The pitcher win has been slowly and steadily losing its grip as a meaningful stat over the last decade. When the results of the 2018 National League Cy Young award voting were announced Wednesday, it officially plunged into the abyss.
New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom was a near unanimous choice for the award, receiving 29 first-place votes out of a possible 30 first-place votes to top three-time winner Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals. He did it despite finishing the season with a mere 10 victories, or eight less than Scherzer’s season total.
In fact, deGrom’s victory was the first ever for a starting pitcher who finished the season with anything less than 13 wins. That speaks to deGrom’s dominance in other statistical categories. But it also confirms a clear shift in the perspective of voters. For so many years wins were weighed significantly in the voting process, sometimes even more so than innings pitched, strikeouts and ERA.
Now though, with so many advanced stats so readily available, such as WAR and expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP), voters are equipped to look beyond a counting stat that’s often beyond a pitcher’s control. More importantly, they’re taking that information seriously and looking at a broader picture to make decisions that are changing the path of the award forever. And for the better.
Slow and steady process
The first clear indication of a change in voter perspective came in 2010. That’s when Seattle Mariners longtime ace Felix Hernandez was voted the American League Cy Young award winner despite posting a 13-12 record. Before that, only Fernando Valenzuela (13-7 in 1981) of the Los Angeles Dodgers had won the award as a starting pitcher with anything less than even 15 wins.
Hernandez received 21 first-place votes that year, topping 21-game winner CC Sabathia and a pair of 19-game winners in Jon Lester and David Price. His 2.27 ERA, which led the AL by a half-run over the next-closest pitcher, likely helped tip the scales in his favor. As did his 249 2/3 innings, which were one shy of National League winner Roy Halladay for the league lead, and certainly demonstrated how much of a workhorse he’d been.
But so too did the voters’ willingness to acknowledge what was beyond Hernandez’s control. That season he received the lowest run support for any pitcher in MLB. Putting all of Hernandez’s dominant stats and the circumstances surrounding him in the proper context was a huge step forward.
Though we didn’t see another case quite like Hernandez’s until now, pitcher wins have become less a part of the discussion each year. To the point now where they’re only really mentioned to point out how little they matter. The overwhelming victory for deGrom shows that wasn’t just lip service. It says we’ve moved completely away from the pitcher win holding any weight at all.
How Jacob deGrom’s season put a death knell in the pitcher win
Some might point to Blake Snell winning the American League Cy Young as a sign the win still matters to some voters. While he did lead MLB with 21 wins, and while he did win despite throwing the fewest innings ever for a Cy Young winner, the statistical context was always in his favor. Snell’s success was clearly defined by more than wins.
As for deGrom, his season was unlike any we’ve ever seen. His brilliant pitching was often overshadowed by the Mets’ inept offense, which was relentlessly ridiculed for its inability to support its ace.
The story became more about deGrom’s tough luck. Yet that never stopped the 30-year-old right-hander from building an undeniable case as not only the NL’s best pitcher in 2018, but for best pitching season in Mets history. DeGrom led the entire league in ERA (1.70), which in Mets history was second only to Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 ERA. For those scoring at home, Gooden won 24 games for an eventual World Series team that season and was named the Cy Young winner.
DeGrom also led MLB in pitchers WAR (8.8), while posting single-season records with 24 consecutive quality starts and 29 straight outings of three runs or fewer. Simply said, while the circumstances surrounding him continued to deteriorate, deGrom somehow found the drive to keep getting better. He knew the margin for error was slim every time he took the hill, but managed to keep his team in every start.
DeGrom’s success transcended the Mets’ misery while destroying baseball’s definition of a pitcher win. He was the better man in nearly every pitcher-batter matchup. He was the best player on the field nearly every time he took the baseball. That’s too many true wins for us to count. But he got the 29 wins that matter most in a historical sense, and now he’ll forever be the NL’s best pitcher in 2018.
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