Clayton Kershaw is no surprise as the 2013 NL Cy Young winner, but I looked at his dominant performance this season in a different way than most. I was one of the voters that gave him the award.
Kershaw won the award with ease, getting 29 of 30 votes. The full vote total is available at BBWAA.com. Kershaw led the league in most categories, including WAR, though not by as much as you think. But this was not as easy a decision as many will make it out to be.
Instead of basing the award on guesses, reputation or even advanced statistical analysis, I did something different. I watched every single start of the top four candidates on my board. I watched a significant number of the fifth and sixth and a smattering of starts for two others. It was this and this alone that I based my vote on. Which of these pitchers, over the course of a season, appeared to me to be the best in the league?
"Best" is a soft word and definitions will vary from one voter to another, much in the same way that "Most Valuable" is debated year after year. For me, the definition is closest to dominance. I was looking for the pitcher that regularly performed at a high level. I wanted to recognize the pitcher that helped his team and hurt the opponent most.
Clayton Kershaw met every possible definition of best for me in 2013. The lefty was as dominant a pitcher as baseball has seen since peak-level Pedro Martinez, or even the late-career peak of the player Kershaw is most compared to—Sandy Koufax. However, his performance only left him a bit better than Adam Wainwright in WAR—and only 0.4 wins over Matt Harvey, who missed over a month of the season!—and was three wins down.
In many of his starts, Kershaw left opposing hitters humiliated and muttering to themselves. My notes have instance after instance of an at-bat where the hitter had three bad swings, or worse—no swings at all. Kershaw's pitches never seemed off. He had the ability to use any of them at any time it seemed. Watching them in close proximity amplified this even more, showing his consistency on top of the dominance.
By any method, Kershaw was the best pitcher in the league. My method of watching every start just confirmed it. Whether it was his 1.83 ERA or his 194 ERA+, both the standard and advanced metrics agreed. Only Kershaw's relatively low win total stands out, but this is mostly due to his 33 starts. It's the third straight year that he made 33 and, given the Dodgers' struggles to find a fifth starter (especially early in the year), it makes you wonder why the team wouldn't consider shifting to a four-man skip rotation that could give Kershaw (and Zack Greinke) four or five extra starts.
This year's Cy Young ballot wasn't much of a question at the top, but the next four is much more interesting a discussion. I started by using stats to winnow down the field at the time I found out about my vote (late August.) That left me with several names to watch. My "top four" was Kershaw, Matt Harvey of the Mets, Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals and Jose Fernandez of the Marlins. By the time I completed my ballot, I also did my due diligence on Craig Kimbrel of the Braves, Cliff Lee of the Phillies and A.J. Burnett of the Pirates.
Harvey was a tough one. He was brilliant, up until the point that his season ended with an elbow injury. There was clearly a cost to missing over a month of the season, but the brilliant numbers put him in a very good position. Harvey was worth over six wins despite the missed playing time. I spoke with Tom Tango, a noted baseball analyst, about ways to analyze Harvey's season. Would it be possible to fill in the rest of his season, the way we do for batting titles? After an extensive discussion, there wasn't a satisfactory answer that didn't veer too far into projection.
Wainwright was a great pitcher all season and, in many years, he'd be shoo-in for the award. However, in watching his starts, he was hamstrung slightly by an overreliance on his curveball's effectiveness and a defense that often let him down. There seemed to be more balls that dropped in or weren't reached with Wainwright. (I'd be curious to compare Wainwright to other Cardinals pitchers to see if it's an isolated or team effect.) Assessing a pitcher apart from the positives and negatives of a defense is difficult, but I think the "Netflix burst" style of watching him helped. In most situations, he was able to overcome the defense, but his dominance was just slightly off when his curveball wasn't working.
Fernandez was also brilliant. The Marlins rookie faded as the season went on, as would be expected, but he never lost an electric fastball. What he did lose was stamina. That fastball would fade slightly earlier with each start through the second half of the season. More impressive were the adjustments Fernandez made through the season. Watching the pitching patterns he had and how he seldom went back to the same pitch or location when he was hit hard, even several games later, shows great mental preparation. Some of that should go to the scouting and coaches around him, but he executed on the plan.
The rest of the pitchers were solid, but only one was up to vote quality. In my early lists, Craig Kimbrel was in the five slot, but watching his pitching reminded me that while he was dominant, the closer role itself makes it very difficult to have value on the level of a top starter.
Burnett was an interesting case, in that his superficial numbers are average, but that he was the clear leader of a staff that took the Pirates to the playoffs for the first time in decades. Watching his performances was more about the team and defense than it was about Burnett's dominance. He's much more of a pitcher than he was earlier in his career, but I couldn't give him even a down-list vote to reward the performance.
In the end, the fifth slot was taken by Cliff Lee. Lee quietly had a dominant season for a team that fell apart around him. Along with Cole Hamels, Lee gives Ryne Sandberg a very solid one-two heading into next season, but Charlie Manuel couldn't leverage two unheralded performers into something more. Lee's efforts were often wasted and he may have been even more affected by defense than any pitcher. Some of Lee's numbers ticked up in the second half because I feel Lee felt if he didn't do things himself, they wouldn't get done at all.
My final vote was:
1. Clayton Kershaw: There's no question who the best pitcher in the NL was in 2013.
2. Adam Wainwright: A great performance, but just not up to Kershaw's level this year.
3. Matt Harvey: The only pitcher on Kershaw's level, but the injury cost him at least one spot.
4. Jose Fernandez: The rookie is likely to get a lot more votes in his career, and higher.
5. Cliff Lee: An unheralded performance for an oft-unheralded ace.
I've taken my membership in the BBWAA very seriously, just as I took this vote. Five years ago, I was one of the first Internet-only writers to be given a card and, over those years, I feel I've done the organization proud. I believe strongly in what they do and why they do it. Many of the criticisms of the organization don't mesh with what I've observed from both inside and outside the room.
Sure, changes could be made. The organization is evolutionary, like the game it covers, but I will be sad when I don't have the same protections. Next year, since Bleacher Report is not a member organization, I will lose my status and lose the kind of votes I made this year, as well as the protections I got in going to stadiums and getting access under BBWAA-negotiated rules.
I can hope that someday organizations like Bleacher Report will be welcomed in and that maybe I can get that card back in the future. But it's unlikely that it will happen soon enough to help me get the 10 years in to make a Hall of Fame vote. I made four different votes, two for Cy Young and two for Rookie of the Year, and I will always be honored, thankful and proud of those.