Finding Value in the Updated Betting Odds for the 2018 NL Cy Young Award
Starting pitching isn't what it used to be.
Oh sure, there are still a ton of great starting pitchers in baseball, and one could argue the stuff the elite arms possess now is better than anything we saw even 20 years ago. So many pitchers are throwing in the mid-90s, with sharper breaking stuff and devastating changeups, and it's hard to see how any big league hitter is able to even make contact sometimes. But the complete game is disappearing, as are shutouts, and some teams have begun using relief pitchers to begin games, bringing in their "starter" in the third or fourth inning to finish up, a new tactic called bullpenning.
So when we get good old-fashioned pitchers' duels, like we've seen between Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola over the last couple weeks, it's notable. When these two arms met last week in Washington, it was the first matchup between starters with at least 150 innings and a sub-2.25 ERA since the St. Louis Cardinals' John Tudor faced the New York Mets' Dwight Gooden back on Sept. 11, 1985. So it comes as no surprise that along with the Mets' Jacob deGrom, these three pitchers are the leading candidates to win the National League Cy Young Award this year.
All three pitchers pitched on Tuesday night, with Scherzer and Nola squaring off against each other for the second time in five days. Did the outcome of those contests shift the balance of power? Is deGrom still the top candidate? What does Vegas have to say?
Comparing all three pitchers together produces some pretty eye-popping numbers.
A clear case can be made for all three starters, but if you're placing bets, which one is the smartest play?
The latest odds come from BetOnline.com and are as of August 22.
According to Vegas, this is a two-man race between the favorite -- deGrom -- and Scherzer, with Nola well behind with the third-best odds.
That matches a recent informal poll of BBWAA writers who also made it clear that this is a two-man race for the hardware. They gave deGrom 20 out of 31 first-place votes, with Scherzer getting the other 11. Nola did not receive a single first-place vote, though for what it's worth that poll was taken before Nola outdueled Scherzer for the second time.
The Case For deGrom
deGrom is simply having a historic season. While he is third in Baseball Reference's version of wins above replacement (bWAR), he is first in Fangraphs' (fWAR), at 6.9, which is far better than Scherzer (5.8) and Nola (5.7). He is the only NL pitcher with an ERA under 2.00 (1.68) and has the best FIP (2.07) of anyone in the National League.
On Tuesday night, deGrom outdueled the rejuvenated Cole Hamels, pitching 8 innings and giving up 1 run on 8 hits with 10 strikeouts and 1 walk against one of the best offensive clubs in baseball. He has the lowest walk rate of the three and is putting together a season that is basically unmatched.
Jacob deGrom, Dominating 3 Pitch K Sequence (99mph, 99mph and 100mph). 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/hkp0511n5f
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 29, 2018
All due respect to Aaron Nola and Max Scherzer, I'm starting to wonder if the right question is more "by how large a margin is Jacob deGrom going to win the Cy " more than "is he going to win the Cy."
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) August 29, 2018
So, should everyone just take their toys and go home? Does deGrom have it all locked up? Maybe not.
The Case For Nola
On Tuesday, and for the second time in five days, Nola outdueled Scherzer in a head-to-head matchup.
Nola is done after 7 innings. He allowed 2 runs (1 earned), 4 hits, 2 BB, 8 K on 106 pitches. Phillies lead 3-2.
In the past week in Nola-Scherzer two-part duel:
Nola vs. Nationals -- 15 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 17 K.
Scherzer vs. Phillies -- 12 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 15 K.
— Meghan Montemurro (@M_Montemurro) August 29, 2018
Obviously, two starts alone does not make Nola a better candidate than Scherzer, although it certainly helps the narrative. But what Nola has done is lower his ERA to 2.10, which is now better than Scherzer's 2.22. Nola also has a lower FIP -- 2.62 to 2.75 -- and no one in baseball has a higher bWAR among pitchers than Nola's shockingly high 8.9. Scherzer is second at 8.0, with deGrom in third at 7.4.
Nola doesn't have the strikeout numbers Scherzer or deGrom do, but his .194 opponents batting average is better than deGrom's .203. Nola also has the worst defense in baseball playing behind him, with the Phillies sporting a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) of -104, last in baseball. On Tuesday night, Nola left the game with a 3-2 lead with the only two runs being scored on a throwing error by Carlos Santana (one was earned).
Is all that enough to catapult him ahead of Scherzer?
The Case For Scherzer
Scherzer has simply been dominant and has been having the best season of his career in 2018.
He's second in both WAR components, has the edge in strikeouts per nine innings (12.01), strikeout percentage (34.3%), Skill Interactive ERA (SIERA; 2.75), and opponent batting average (.179). He also did this:
Max Scherzer tied Sandy Koufax.
Max Scherzer passed Sandy Koufax and tied Kevin Brown.
Max Scherzer passed Kevin Brown.
Max Scherzer has sole possession of No. 46 on @MLB's all-time strikeout list with 2,398. pic.twitter.com/5UFcK02IhV
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) August 29, 2018
But, last night, he gave up three runs on two homers and lasted just five innings in the sweltering Philadelphia heat. Add in the Nats' improbability of making the playoffs, and the Scherzer argument has been weakened up against others at the top of this list.
Place Your Bets
Undoubtedly, the smart money is on the favorite, deGrom. It's unlikely either pitcher is going to catch him in ERA or FIP, and unless one of Nola or Scherzer is able to get their ERA under 2.00, or deGrom gets hurt and misses some September action, it's unlikely either pitcher is going to be able to knock him off his perch.
However, if you're looking to put some money on the underdog, Nola has to be the play. Most of the numbers say he has been the second-best pitcher in the National League this season, and based on both the numbers and his out-pitching Scherzer in two recent matchups -- not to mention having to overcome the worst defense in baseball -- he could finish ahead of Scherzer in the voting.
Of course, there is still one full month of baseball to be played, and a lot can happen. But right now, the Cy Young race should be deGrom-Nola-Scherzer.