Starting pitching is the most precious commodity in Major League Baseball. Finding consistent dominance on the mound is something all 30 teams want but so few are able to get because there aren't that many great arms available.
Among the field of candidates for the 2013 Cy Young awards listed by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, to be handed out Wednesday, there are two standouts who should walk away with hardware.
Finalists for AL Cy Young (alphabetically): Yu Darvish, Rangers; Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners; Max Scherzer, Tigers.— BBWAA (@officialBBWAA) November 5, 2013
Finalists for NL Cy Young (alphabetically): Jose Fernandez, Marlins; Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers; Adam Wainwright, Cardinals.— BBWAA (@officialBBWAA) November 5, 2013
Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw and Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer are the overwhelming favorites, and the voting will likely reflect that.
None of that is meant to denigrate the work of the other four finalists, but their resumes fall short Kershaw and Scherzer's.
Rather than continue to wax poetic about the job they did without showing you, here's what the numbers say about the aces for the Dodgers and Tigers.
Kershaw vs. The Field
It sounds strange to say given that he led the NL in ERA and WHIP in 2011 and 2012, but Kershaw's ascent to the throne of best pitcher in baseball didn't take full effect until this season, when Justin Verlander relinquished the crown.
It also didn't hurt that Kershaw, as great as he has been throughout his career, had his best year as a professional in 2013. He led or tied for the league lead in ERA (1.83), shutouts (two), strikeouts (232), WHIP (0.915) and ERA+ (194).
Here's how Kershaw's season stats compare to Miami's Jose Fernandez and St. Louis' Adam Wainwright:
By those numbers, you would have to combine different parts of Wainwright's and Fernandez's season to match what Kershaw did by himself.
The most telling stat in that group is WHIP. Admittedly, it's a flawed stat to judge a pitcher by because it does factor in defense, but it's a good jumping-off point for how superior Kershaw was.
We saw what Fernandez and Wainwright were able to do this year, especially when it comes to limiting the number of baserunners per inning. Yet Kershaw dwarfs what they were able to do, having the lowest WHIP by a starting pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 (0.8996).
Now I want to dive deeper into advanced metrics, which appears to make the race close, but I will explain afterward why Kershaw's numbers here actually make him a stronger candidate.
As much as I like expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP), which favors Wainwright, it actually punishes Kershaw more than the other two candidates because it normalizes the home run rate.
Kershaw had the second-lowest home run rate in 2013 at 0.42 per nine innings, trailing only New York's Matt Harvey (0.35). While that number may not be sustainable in future years, we can't punish a pitcher for his single-season dominance.
Fernandez topped Kershaw in opponents' runs scored per nine innings pitched (RA9opp), but the margin is so small that Kershaw's significant edge in innings pitched (63.1) makes up the difference.
Which finalist has the best chance of pulling off an upset?
Another factor that puts Kershaw over the top is his performance relative to number of batters faced.
Kershaw faced 908 hitters in 2013; Wainwright led the NL with 956 batters faced, while Fernandez's total was well behind at 681.
Of the 908 hitters Kershaw faced, 221 (24.3 percent) reached base. That means Kershaw got rid of 687 opponents, with 232 coming via strikeout (25.5 percent).
Wainwright allowed more hits (223, most in the NL) to his opponents than Kershaw let reach base. All told, the Cardinals' ace allowed 266 opponents (27.8 percent) to reach base and struck out 219 (22.9 percent).
Fernandez allowed 179 opponents (26.3 percent) to reach base with 187 strikeouts (27.5 percent).
No NL pitcher in 2013 was better at his job than Kershaw. All the numbers support it. He's widely regarded as the best pitcher in the sport and should be rewarded with his second Cy Young award.
Scherzer vs. The Field
Unlike the NL race, where things are set up for Clayton Kershaw to destroy the field, the AL race is much closer than you might think. The pitcher I would have had in the No. 1 spot (Felix Hernandez) didn't even make the final cut.
Given Max Scherzer's incredible performance, it's going to take a miracle for him not to win the Cy Young award, though there is a strong, valid argument for Hisashi Iwakuma.
Scherzer's win-loss record should have nothing to do with winning this award, though that will be the narrative when he does. A lot of things have to happen for a pitcher to go 21-3, including great run support and luck.
The Tigers scored 5.59 runs per game in Scherzer's starts, third best in baseball. He won or got a no-decision in three games when he allowed four or more earned runs.
That's the last you will hear about wins and losses in the Cy Young race from me. Let's now focus on things that pitchers have more control over.
While I don't use WAR as a be-all, end-all stat, it does a great deal to inform what a player did. In this case, Scherzer's total is so much greater than Yu Darvish or Iwakuma's that you can see how much better/more valuable he was.
Darvish had the advantage of missing bats at an alarming rate, 11.89 strikeouts per nine innings, but he also had a worse home run rate (1.12 per nine innings) and significantly higher walk rate (3.43 per nine innings) than his opponents.
There is also the matter of competition. Darvish faced the Astros five times this year, which is an easy way to pad your strikeout stats. He did lead the league with 12 double-digit strikeout games, though his six starts of less than six innings were more than Iwakuma (five) and Scherzer (four).
Iwakuma finished outside the top 10 of American League pitchers in fWAR. He was No. 12, behind Boston Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester. His case is interesting because it's largely built around innings pitched, which leads the AL Cy Young field but not by a wide enough margin to matter, and Seattle's porous defense.
The Mariners were, by defensive runs saved (minus-99) and UZR (minus-73.0), the worst defensive team in the American League by a significant margin. Yet Iwakuma was able to overcome that by striking out a solid 7.6 hitters per nine innings and limiting walks (1.7 per nine innings).
Going by competition, Iwakuma had the toughest task of the three AL Cy Young finalists. He made 20 starts against teams that finished among the top 10 in runs scored; Darvish made 13 starts against those teams, while Scherzer made just 12.
In those games, Scherzer had 90 strikeouts and 27 earned runs allowed (3.02 ERA) in 80.1 innings. Iwakuma recorded 104 strikeouts and allowed 43 earned runs (3.01 ERA) in 128.2 innings.
Even with Iwakuma's larger sample size, he wasn't as dominant in those games as Scherzer. The Tigers starter had a superior strikeout rate, despite an ERA just a pinch above Seattle's hurler.
Going by ERA+, Scherzer and Darvish (both at 145, tied for second in the AL) were the superior pitchers; Iwakuma was a distant sixth at 138.
Scherzer also blew Darvish and Iwakuma out of the water when it comes to fielding independent ERA.
There are arguments to be made for all three finalists, though Darvish has the weakest of the bunch. Iwakuma has the advantage of taking on a tougher schedule, but his dominance overall was less impressive because it relied more on the defense behind him even though it wasn't a good group.
Scherzer's schedule wasn't as top-heavy as Iwakuma's, not to mention eight starts made against the White Sox and Twins. But when Scherzer did face top offensive teams, he dominated more than the other finalists did.
The voting won't be close because Scherzer's record will weigh heavily with a lot of voters, but there is also nothing substantial in favor of Iwakuma or Darvish to push them ahead of the Tigers right-hander.
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