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Is it this guy again?!?

Was this year’s pool of top pitchers much deeper than usual, or did we instead witness a sub-par season with a dearth of stand-out pitching? As a whole, league ERA was the highest in seven years, and considerably higher (4.19) than two seasons ago (3.74). It’s the first time in four seasons that nobody had a season ERA under 2.00; Kyle Hendricks’ league-leading 2.14 would have put him at #4 last year.

On the other hand, Hendricks’ 2.14 was lower than any pitcher’s ERA from 2006-2012. And of the 614 individual pitching seasons of 120+ IP since 2012, Noah Syndergaard’s 6.5 fWAR ranks 8th. Jose Fernandez’s 6.2 ranks 13th. Over the last 10 years, only Clayton Kershaw in 2015 struck out more batters in a single seasons than Max Scherzer did this year. In other words, there weren’t any all-time great performances, but there were plenty of excellent ones.

Let’s take a look at the top contenders and their numbers in some of the most important stats. First, a few more traditional statistics:

Bumgarner 226.2 251 2.74
Cueto 219.2 198 2.79
Fernandez, J. 182.1 253 2.86
Hendricks 190 170 2.13
Kershaw 149 172 1.69
Kluber 215 227 3.14
Lester 202.2 197 2.44
Porcello 223 189 3.15
Quintana 208 181 3.20
Sale 226.2 233 3.34
Scherzer 228.1 284 2.96
Syndergaard 183.2 218 2.60
Verlander 227.2 254 3.04

And then some more modern, advanced stats:

Bumgarner 27.5 5.9 69 83 86
Cueto 22.5 5.1 71 76 83
Fernandez,J. 34.3 7.5 70 58 62
Hendricks 22.8 5.9 51 78 87
Kershaw 31.6  2.0  43 45 56
Kluber 26.4 6.6 73 76 82
Lester 24.8 6.5 59 82 84
Porcello 21.2 3.6 71 81 92
Quintana 21.6 6.0 75 81 95
Sale 25.7 5.0 78 79 84
Scherzer 31.5 6.2 71 79 82
Syndergaard 29.3 5.8 65 56 65
Verlander 28.1 6.3 72 81 89

Next, a version of “Total Wins Above Replacement” that combines fWAR, rWAR, RA9-WAR and pWARP (which covers every major approach to WAR):

Verlander 25.21
Scherzer 24.86
Kershaw 24.58
Kluber 23.1
Sale 22.85
Syndergaard 22.57
Lester 22.26
Cueto 22.19
J. Fernandez 22.03
Porcello 21.29
Bumgarner 21.28
Hendricks 20.88
Quintana 20.29

I think what we see right away is that Clayton Kershaw was obviously the best pitcher in baseball this year, with the lack of innings being his only (though not insignificant) drawback. Kershaw had the best ERA, lowest BB%, second best K% and the best ERA-, FIP- and xFIP-. He finished 3rd in totWAR, despite pitching about 60-70 fewer innings than the other top contenders.


Verlander, best in the AL this year

This is not analysis of the BBWAA Cy Young Award, and of course I can create my own guidelines for my own awards. However, I think it is relevant that it is pretty rare for a Starting Pitcher with fewer than 200 IP to win the Cy Young. Quantity is a legitimate measure of value in a SP. Pitchers who don’t miss starts and who pitch late into games take wear and tear off the rest of the pitching staff, and bring a continuity to the rotation. Also, if you miss 10 or more starts, it reduces your chances of having  a bad outing that can ruin a great ERA. Therefore, I will have to count the lack of IP as a negative against Kershaw.

The challenge is that, once you take Kershaw down a peg, the field gets crowded. Kyle Hendricks had an incredible year with a very low ERA, but he ranks low on the strikeout rates and pitched 30 innings less than guys like Verlander and Scherzer. Of Hendricks’ 30 starts, he pitched fewer than 6 innings in 10 of them. Contrast that with someone like Scherzer, who pitched fewer than 6 innings just four times in his 34 starts, and Verlander, who had just five such games in 34 starts.

Nonetheless, even when he adjust for league and ballpark, Hendricks’ ERA was much, much lower than Scherzer’s and Verlander’s. It should also be pointed out that Hendricks did have a significant advantage over those two pitchers in some of the so-called “luck” measurements. On the flip side, he also had a much lower FB% and a much higher GB%.

Here we see that teammates Lester and Hendricks benefitted the most (of the 13 finalists) in “Fielding Dependent Pitching Wins”. This means that BABIP and LOB% worked to their advantage. This does not automatically discredit their accomplishments: a pitcher who routinely induces groundballs throughout a career is obviously doing something right, and it can’t be discounted. However, it is difficult to tell how much of Lester and Hendricks’ success was due to the Cubs #1 Defense. In fact, the entire Cubs pitching staff had twice as many Fielding Dependent Pitching Wins as any other team, so it seems likely that it was a factor.

Jon Lester 3.1 0.256 84.9 %
Kyle Hendricks 2.5 0.250 81.5 %
Justin Verlander 1.4 0.255 79.9 %
Max Scherzer 1.3 0.255 81.7 %
Jose Quintana 1 0.293 79.0 %
Madison Bumgarner 1 0.265 79.1 %
Rick Porcello 1 0.269 74.3 %
Johnny Cueto 1 0.293 78.0 %
Corey Kluber 0.6 0.271 74.8 %
Chris Sale 0.6 0.279 76.6 %
Clayton Kershaw 0.3 0.254 80.0 %
Jose Fernandez -1 0.332 76.6 %
Noah Syndergaard -1.2 0.334 76.9 %

Finally, we can take a look at Win Probability:

Name Team WPA RE24 WPA/LI
Jon Lester Cubs 4.56 36.56 3.01
Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 4.19 35.03 4.34
Kyle Hendricks Cubs 3.91 38.77 4.06
Johnny Cueto Giants 3.76 23.74 2.58
Max Scherzer Nationals 3.6 30.79 3.54
Justin Verlander Tigers 3.45 32.58 2.07
Jose Fernandez Marlins 3.18 22.86 2.63
Jose Quintana White Sox 2.36 24.87 2.24
Chris Sale White Sox 2.29 24.19 2.76
Noah Syndergaard Mets 2.1 21.14 1.89
Madison Bumgarner Giants 1.93 17.19 1.88
Rick Porcello Red Sox 1.79 23.84 2.92
Corey Kluber Indians 1.65 21.32 2.84

The Cubs as a team are head and shoulders above the others in pitching WPA, RE24 and WPA/LI. They were also 4th in team pitching fWAR. In fact, the top WPA teams were awfully similar to the top fWAR teams. So there might be a pretty strong connection between the two, meaning that great defense isn’t the only thing giving pitchers a good WPA.


Scherzer, a close runner-up

One thing we do see though is that Lester drops from first on this list in WPA to 4th in WPA/LI, which might be attributed to the fact that the Cubs were the type of team that rarely fell far behind but also didn’t blow out the other team very often. So Lester had a lot of chances for WPA points. And, while he converted a high total volume, he may not have been quite as effective per situation as Kershaw, Hendricks or Scherzer.

If you take their rank in each of the three columns and average it out, Kershaw and Hendricks tie for best in this category.

It seems to come down to this: Clayton Kershaw was by far and away the best starting pitcher in baseball this year, in almost every way. If you discount him because he only pitched 149 innings, then the question is murkier, and guys like Scherzer and Verlander start to rise to the top.

But 149 innings at a rate that is substantially better everyone else in the league is still of huge value. When it comes down to it, I have to say that, yet again, Kershaw is the Three Finger Brown Award winner.