What Statcast Says About the National League Cy Young

Over in the American League, there’s a clear two-horse race between Chris Sale and Corey Kluber for the Cy Young Award. Both are head and shoulders above the rest of the league and both have very strong cases for the honor, depending on what metrics you prefer.

Over in the National League, that isn’t quite the case. Max Scherzer is the clear front-runner at this point, with a host of other pitchers behind him all trying to make an argument why they might have had better seasons. Clayton Kershaw has a lower ERA. Zack Greinke pitches in a much tougher park. Teammate Stephen Strasburg has a lower FIP.

Those are just the stats that measure outcomes, though. Let’s see what Statcast has to say about the sort of contact the other candidates are allowing to see if anybody has a real case against Scherzer.

First, a handful of stats on which we typically when evaluating pitchers. For the purposes of this post, I looked at the five pitchers who’ve produced an average of 5.0 WAR between FanGraphs WAR (which is FIP-based) and RA9/WAR (which is based on runs allowed). Apologies to Jacob deGrom, Jimmy Nelson, Aaron Nola, and Robbie Ray, who have all had good years, but didn’t quite fit here.

NL Cy Young Candidates
Metric Max
Scherzer
Zack
Greinke
Clayton
Kershaw
Stephen
Strasburg
Gio
Gonzalez
IP 197.1 198.1 171.0 167.2 196.2
K% 34.2% 27.0% 30.3% 29.1% 23.1%
BB% 7.0% 5.5% 4.5% 6.7% 9.5%
HR/9 1.00 1.09 1.16 0.70 0.96
BABIP .246 .281 .262 .283 .252
ERA 2.55 3.18 2.21 2.68 2.75
FIP 2.92 3.25 3.01 2.73 3.90
WAR 5.9 5.1 4.7 5.3 3.3
Leader in orange, second place in blue.

Max Scherzer leads all NL pitchers in WAR, is barely second in innings among those included here, and is the only pitcher to rank either first or second by ERA and FIP. He’s way ahead in strikeouts as well, but look at that BABIP. He’s the best among this group on turning balls in play into outs, but what if that isn’t all Scherzer? What if there’s actually been quite a bit of luck or good defense involved, and he’s not wholly responsible for all of those great numbers?

I’ll attempt to address that question in a moment. First, some other WAR-like metrics.

NL Cy Young Candidates
Metric Max
Scherzer
Zack
Greinke
Clayton
Kershaw
Stephen
Strasburg
Gio
Gonzalez
WAR 5.9 5.1 4.7 5.3 3.3
RA9/WAR 6.9 5.4 6.6 5.5 6.7
BRef 6.9 6.0 4.7 5.8 6.8
BPro 7.2 5.8 4.7 4.9 5.1
Leader in orange, second in blue.

Again, this is why Scherzer is the favorite. He’s leading no matter who you ask. But back to that BABIP issue. How’s his defense? Here are the team metrics both for Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating as of a couple days ago.

NL Cy Young Candidates Team Defense
Metric Max
Scherzer
Zack
Greinke
Clayton
Kershaw
Stephen
Strasburg
Gio
Gonzalez
UZR 1.8 -14.9 17.5 1.8 1.8
DRS -29 2 48 -29 -29

We have three teammates, but that doesn’t actually seem to make the picture much more clear. By DRS, the Nationals are rated poorly; all three Nats receive a slight bump in Baseball-Reference’s WAR because of it. However, by UZR, the Nationals’ defense has been fine. In any event, we can’t really know from what kind of defensive performance any of the three pitchers has personally benefited, as each amounts to only one-fifth of the season and is subject to variation. Clayton Kershaw appears to have gotten a benefit from the Dodgers defense, but we don’t really know for sure. We can get a little bit closer to knowing using Statcast.

Expected wOBA (xwOBA) uses launch angle and exit velocity, along with walks and strikeouts, to arrive at an estimated performance for each pitcher. We can compare these xwOBA marks to their actual wOBAs to see if there are any discrepancies.

NL Cy Young Candidates xwOBA
Pitcher wOBA xWOBA Difference
Max Scherzer .253 .243 .010
Clayton Kershaw .256 .251 .005
Zack Greinke .282 .281 .001
Stephen Strasburg .265 .266 -.001
Gio Gonzalez .282 .289 -.007

Based on xwOBA, not only is there nothing to indicate that Scherzer should be regarded as anything less than the favorite in the Cy Young race, there’s actual evidence that he should be doing better than the results have provided. Scherzer’s xwOBA of .243 is actually the best in baseball. It is possible that Clayton Kershaw has been slightly unlucky, as well, in some respects, while Gio Gonzalez has reaped some benefits. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should be mentally adjusting Kershaw or Scherzer’s ERA lower. Scherzer has a 80.4% left-on-base rate that has helped him, while Kershaw has an astronomically high 88.1% mark. Out of nearly 5500 qualified seasons since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Kershaw’s 88.1% LOB-rate is the second-highest to John Candelaria’s 88.8% back in 1977.

