NL Cy Young Candidates: WAR, What Is It Good For?
The Baseball Writers Association of America released the final trio of candidates for each of baseball's major awards on Monday. Among them were, of course, the contenders for the National League Cy Young Award.
This year's candidates consist of two Chicago Cubs, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, as well as Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer. All three pitchers had excellent years in a season where a number of very good starters had very good seasons.
But how do they stack up to some of the hurlers who were snubbed? And of the three listed, who should win?
WAR Is Good For Nothin'
Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a very nice tool. It's a great way to shorthand how good a season a player has had and also to compare him to pitchers in other eras. That statistic has gone mainstream over the last few years, but it's still not the be-all, end-all criteria for determining end-of-season awards. And that's a good thing, especially for pitchers.
Voters tend to take hitters' WARs more seriously than pitchers' WARs, and that's because there are holes in the way we quantify pitching performances.
Let's take a look at the Top 10 pitchers in the National League in 2016, ranked by Fangraphs' WAR.
As you can see from the table above, none of this year's Cy Young finalists are in the top three of fWAR. Clayton Kershaw, despite making only 21 starts this year because of back trouble, finished tied with the New York Mets' Noah Syndergaard for the most fWAR at 6.5. And in third was the late Jose Fernandez, who had an fWAR of 6.2. He could have been a posthumous sentimental choice to win the award.
Voters clearly discounted Kershaw because he missed about two months of action. He would have led the league in virtually every pitching category, except he didn't pitch enough innings to become an official "qualified" starter. Syndergaard's exclusion is a little more surprising. Not only did he finish tied for first in fWAR, he also came in fourth in Baseball Reference's version of the stat (rWAR).
By the way, in case you were wondering why Baseball Reference and Fangraphs WAR numbers are different for pitchers, Fangraphs uses Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) for their calculation, while BBRef uses ERA. It's a very important distinction.
As for the three finalists, Scherzer had the highest fWAR, finishing in fourth at 5.6. Hendricks, the National League's ERA leader at 2.13, finished in seventh in fWAR at 4.5. His teammate Lester, finished one step below him at 4.3.
Based on fWAR alone, one could make a solid point for San Francisco Giants starters Johnny Cueto or Madison Bumgarner to finish ahead of Kendricks and/or Lester. But we do not base these things on WAR alone.
Who Should Win?
So which of the three finalists will take home the hardware this year?
Scherzer led all three starters in rWAR and, even though not even the BBWAA is using pitchers' "wins" as a real metric to be counted on anymore, Scherzer was baseball's only 20-game winner this year. He also had another impressive "20" in him, striking out 20 Detroit Tigers back in May.
Scherzer also led the National League in WHIP, innings pitched, strikeouts, and strikeouts-to-walk ratio.
Hendricks led all of baseball in ERA and was second in WHIP. Lester was second in ERA behind Hendricks (2.13-2.44), and was second in wins, with 19. He finished third in WHIP, behind Scherzer and Hendricks, and was second in Win Probability Added (WPA).
Based on the criteria above, it seems clear Scherzer has the edge over the Chicago duo. He turned in perhaps the signature pitching performance of the regular season, was higher in WAR and led in more pitching categories than the other two hurlers.
One could argue that Kershaw, Syndergaard, Fernandez, Cueto or Bumgarner should have been included on this list, but of the three pitchers nominated by the BBWAA, it should be Scherzer winning his second Cy Young Award.