By Jon Weisman
Sometime between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. today on MLB Network — I’m guessing as close to 3:59 p.m. as possible — the Baseball Writers Association of America will announce the winner of the 2015 National League Cy Young Award.
It’s a hair-splitting race that has engendered speculation for months, ever since Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw became indomitable in ways that Zack Greinke had been for the entire season.
“This is great — this is a great year for this,” A.J. Ellis said in a phone interview with MLB Network this morning. “You’ve got three guys who any other year would win the Cy Young in a landslide.”
“These three guys kind of separated themselves in kind of different ways. You had Clayton, who can just kind of take over a game. You saw that with the 300 strikeouts that he had. Jake, with his array of pitches, and his weapons, and the second-half run that he went on was unprecedented and historical. And then Zack, who did it for the entire season.
As much as written and read about it, it still amazes that Greinke’s 1.66 ERA and 45 2/3-inning scoreless streak could go down as second-fiddle accomplishments, thanks to Arrieta’s 0.86 ERA in his final 147 innings this season.
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“We saw first-hand Jake Arrieta — he threw a no-hitter against us at Dodger Stadium,” Ellis said. “They’re all worthy Cy Young Award winners for the year. Unfortunately one’s gonna win, and unfortunately for Jake, that guy’s gonna come for the Dodgers, I believe.
“With Zack’s case in particular, I’ve never seen a guy or caught a guy who managed a game better than Zack Greinke. His ability to understand what he should call for — when’s a time for a strikeout, when’s a time for a double play, when’s a time with the infield in I need a ball on the ground hit at somebody — he had an uncanny knack this year to execute pitches and manage a game simultaneously, which is hard to multitask like that.”
But Cliff Corcoran, who runs an Awards Watch column all season long for SI.com and who probably has the most credible analysis of the current race — having correctly predicted the winner of 37 of the last 38 BBWAA player awards — offered a contrasting take.
… Narrowing it down to Greinke and Arrieta, I favor the latter. ERA+ tells us that, after correcting for their home ballparks, the two righties’ run prevention was essentially even, and things are just as tight in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Greinke holds slim leads in all three of those categories, but Arrieta threw more innings, struck out far more batters and allowed fewer home runs (10 to Greinke’s 14) despite throwing those extra innings and pitching in a far more homer-friendly home ballpark. Indeed, Dodger Stadium this season had a home-run park factor of 101 (a tick above neutral) according to the Bill James Handbook, while Wrigley Field’s home-run park factor was 131, the third-highest in the majors this past season behind Miller Park and Camden Yards.
Also significant to me is that Arrieta completed four games, three of them shutouts and one of those a no-hitter, while Greinke didn’t throw a pitch in the ninth inning all year (his lone complete game was a 2–1 loss on the road). That might seem fussy, but this race is close enough that those trying to rank these three almost have to be fussy. With no clear best choice, this race ultimately comes down to such fussiness. …
Most media observers have designated Kershaw’s league-leading wins above replacement and once-in-a-decade strikeout totals as an afterthought. From Corcoran:
… We’re trying to evaluate who was the most effective pitcher in the season that has already passed. Deserved Run Average tells us that was indeed Kershaw, mostly because he didn’t benefit from the outstanding pitch framing Greinke received from Yasmani Grandal (who caught 26 of Greinke’s starts but just 12 of Kershaw’s) or the Cubs’ superior defense. Per DRA, adjusting for those things (along with several others in which the differences are less significant) closes the gap in run prevention between Kershaw and the other two, allowing his superior peripherals and major league-leading innings total to carry the day.
That’s a compelling argument based in hard math (by which I mean that the calculations are both purely objective and very difficult). I must admit, however, that if I did have a Cy Young vote this year, I would find it very difficult to vote for Kershaw for reasons that may be more subjective than I’d realized. As great as Kershaw was this season, Greinke and Arrieta (who posted a 0.86 ERA over his final 20 starts) had more memorable seasons. Given how close the overall value of all three pitchers was—arguably within the margin of error for all of that math and certainly close enough that three different formulas produce different results—I think this race should and will come down to Greinke and Arrieta, with Kershaw finishing third.
Regardless, this is Kershaw’s fifth consecutive year is in the top three of a Cy Young ballot — a record, as Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. pointed out, and more evidence that no matter who wins the award today, this is still his era.
People still talk about the Cy Young that got away from Kershaw in 2012, going instead to R.A. Dickey. Others question whether Kershaw should have beaten Roy Halladay in an extraordinarily narrow two-man competition in 2011. The 2015 NL Cy Young race is one that figures to have even more lasting memories for baseball fans. While there really is no wrong answer among these three pitchers, the debate will go on long after today.