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Why Justin Verlander deserved the 2018 Cy Young Award

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A deeper look at the 2018 Cy Young finalists, and why Justin Verlander should have won the award.

So I want to start this off by saying this is not a bash on Blake Snell, nor do I think he was undeserving of the award. I’m not particularly upset by his selection, although I do believe the voters got it wrong. Why? Well let’s dig in a bit further on each of the players and the seasons they had.

The overall voting came in remarkably close with Snell edging out Verlander with a 169-154 point victory.

I did some research and found an interesting quote on why Snell deserved to win the Cy Young:

“Additionally, Snell played a big role in his team’s surprisingly successful season, pitching dominantly deep into games, sparing the Rays’ hard-working bullpen a few extra innings of work.”12up.com *A particularly interesting take given that Verlander pitched 34 more innings *

Traditional Stats:

Blake Snell – 21-5, 1.89 ERA in 180 IP

Justin Verlander – 16-9, 2.52 ERA, in 214 IP

From the traditional stats, Snell wins this hands down. From this precursory glance, I’d say that it appears that Snell easily out pitched Verlander, and it’s likely what the voters looked at as well. Wins still carry a lot of weight, and half way through the year I did an article on who was leading the Cy Young Race and guessed that someone being a 20 game winner would be a deciding factor. It’s an unfortunate factor that is more determined by luck and your team that the individual pitcher’s talents.

Verlander struck out significantly more (290 K’s – 12.2 K/9) vs Snell’s (221 – 11.01 K/9) and also exhibited significantly better control numbers, with Verlander (1.56 BB/9) walking half the number of batters Snell (3.19 BB/9) did.

Advanced Stats:

Let’s start with WAR, which is commonly looked at as an all-in one stat for players.

Snell – 4.6 fWAR, 7.5 bWAR,

Verlander – 6.8 fWAR, 6.2 bWAR

There’s a significant difference between the two ratings, largely due to Baseball-Reference using ERA to determine their WAR rating vs Fangraphs using FIP. FIP is generally accepted to be a much better indicator of the individual player’s success as it reduces the effects of luck, defense behind you, etc.

Verlander’s FIP (2.78) beat out Snell’s (2.95), and the other advanced ERA-style analytics such as SIERA, xFIP, etc all agreed with this metric. Largely the differential came down to luck with runners on.

xWOBA is probably my favorite stat to evaluate performance, it literally assigns values based on every single hit based on launch angle, exit velocity, etc to put a number value on performance similar to OPS (for pitchers lower is better). wOBA is what occurred, xwOBA is what would be expected based on how hard the ball was hit, at what angle, etc.

Verlander - .260 wOBA// .236 xwOBA

Snell - .246 wOBA // .272 xwOBA

Verlander easily outpaced what the expected results from Snell were.

Comparison of Conditions

There are other factors that come in to play in addition to “luck” of sequencing and the defense that plays behind you. Obvious things that come to mind are ballpark that you are pitching in and the teams you’re playing against. These are harder from an analysis side, but I figured we can take a look at both the Strength of Schedule as well as their home ballparks from an offensive point of view.

Rotographs - MMP
Rotographs - Tropicana Field

On a Park Factor perspective, Minute Maid Park has somewhat of a reputation of a hitter’s bandbox due to the Crawford Boxes. In reality, MMP is almost exactly neutral coming in at #15th best park for hitters at a Park Factor of 1.004. Tropicana field on the other hand, was in the top 10 best parks for pitchers (ranking #21 for offenses) – coming in at 0.953

Some will argue the difference in strength of schedule between the two, with the AL East being notoriously strong. Back in August, I took a look at this and found in 2018, the AL West was the strongest division in the league at the time. Looking online, I struggled to find SoS stats for last year’s season other than from here which ranked the Astros at #16, the Rays at #17 with a .03 differential on a scale of teams ranging from 13.44 to 18.94), which indicates very minimal difference by their standards. Obviously this looks at the strengths from a macro level, not at an individual level. If someone knows a better place to find that type of analysis, please let me know.

Quality of Pitch perspective:

Both were excellent pitchers, but QOP shows a definitive advantage to Verlander as well.

Summary

So I completely understand why Snell took the award, he was a 20+ game winner who led the league with a 1.89 ERA. It was a phenomenal season, but unfortunately looks to be far more luck driven than due to a superior performance compared to Verlander.

Now obviously, I admit I’m biased, I’m a fan of the Astros and will admit that it’ll color my judgement, but the stats seem overwhelming here. Verlander struck out more batters per 9, he walked less batters per 9, he gained weaker contact based on xWOBA. Oh and he did all of this while pitching to a near identical difficulty of opponents (on a macro level) at a ballpark that is significantly harder for pitchers.

The end results of Snell winning the award makes sense, but every analytical approach shows that Justin Verlander was not only the better pitcher in basically every way, BUT he also pitched almost 20% more!