On Sunday, Jacob DeGrom had another magnificent outing for the New York Mets. Facing the MLB-leading Boston Red Sox, he surrendered just three runs over seven innings pitched, extending his single-season record of consecutive starts allowing three or fewer runs to 27. He allowed just one walk and recorded 12 strikeouts against one of the best offensive lineups in baseball. DeGrom’s ERA remains by far the MLB’s lowest at 1.78, with his opponent that day, Chris Sale, remaining a distant second at 1.92.
But his team lost. The Mets offense was only able to muster three runs, and relief pitcher Seth Lugo was unable to hold on for extra innings, allowing Tzu-Wei Lin to score in the eighth inning on a sacrifice fly. The Mets lost their 80th game of the year, and DeGrom received his 13th no-decision.
This has been a consistent theme throughout the 2018 season. DeGrom delivers a gem, but the supporting cast is unable to get the job done. The result has been eight wins and nine losses, a pitching record that appears average at best.
This trend is also at the heart of the debate over who should be crowned the National League Cy Young winner. To most fans, there are three legitimate contenders: the Phillies’ young ace Aaron Nola, the Nationals’ three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, and DeGrom. I am writing to argue that DeGrom should win this award, and it should not even be close.
When people seek to make their choice for a major award in sports, the statistics of the various contenders are always relied upon, but to varying degrees, depending on the sport.
For instance, in soccer there are generally fewer statistical measurements that determine a player’s overall value, but there are also more positions and specialization than in sports like basketball or hockey. Players are often judged on their goals, assists, shooting accuracy, and passing accuracy, but it would be wrong to always judge midfielders and defenders by those same metrics. Generational talents like defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante of Chelsea and centre back Thiago Silva of Paris Saint-Germain are unquestionably among the best players in their respective leagues. But, they make their contributions in ways that are often unrelated to those statistics. As such, when awards like the NFL MVP and the Ballon d’Or come around, a strictly statistical approach is often abandoned in favor of the eye test. It seems easier to tell who is having the best season simply by watching, rather than sifting through heaps of data.
In basketball, experts compare points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals averages, along with other major stats like field goal percentage and three-point percentage. However, most consider these data to be insufficient in calculating a player’s true contributions to his team’s success, so statisticians have devised advanced analytics that look at a broader range of data, boiling it down to one number such as Player Efficiency Rating (PER) or Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48). Despite leading LeBron James in just two major statistical categories (points and steals) this past NBA season, James Harden edged him out in both PER and (WS/48) and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
However, even with all of the data in Harden’s favor, there remains a general agreement among basketball fans that James is the best player, and there are many who believe he should have won the award.
This perception remains because basketball, like soccer and football, is a team sport where the contributions of each player depend completely on the actions of those around him. You can be the greatest passer in basketball history, but if your teammates cannot hit a shot, then your assists totals will suffer and, from a statistical standpoint, your contributions will appear less than a different player whose teammates happen to convert their attempts. This seems unfair, so we tend to rely more on the eye test, as mentioned above, as well as consensus opinions.
Baseball is in a completely different ballpark.
While still clearly a team sport, baseball features individual contributions that are far more isolated and easily analyzed. Each action a player makes is far less reliant on those of his teammates. A hitter does not need anyone else on the roster to do anything in order for him to get on base. This is part of the reason why the past couple of decades have seen a shift towards On Base Percentage (OBP) as the single most important offensive statistic. A metric like Runs Batted In (RBI) is telling of a player’s ability to help his team score, but relies on that player’s teammates reaching base before he steps up to bat. Doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases, and strikeouts are other good statistics because they are isolated from teammates’ play and unambiguously communicate how a player contributed to or detracted from his team’s offensive success.
Pitching is slightly more complicated because fielding comes into play. Fielding can be difficult to measure, but overall, the differences between each individual player’s fielding ability are for the most part, not going to have a significant impact on a pitcher’s stat line over the course of a long season. Yes, some pitcher’s have the advantage of playing with Gold Glove winners, but over the course of a 162 game season, a pitcher’s impact on a team’s overall defensive effort is overwhelmingly higher than that of any individual fielder.