Taking away strikeouts and walks, we can see what kind of difference the pitchers have had on contact, including home runs. Below is wOBA and xwOBA when the batter hits the ball.

NL Cy Young Candidates xwOBA on Contact
Pitcher wOBA on Contact xwOBA on Contact Difference
Max Scherzer .338 .321 .017
Zack Greinke .360 .359 .001
Clayton Kershaw .345 .337 .008
Stephen Strasburg .336 .337 -.001
Gio Gonzalez .316 .327 -.011

Max Scherzer is at the top again, and it appears he might have been a bit unlucky in this case. We see the same with Kershaw, and we see that Greinke has been hit a bit harder than the rest of the group. How much faith you have in a pitcher’s ability to control batted balls will dictate how much credence you want to give a stat like xwOBA, particularly here, on contact. We can remove home runs from the equation, looking at wOBA and xwOBA on balls in play, perhaps getting a better picture of how defense or luck might have played a role.

NL Cy Young Candidates xwOBA on Balls in Play
Pitcher wOBA on BIP xwOBA on BIP Difference
Max Scherzer .253 .271 -.018
Zack Greinke .286 .317 -.031
Clayton Kershaw .260 .272 -.012
Stephen Strasburg .289 .310 -.021
Gio Gonzalez .248 .281 -.033

Kershaw and Scherzer again lead the way when it comes to the xwOBA for these balls, but here we see that every pitcher has benefited some from defense or luck. Gonzalez and Greinke have received the biggest benefit despite mediocre defenses behind them overall, while Kershaw — despite the best defense by the numbers — has received the least help. There isn’t really any way around it: Max Scherzer has been the best pitcher in the National League. The cursory look at the numbers on the top is supported by the Statcast numbers at which we’ve just looked. If you wanted to look at only Statcast numbers, Scherzer has been the best pitcher in the NL there as well.

I took a fairly rough route to create a wins above replacement based on xwOBA. This obviously isn’t a definitive creation, nor is it an absolute value. It doesn’t factor in opponent, for example, nor are home runs included at all. If you wanted a WAR metric that includes strikeouts, walks, and Statcast-expected offense based on launch angle and exit velocity, however, this is rough estimate. I included a small difference for AL and NL pitchers and just took innings divided by eight to get replacement runs. The rest was done by creating runs above average from xwOBA and then converting those runs to wins. The entire list is presented below without commentary.

