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Jacob DeGrom Is Breaking The Cy Young Formula

Pitcher wins were already an unpopular metric among the sabermetric set, but Jacob deGrom’s 2018 season may have officially put the final nail in their coffin, even for traditionalists still hanging on to their old-school stats.

DeGrom is currently leading the major leagues in ERA with a microscopic 1.81 mark in 159 innings. Yet, for all his trouble, he sports a meager 7-7 win-loss record, because his New York Mets cannot score (and are generally even more disgraceful than usual) when their ace takes the hill. Among qualified pitchers with a nonwinning record, deGrom has the second-best ERA1 in history. We can all agree, I think, that his record has told us basically nothing about his performance this year.

But the real test of how much power wins still hold over the baseball media will come after the season, when deGrom’s case for the Cy Young Award will be decided. And it’s anybody’s guess how he’ll do in that tally because he and the Mets are twisting all of the typical benchmarks for Cy Young voting. For instance, at ESPN’s Cy Young tracker — which uses a formula to turn a pitcher’s traditional stats into a score designed to match past Cy results — deGrom sits 10th in the National League despite being on pace for one of the top 50 or so best seasons by a pitcher in modern2 MLB history (according to wins above replacement).3

It’s not the Cy Young tracker’s fault per se: It was built looking backward, trying to replicate how Cy voters have traditionally behaved. But it does show how deGrom’s season has exposed a major rift between historical standards and modern measurements of pitching performance. If we look at the history of hurlers who led MLB in pitching WAR in a given season (deGrom is No. 1 this year), his 25th-place overall showing in the Cy Young tracker is the worst rank for any leader since at least 1969:4

No WAR leader’s stats have misled more than deGrom’s

MLB seasonal leaders in pitching wins above replacement (WAR) with the lowest ranking in ESPN’s Cy Young tracker metric during the same season

Cy Young Tracker
Season MLB WAR Leader WAR W-L ERA Score Rank
2018* Jacob deGrom 6.7 7-7 1.81 100.6 25
1974 Jon Matlack 8.3 13-15 2.41 147.7 24
1982 Mario Soto 7.5 14-13 2.79 146.0 19
1993 Jose Rijo 8.2 14-9 2.48 157.9 17
2016 Justin Verlander 6.2 16-9 3.04 148.6 16
2003 Pedro Martinez 7.7 14-4 2.22 150.9 14
2004 Randy Johnson 9.0 16-14 2.60 159.6 9
2005 Johan Santana 7.2 16-7 2.87 158.5 9
1977 Rick Reuschel 8.0 20-10 2.79 182.3 9
1984 Dwight Gooden 6.9 17-9 2.60 168.1 7

* 2018 data through games of Aug. 15

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs.com

Historically speaking, a mediocre W-L record will kill your Cy Young chances, with Felix Hernandez’s 2010 victory (while boasting a 13-12 record) standing out as an extremely rare exception to the award’s overall rule.5 DeGrom’s candidacy could end up reinforcing that policy, since the Cy tracker’s leader, Max Scherzer, is running second in pitching WAR and has a more traditionally acceptable 15-5 record. The voters could tab him for the award as a (cop-out) way of straddling the line between new- and old-school evaluation methods.

But they could also give it to deGrom as the reward for 2018’s most outstanding pitching performance — which the award’s own language purports to honor. Whether that happens will be another signpost along the mainstream media’s path toward accepting newer statistics and casting aside old relics like wins.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Relative to his park and league.

  2. Since 1901.

  3. Using a mix of the WAR values found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

  4. When MLB’s divisional era began.

  5. We won’t think about Eric Gagne’s weird 2003 win as a reliever — although you have to hand it to the Cy Young tracker for nailing that pick.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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