Let’s start with the obvious: All three pitchers are having Cy Young seasons.
Zack Greinke will finish with the National League’s lowest ERA and WHIP in 20 years, since Greg Maddux in 1995.
Jake Arrieta has more wins, more innings, three more shutouts and more strikeouts than Greinke, all while pitching in a tougher home ballpark for pitchers.
Clayton Kershaw, by several very significant measures, is having the best season of his entire career, and he has won three Cy Young Awards.
It’s tempting to say that there is no wrong choice here — but, of course, in sports there is ALWAYS a right choice and a wrong choice. That’s the allure of sports, right? Sports talk radio probably wouldn’t hold much of an audience with the hot topic — “Tom Brady and Peyton Manning: They’re both really good, right?”
The right choice for National League Cy Young basically comes down to what you value as a pitcher. This is probably the most significant lesson I learned from baseball (and hockey) analyst Tom Tango.* Whenever I ask him a question about baseball, he always comes back with his own question: What do YOU value? For pitchers, do you value run-prevention? Do you value strikeouts? Do you value wins? What do you think a pitcher’s job is?
* One of Tom’s great ideas is to have fans do defensive scouting reports for the teams that they watch the most. If you haven’t done it, I would strongly recommend you go over to Tom Tango’s 2015 Scouting Report and fill out a report for some of your favorite baseball players. It’s absurdly fun and makes you think about baseball in a little bit of a different way.
With that, let’s look at the three pitchers’ basic stats:
Greinke: 18-3, 1.68 ERA, 214.2 innings, 192 Ks, 39 walks, 0.852 WHIP, 0 shutouts, league hitting .188/.232/.276 against him.
Arrieta: 21-6, 1.82 ERA, 223 innings, 229 Ks, 48 walks, 0.879 WHIP, 3 shutouts, league hitting .187/.239/.276 against him.
Kershaw: 16-7, 2.16 ERA, 229 innings, 294 Ks, 42 walks, 0.886 WHIP, 3 shutouts, league hitting .195/.238/.286 against him.
So, that’s crazy close. This is a bit like choosing which NFL team gets home-field advantage when there’s a three-way tie. Conference record? Point differential? My guess is, though — and please tell me if I’m wrong — you looked at the three rows and, instinctively, wrote off one or two candidates based on one of the statistics listed. This is the Tango Effect. You can’t help but reflexively go to the stats that matter most to you.
For instance, you might have seen Kershaw’s 16 wins or that his ERA is quite a bit higher than the other two and thought, “OK, well, he might be having a great year, but he’s out.”
Or you might have seen that Greinke does not have a single shutout this year and thought, “OK, well, in a competition this fierce, he’s out.”
Or you might have compared Greinke’s ERA and WHIP with Arrieta’s and just said, “Arrieta is great, but Greinke is better. Arrieta’s out.”
This is what Tango means. You have three pitchers offering three amazing but different seasons. You can only choose one of them. What do YOU value?
Here’s another way to show the different methods in measuring pitcher value: Baseball Reference and Fangraphs have wildly different versions of Wins Above Replacement for pitchers.
Baseball Reference builds its WAR formula around run prevention. It makes various adjustments — taking into account team defense and home ballpark and so on — but at its core Baseball Reference WAR tries to tell you how well pitchers have managed to keep the other team from scoring runs. Because we all grew up with ERA, this way tends to make a lot more sense to most of us.
And Baseball Reference WAR, Zack Greinke is best.
Baseball Reference WAR
Zack Greinke: 8.8
Jake Arrieta: 8.3
Clayton Kerhsaw: 7.2
But Fangraphs WAR measures pitchers in an entirely different way. It works off the premise that a pitcher has a very uncertain role in preventing runs. What a big league starting pitcher CAN control to a large degree is: How many hitters he strikes out, how many hitters he walks and how many home runs he allows. So those are the only three elements in Fangraphs WAR. And that tells a very different story.
Clayton Kershaw, 8.4
Jake Arrieta, 7.0
Zack Greinke, 5.7
Holy Voros McCracken, Batman! We suddenly have a complete turnaround where Kershaw is quite a bit better than anyone in baseball, and a whole heck of a lot better than Greinke in particular. That 8.4 pitcher WAR is higher than any of Kershaw’s previous amazing seasons (he has more many strikeouts than ever before), and it’s the the highest for any pitcher so far this decade.
So, what’s your pleasure? What WAR do you like better? Some people like to average out the numbers so that you can get a little bit of Baseball Reference run prevention and also a little bit of the Fangraphs method in there. We can call that statistic Negotiated Peace.
And we are back where started — with it being awfully close. You can’t really choose Kershaw over Arrieta based on one-tenth of a decimal point for a statistic that isn’t entirely clear in the first place.
We can go round and round comparing stats like quality starts (Greinke has one more than Arrieta, two more than Kershaw). We can compare complete games (Arrieta and Kerhsaw have four compared to just one from Greinke). We can compare team records when that pitcher starts (Arrieta’s Cubs have won 24 of his starts, Kershaw’s Dodgers have won 23, Greinke’s Dodgers 22).
We can compare Win Probability Added, which is a fun statistic that measures the win value of every single play. For instance, you start a game and get the first out, that makes your team slightly more likely to win. That gets added to your total. But then you give up a homer; that makes your team less likely to win. You add and subtract every play, all year, and you get Win Probability Added. There are some problems with the stat, but it’s interesting.
Win Probability Added:
Greinke: 6.4 wins
Arrieta: 5.5 wins
Kershaw: 5.0 wins
Round and round. But, as I said, in sports there is a right and a wrong answer even when there isn’t. Last year, the American League Cy Young race was crazy close like this. Felix Hernandez led the league in ERA and WHIP (like Greinke does now). Corey Kluber led the league in wins and had some advantages over Hernandez in strikeouts and Fangraphs WAR (like Arrieta has over Greinke now).
I had an official Cy Young vote last year and wrestled hard with the decision and finally chose Kluber. I just thought, when you took everything into consideration, Kluber had the better year.
This year, I don’t have a Cy Young vote. But if I did, as much as it pains me to say it — everyone knows I’ve been in the tank for Zack Greinke since he was a teenager — I would vote for Jake Arrieta.
Why? Well, I could give you lots of reasons why I would vote for any of those guys, but in the end the decisive factor for me would be how well they’ve pitched on the road. Dodger Stadium is a better pitchers’ park than Wrigley Field (though Wrigley, unexpectedly, does lean toward pitchers). It has been a huge advantage for pitchers going back to Drysdale and Koufax, and this year, Greinke has a 1.48 ERA there and Kershaw (as usual) has been almost unhittable there.
What about on the road, though?
Arrieta: 12-1, 1.68 ERA, 4.9-to-1 strikeout to walk, 4 homers allowed
Greinke: 9-2, 1.88 ERA, 4.2-to-1 strikeout to walk, 6 homers allowed
Kerhsaw: 5-4, 2.60 ERA, 6-to-1 strikeout to walk, 9 homers allowed
Road numbers are not everything, of course. But Arrieta’s road ERA is the lowest for any regular starter in the last decade (Greinke’s is fourth lowest, so he’s no road slouch either). All year, Arrieta has gone into some of the toughest ballparks in baseball and pitched incredibly well. His one time in Dodger Stadium, he threw a no-hitter.
Arrieta has been amazing at home too, let’s not forget that: His 1.97 ERA at Wrigley is the best for a Cubs starter since Greg Maddux in 1992. But in what I think is the closest and most fascinating Cy Young race perhaps ever, the difference for me is just how good Arrieta has been on the road. He’d be my Cy Young choice.