The Cy Young Award has become a fascinating honor in Major League Baseball. As the analytics community has seemingly devalued wins, and as some newer-age writers have moved wins far down on their list of consideration when voting for Cy Young winners, we’ve still seen the award favor pitchers who rack up more W’s than the competition.
Heading into last season, nine of the prior 10 years – excluding pandemic-shortened 2020 – featured at least one 20-game winner capturing the Cy Young Award. As much as wins were viewed as “unimportant,” they still held importance with the voting committee. Until last season.
Last season’s Cy Young winners – Robbie Ray and Corbin Burnes – combined for 24 wins. Justin Verlander posted 24 wins on his own in his 2011 Cy Young season with the Detroit Tigers. The anti-win, more analytical approach is finally coming to fruition, and that can certainly help us identify value in the market.
Here’s my best bet for NL Cy Young as part three of a four-part MLB award series in February. You can find the first two installments right here:
NL Cy Young Award Winner – Zack Wheeler (+900; DraftKings)
When the Phillies signed Zack Wheeler away from the division-rival Mets in the post-2019 offseason, giving him $118M over five years, they were questioned and even mocked by many in the baseball community. In his best year, he posted a 3.31 ERA and had largely lived in the shadows of the Mets’ star-studded rotation, headlined by Jacob deGrom. But the Phillies dug deeper and saw an ace in Wheeler, and despite his tenure in Philly getting off to an injury-riddled start, it’s starting to look like a bargain.
Wheeler was dominant in 2021 and finished second in the Cy Young voting, just 10 points behind winner Corbin Burnes of the Brewers. He made his first All-Star appearance and posted a career-best 2.78 ERA with 247 strikeouts in 213.1 innings, also career-highs. And the underlying analytics further prove his dominance and solidify that he’s ready to take the next step. Here’s why.
Zack Wheeler threw 27% more innings with an ERA only 12% worse than Corbin Burnes.
Wheeler: 2.73 ERA 213.1 IP
Burnes: 2.43 ERA 167 IP
I’m glad Wins don’t matter anymore for the Cy Young award, but I feel we’ve gone too far.
IP & ERA >>> Under-The-Hood stats for the CY IMO
— Nick Pollack (@PitcherList) November 18, 2021
Let’s get some of the housekeeping out of the way first. The Cy Young, unlike the MVP, is less-reliant on team success. I don’t think the Phillies are a bad team by any means, but they’re in a tough division with the re-tooled Mets and defending-champion Braves, so they’ve got an uphill climb. In looking back at the last few years, team success hasn’t mattered much to the voters, so it won’t be a deterrent for Wheeler if the Phillies fall short of expectations. Last year, Robbie Ray won the AL Cy Young for a Blue Jays team that missed the playoffs. In 2020, both Cy Young winners played on third-place teams – Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer. And Jacob deGrom won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019 while pitching for the Mets.
I also think Wheeler has a clearer path than some of the pitchers priced better or nearly the same as him in the market. deGrom is the obvious favorite at +450, but he’s coming off an injury-plagued 2021. As much of an alien as he is, we can’t just bank on him returning to form given how fragile pitchers can be once the injuries mount. Plus, he now shares a mound with Max Scherzer (+800), and while they don’t pitch on the same day, there’s a chance they steal votes from one another and prevent each other from winning the award.
The same can be said about Brandon Woodruff (+900) and Corbin Burnes (+800), although Burnes did win the award last year. Walker Buehler is the only other arm priced below +1200, and if we peek at his Baseball Savant metrics, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. He’s only in the 90th percentile or better in two categories – fastball spin and curveball spin. His whiff rate is in the 51st percentile and his strikeout rate is in the 65th. Fine numbers, but not numbers that’ll lead to Cy Young-quality strikeout totals.
Wheeler, on the other hand, nearly broke Baseball Savant with his 2021 metrics. He placed in the 90th percentile or better in seven of the 14 pitcher metrics and landed in the 89th in one other (walk rate). Wheeler was in the 99th percentile in exit velocity, in the 94th percentile in both expected ERA and expected weighted on-base average and the 91st percentile in expected slugging percentage. His microscopic ERA and WHIP numbers from last year were not a fluke, and only about five percent of starters across all of baseball were better than he was.
Wheeler was also in the 89th percentile in walk rate as mentioned above, and this is a hidden gem for pitchers. Fewer walks mean fewer pitches; fewer pitches means the pitcher goes deeper into games; going deeper into games gives starters more opportunities to compile stats. Wheeler tossed three complete games last year, two of them shutouts, which helped him finish a close second in the Cy Young Award race.
This is the year the Philadelphia right-hander reaches the pinnacle. Take Wheeler down to +850.
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