A Different Look at the 2016 NL Cy Young

The National League Cy Young Award race is looking like it is going to be closer than the 2016 presidential election. Kyle Hendricks has the sparkling ERA and solid peripherals while Max Scherzer has the sexy strikeouts and the innings pitched of a workhorse. Jon Lester, meanwhile, was the ace of the Cubs and got the first start over Hendricks in the playoffs despite having slightly worse numbers because of his reputation as a big-game pitcher. All three candidates are deserving and have a legitimate chance to win the election; let’s just hope the 30 voters all show up.

With starters getting the hook quicker and quicker over the past few years, pitching is increasingly becoming a race to the bullpen rather than a one-pitcher marathon. In light of this, we’re going to compare these pitchers through their first five innings pitched each start. This will show how the pitchers pitched while they were at their peaks in each game rather than while they were tired or overworked from being left in too long. In theory, this should give a statistical boost to Max Scherzer because his manager Dusty Baker is notorious for leaving starters in too long (see 2003 Cubs pitchers). Scherzer and Lester should also get a slight edge because Hendricks was given a pretty short leash this year. He has not had to pitch under excessive conditions as often as Scherzer or Lester have.

Innings 1 – 5
Kyle Hendricks 150.0 1.68 3.03 3.45 0.256 0.302 0.246 0.6 24% 6% 0.246 8% 51%
Max Scherzer 169.0 2.93 3.15 3.39 0.251 0.350 0.260 1.1 32% 7% 0.247 15% 33%
Jon Lester 151.0 2.50 3.33 3.47 0.272 0.321 0.262 0.8 25% 7% 0.259 10% 48%

Through innings 1-5 this year, the edge actually ends up going to Kyle Hendricks with the lower FIP, HR/9, wOBA, and a sparkling 1.68 ERA. Although Scherzer has that ugly 1.12 HR/9, it is mainly due to the high number of fly balls given up. The 47.2% of automatic outs via pop-outs and strikeouts should allow him to continue as one of the best pitchers in the NL for a couple more years. Lester hangs in with solid numbers across the board, although his FIP and xFIP are the highest of the group.

Innings 6 – 9
Kyle Hendricks 40.0 3.83 3.87 4.12 0.280 0.379 0.283 1.1 20% 6% 0.265 13% 40%
Max Scherzer 58.1 3.03 3.48 3.31 0.262 0.406 0.285 1.5 31% 4% 0.278 7% 34%
Jon Lester 51.2 2.26 3.63 3.48 0.254 0.372 0.269 1.2 24% 5% 0.248 2% 45%

After the fifth inning this year, Hendricks really hit a wall, supporting a 3.87 FIP and 4.17 xFIP. Scherzer takes a small hit overall but still pitches at a Cy Young level late in the game. Lester continues to pitch solidly as well, although the 2.26 ERA is suspiciously low considering his 3.63 FIP in the late innings. Hendricks’ poor performances after the fifth inning help explain why Joe Madden decided to go with Lester in Game 7 of the World Series in the fifth inning against the Indians rather than Hendricks. Although the playoffs do not count towards Cy Young voting, the fact that Maddon brought in Lester on short rest because he did not trust Hendricks in the biggest game of the year shows how cautious Maddon has been with his ERA-title winner in late-game situations this year.

Another thing to consider is that Lester and Scherzer are considered the “aces” of the staff. They know going into each game that they are expected to pitch to the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. They have to pace themselves while Hendricks has the luxury to empty his tank through five and allow the bullpen to close out the contest. Or, since each pitcher threw under 60 innings after the fifth, this may be like the presidential polls and is just too small of a sample size to matter.

Before we decide who should ultimately serve the one-year term as the National League Cy Young Award winner, we should look at one more thing. The Cubs defense. Yes, Hendricks has a great GB% and is fantastic at limiting contact, as his adjusted contact score is 75 (Lester and Scherzer are 88 and 92 respectively). However, Hendricks and Lester had one of the best defenses to ever be assembled behind them doing work on all the balls in play. The Cubs as a team allowed a .255 BABIP, which is .042 points better than average and .033 points better than the Nationals. Their FIP-ERA gap is 0.62 while the Nationals are right around league average with an FIP 0.06 higher than the team ERA. So, while Hendricks and Lester both had a hell of a season with 2.13 and 2.44 ERAs respectively, the top-notch defense the Cubs deployed behind them deserves a lot of the credit.

If I had to pick who I thought deserves the Cy Young award, I would pick Scherzer, followed closely by Hendricks. Through the first five innings of games, his FIP is comparable to Hendricks’, so it comes down to whether I would take the longevity of Scherzer, or the contact management of Hendricks. While the 75 adjusted contact score is fantastic, he doesn’t quite get to the 1.07 gap in FIP-ERA without fantastic fielders and a little luck behind him. Scherzer threw the most innings in the NL this year and was the undeniable ace of the Nationals’ staff. The two Cubs pitchers may lose the Cy Young race, but they will be just fine with the hardware that they already earned this year.

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