A Rough Statcast-Based Pitching WAR, 2017
Name Team IP xwoba xWAR
Chris Sale Red Sox 214 .248 7.5
Max Scherzer Nationals 197 .243 7.0
Corey Kluber Indians 199 .248 6.8
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 171.0 .251 5.6
Jacob deGrom Mets 201 .272 5.4
Luis Severino Yankees 187 .269 5.3
Stephen Strasburg Nationals 168 .266 4.7
Carlos Martinez Cardinals 205 .283 4.7
Zack Greinke D-backs 198 .281 4.6
Aaron Nola Phillies 168 .276 4.2
Ervin Santana Twins 206 .292 4.2
Jimmy Nelson Brewers 175 .281 4.1
Gio Gonzalez Nationals 197 .289 4.1
James Paxton Mariners 130 .263 3.9
Chris Archer Rays 196 .294 3.9
Jeff Samardzija Giants 202 .294 3.8
Yu Darvish – – – 187 .291 3.8
Brad Peacock Astros 127 .265 3.8
Carlos Carrasco Indians 192 .295 3.7
Alex Wood Dodgers 152 .279 3.6
Dallas Keuchel Astros 146 .279 3.6
Chase Anderson Brewers 134 .273 3.5
Marco Estrada Blue Jays 184 .297 3.5
Dan Straily Marlins 179 .295 3.4
J.A. Happ Blue Jays 145 .288 3.2
Zack Godley D-backs 153 .289 3.2
Robbie Ray D-backs 160 .292 3.2
Kenta Maeda Dodgers 132 .282 3.1
Rich Hill Dodgers 129 .280 3.1
Jon Lester Cubs 176 .302 2.9
Sonny Gray – – – 158 .299 2.9
Marcus Stroman Blue Jays 197 .310 2.8
Jake Arrieta Cubs 168 .301 2.8
Jose Quintana – – – 184 .306 2.8
Justin Verlander – – – 200 .311 2.8
Charlie Morton Astros 141 .295 2.8
Jhoulys Chacin Padres 174 .305 2.7
Gerrit Cole Pirates 198 .311 2.6
Jose Berrios Twins 144 .300 2.6
Lance Lynn Cardinals 181 .308 2.6
Jo. Montgomery Yankees 150 .302 2.6
Michael Fulmer Tigers 165 .307 2.5
Tanner Roark Nationals 176 .308 2.5
Michael Wacha Cardinals 160 .305 2.4
Danny Duffy Royals 142 .302 2.4
Eduardo Rodriguez Red Sox 136 .301 2.4
Patrick Corbin D-backs 187 .313 2.3
R.A. Dickey Braves 190 .316 2.2
Drew Pomeranz Red Sox 168 .314 2.2
Kyle Hendricks Cubs 135 .303 2.1
Kyle Freeland Rockies 153 .309 2.1
Dylan Bundy Orioles 170 .315 2.1
Masahiro Tanaka Yankees 171.0 .316 2.1
Mike Montgomery Cubs 128 .302 2.1
CC Sabathia Yankees 143 .311 2.0
Mike Leake – – – 186 .319 2.0
Clayton Richard Padres 192 .319 2.0
Jameson Taillon Pirates 127 .305 2.0
Jason Vargas Royals 176 .319 2.0
Julio Teheran Braves 182 .318 1.9
Alex Cobb Rays 179 .320 1.9
Trevor Bauer Indians 170 .319 1.9
Trevor Williams Pirates 150 .313 1.9
Blake Snell Rays 122 .309 1.8
Taijuan Walker D-backs 152 .315 1.8
German Marquez Rockies 156 .316 1.8
Jharel Cotton Athletics 129 .313 1.7
Mike Clevinger Indians 119 .310 1.7
Jaime Garcia – – – 157 .319 1.7
Ariel Miranda Mariners 160 .323 1.5
Rafael Montero Mets 116 .312 1.5
Jake Odorizzi Rays 139 .321 1.4
Rick Porcello Red Sox 198 .330 1.4
Hyun-Jin Ryu Dodgers 125 .317 1.4
Antonio Senzatela Rockies 132 .319 1.4
Zach Davies Brewers 191 .328 1.4
Andrew Cashner Rangers 161 .327 1.3
Cole Hamels Rangers 145 .325 1.3
Tyler Chatwood Rockies 147 .325 1.2
Sean Manaea Athletics 152 .329 1.1
Mike Foltynewicz Braves 154 .327 1.1
Ty Blach Giants 162 .329 1.1
Matt Boyd Tigers 130 .327 1.0
Luis Perdomo Padres 157 .329 1.0
Chad Kuhl Pirates 152 .330 1.0
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 123 .326 0.9
Ivan Nova Pirates 185 .334 0.9
Mike Fiers Astros 153 .333 0.9
Tim Adleman Reds 122 .327 0.9
JC Ramirez Angels 147 .334 0.9
Nick Pivetta Phillies 128 .329 0.8
Miguel Gonzalez – – – 150 .336 0.7
Jose Urena Marlins 165 .336 0.7
John Lackey Cubs 164 .336 0.7
Kevin Gausman Orioles 180 .339 0.7
Jerad Eickhoff Phillies 128 .333 0.6
Jason Hammel Royals 174 .339 0.6
Josh Tomlin Indians 136 .343 0.4
Jeremy Hellickson – – – 164 .343 0.3
Jesse Chavez Angels 137 .349 0.1
Mike Pelfrey White Sox 117 .347 0.1
James Shields White Sox 117 .349 0.0
Kyle Gibson Twins 154 .350 -0.1
Martin Perez Rangers 179 .350 -0.1
Bartolo Colon – – – 137 .348 -0.1
Yovani Gallardo Mariners 131 .351 -0.1
Johnny Cueto Giants 142 .350 -0.2
Jo. Zimmermann Tigers 154 .351 -0.2
Ian Kennedy Royals 149 .353 -0.2
Ubaldo Jimenez Orioles 143 .351 -0.2
Matt Moore Giants 174 .352 -0.4
Ricky Nolasco Angels 176 .357 -0.5
Wade Miley Orioles 153 .356 -0.5
Matt Cain Giants 119 .360 -0.7
Derek Holland White Sox 135 .375 -1.5
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
xwOBA from Baseball Savant
Min. 2000 pitches

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

newest oldest most voted
Dave Studeman
Member
Member

Craig, I think there is a problem here that many analysts don’t recognize. When comparing different sources of wOBA or xwOBA, I guarantee you that the sources use different weights. Same issue with RE24 and WPA. Even when the season is over and the run environment is established, sites seem to use different weights. Your analysis would be fine if all events were weighted evenly and changes in weights were relatively even, but they are certainly not. Unfortunately, I think this undermines all analyses like this one.

Dave Studeman
Member
Member

Okay, I clicked on the link and I see that you pulled both wOBA and xwOBA from the same source. So never mind.