in the NL. He’s pitched the most innings in the NL, and he’s just four strikeouts behind deGrom for the NL lead. All of those numbers contribute to Strasburg being third in both fWAR and bWAR behind only deGrom and Scherzer. He also leads the NL with 17 wins. With numbers like those, Strasburg would seem to be a slam dunk Cy Young contender right? That’s not the case for one simple reason.
Strasburg is bogged down by a mediocre ERA. His 3.49 ERA is the highest of the five pitchers on this list and makes him nearly a run worse than deGrom and Scherzer. ERA has become the go-to number for voters when looking at pitchers. If they are close enough in ERA they can move from there, but a big gap in ERA usually eliminates pitchers. That’s why Strasburg is such an interesting case.
In the sabermetric era, ERA has become both a more and lesser stat. It has become the go-to stat for voters and casual fans, but fans who look deeply into analytics will point to FIP and XFIP as better numbers to show how good a pitcher really is. In that regard, Strasburg is a sabermetric darling because his peripherals are so strong, but his traditional ERA isn’t.
Maybe in the future when FIP and XFIP become more mainstream stats, a pitcher like Strasburg will have a strong case for the Cy Young, but in the current climate of the game, it doesn’t seem likely. A strong finish to the year coupled with poor finishes from deGrom, Scherzer, and Ryu could get Strasburg back into contention. As it stands now though, Strasburg seems to be a victim of the lack of voters progress in sabermetric stats.