Earned Run Average (ERA), the best measure of a pitcher’s ability, actually takes fielding into account by factoring out mistakes committed by the defense. It is defined as the amount of runs given up by a pitcher per nine innings, discounting runs that were caused by errors or passed balls. It measures how few runs a pitcher allows, which is truly what makes a pitcher good. Overall, ERA demonstrates the extent to which a team’s defensive effort contributed to its chance of winning, and because defense starts and ends with pitching, it is the best indicator of a pitcher’s ability.
The other major pitching statistics — such as wins, WHIP, strikeouts, and home runs allowed — fail to capture a pitcher’s success, instead measuring how they get to that success or the completely unrelated success of their teammates.
Let’s start with wins, because that seems to be the biggest detractor from DeGrom’s case for Cy Young, when, in reality, it ought to be tossed out as an irrelevant statistic. DeGrom has just eight wins this season compared to Scherzer’s 17 and Nola’s 16. The last time a National League pitcher won the award with less than 10 wins was relief pitcher Eric Gagne’s outstanding 2003 campaign. On the American League side, you have to go all the way back to 1992 when another relief pitcher, the legendary Dennis Eckersley, won the award. Starting pitchers with single-digit win totals simply do not win this award. Back in 2011, Felix Hernandez did not make the All Star Game because of his low win count. He went on to lead the league in Innings Pitched with an ERA that led his closest contender, David Price by 45 points, but barely won the Cy Young due to his less than impressive a 13-12 record.
But do wins really matter at all when determining who the best pitcher is?
With a couple of complicating exceptions, a winning pitcher is defined as the one who pitched prior to the half inning when his team took the lead for the last time. Without even addressing the ridiculousness of a pitcher having to time his pitching in a certain way so as to get the win, it should be fairly obvious that this statistic is completely dependent on the team’s offensive success. While an ability to match your good pitching performances with your team’s good hitting performance might be a skill that interests some, it is easy to see that treating this as a primary metric of a pitcher’s value is wildly unfair to pitchers like DeGrom who get minimal run support.
Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP), Strikeouts, and Home Runs Allowed are three other pitching statistics that commentators and analysts constantly point out. While they do not suffer from the same variability that Wins does, they should be treated as less important than ERA because they measure how a pitcher arrived at his success or failure, rather than his actual success or failure.
DeGrom’s .954 WHIP is one of the best in the league and it makes sense that low WHIP is strongly correlated with low ERA, because allowing hits and walks makes it harder for a pitcher to prevent runs. But, suppose a pitcher often allows the first couple batters to get on base each inning. He could happen to also excel at getting out of this jam and rarely allow those batters to score. If this pitcher has a low ERA, he should not be held back from being considered superior to other pitchers simply because he allows players to reach base. Reaching base is not what matters in baseball. Scoring is.
The same can be said for Home Runs Allowed. A pitcher could allow one home run every game and still have an unheard of ERA of 1.00. (DeGrom leads the NL in Home Runs allowed per nine innings with .4). Similarly, getting strikeouts is cool and makes it seem like a pitcher truly dominates his opponents, but flyouts and groundouts count just the same. (Scherzer leads the league with 277 strikeouts and DeGrom is second in the NL with 251.)
These statistics measure how easy or hard a pitcher makes it on himself. It is undoubtedly easier for a pitcher to allow fewer runs when he prevents hitters from putting the ball in play and avoids the home run ball. But, the end result is what we should be measuring if we truly want to determine which pitchers are the best. Of course, innings pitched and batters faced are also important statistics because, while pitching well is important, pitching well a lot is even better.
With this more reasoned approach, DeGrom demolishes the competition. His 1.78 ERA leads baseball. His closest National League rival is Nola with a distant 2.42 ERA. And it’s not as if he has staggered his good pitching performances to only be during games in which the Mets’ offense is putrid. He has allowed three runs or less in 27 straight games. The Mets’ offensive production is simply so bad that he has only picked up six wins during that time.
DeGrom has also pitched at least six innings in every start since coming off of a hyperextended right elbow injury on May 13. After Sunday’s game, he sits at second in the league in innings pitched at 202.
The 2014 Rookie of the Year probably will win the Cy Young award this year, but it really should not be as close as many are making it out to be.
Just because stats like wins have always appeared alongside ERA in every pitcher’s line does not mean that they are nearly as important. DeGrom has been the best pitcher in baseball this year because he has contributed the most to his team’s success over the course of a 162 game season. Everything else can fall by the wayside.
(All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com)
Image Credit: Wikipedia