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The regular season is over, so it’s time to take a last look at the Cy Young and MVP races in both leagues. First, let’s check in on the AL Cy Young chase.
If you’re new to my work, I take a slightly different approach to evaluation of current season performance. It’s a purely analytical approach, and relies on batted ball data. I simply take every batted ball allowed by each ERA-qualifying pitcher, and calculate the damage they “should have” allowed based on their exit speed/launch angle mix. That’s expressed by their Adjusted Contact Score – 100 equals league average, the lower the number the better. I then add back the Ks and BBs to determine each pitcher’s “Tru” ERA-, and then spread it across their innings bulk to determine their “Tru” Pitching Runs Above Average (TPRAA). My first interim look at this race took place as of the end of July. It was quite wide open then, so I thought then-invincible Oriole closer Felix Bautista deserved consideration. Injury stopped that freight train. Just last week, we checked in as the horses raced down the stretch.
While using replacement level as a baseline typically makes sense when doing most kinds of player evaluation, I find league average to be quite useful in evaluating elite performance, i.e., for award voting, Hall of Fame-worthiness, etc..
First, a couple of guidelines used to winnow the field. The field was strictly limited to ERA qualifiers, which means no Shohei Ohtani, and it also means no Joe Ryan, who stood in 3rd place according to the last update but fell one 1/3 of an inning short of qualification.
Also, the Honorable Mention list is being cut off at a minimum of 10.0 TPRAA, so there isn’t a Top Ten this year – there is only a Top Seven. Mariners’ righty Logan Gilbert (11.8 TPRAA) is a durable strikethrower who grinds out quality innings. He’s a league average contact manager (101 Adjusted Contact Score) with a very high floor and a moderate ceiling, which he probably has reached. The raw numbers say that Sonny Gray (12.3 TPRAA) was the Twins’ best starter, but this method disagrees. He was quite lucky on all batted ball types (55 vs. 79, 82 vs. 103 and 90 vs. 98 Unadjusted vs. Adjusted Fly Ball, Line Drive and Ground Ball Contact Scores, 74 vs. 94 overall).
THE TOP FIVE
#5 – RHP Kevin Gausman (Blue Jays) – 14.1 TPRAA, 84 “Tru”-, 75 ERA-, 68 FIP-
This method doesn’t like Gausman and the #3 finisher as much as the mainstream metrics do. His 111 Adjusted Contact Score is easily the worst among the pitchers discussed today, and he allows harder than average contact across all batted ball categories. The AL strikeout leader’s bat-missing ability is his carrying tool, and Gausman will be in trouble once it starts to ebb.
#4 – RHP George Kirby (Mariners) – 14.5 TPRAA, 84 “Tru”-, 82 ERA-, 80 FIP-
Kirby makes a bold move up from 7th in the last update after a strong two-start final week. He’s an extreme strikethrower who posted a scintillating 172/19 K/BB ratio. He’s a comparable contact manager (98 Adjusted Contact Score) to teammate Gilbert. His strikeout rate is a bit lower than most of his competition here – improvement in that area could make him a Cy favorite in upcoming seasons.
#3 – RHP Gerrit Cole (Yankees) – 18.9 TPRAA, 81 “Tru”-, 65 ERA-, 73 FIP-
Ok, I get it…….he’s going to win the award, and if you consult the history section below, you’ll see that I am perfectly cool with that. However, his body of work -according to the advanced metrics – simply doesn’t match up with the top two finishers. Cole’s K/BB profile (222/48 in 209 IP) wasn’t as good as those of Pablo Lopez (234/48 in 194) or Zach Eflin (186/24 in 177 2/3). He also wasn’t as good of a contact manager as either (98 Adjusted Contact Score vs. Lopez’ 83 and Eflin’s 93). Cole did pitch more innings, and gets credit for that. Cole allowed an ordinary average exit velocity of 88.9 mph, while Lopez/Eflin tied for the AL lead at 86.5. The voters owe him two Cys, so it’s all good, I guess.
#2 – RHP Zach Eflin (Rays) – 22.0 TPRAA, 74 “Tru”-, 85 ERA-, 73 FIP-
Most of Eflin’s case has been covered already. His K/BB profile is almost as good as Kirby’s, and only Lopez managed contact better than any other pitcher being covered today. The Rays typically don’t wade into the deeper end of the free agent market, but they knew exactly what they were doing when they signed Eflin to a three-year, $40 million contact prior to this season.
#1 – RHP Pablo Lopez (Twins) – 31.4 TPRAA, 66 “Tru”-, 87 ERA-, 79 FIP-
I get it, it’s counterintuitive to consider Lopez the best pitcher in the AL this season. The mainstream numbers – 11 wins, 3.66 ERA – just aren’t there. But isn’t that in part what drove the analytics revolution – to get beyond those numbers? Everyone celebrated when Felix Hernandez won a Cy despite a low win total. Lopez has a superior K/BB profile to all of the league’s 200 K guys. He’s the league’s best contact manager, matching Eflin for lowest average exit velocity allowed among AL qualifiers. So he didn’t get support from his defense, while teammate Gray did? That can happen in this most random of sports. We can adjust for that. When you measure only what a pitcher controls, Lopez was the AL’s best pitcher in 2023.
TPRAA HISTORY SINCE 2017
This exact method has been used going back to the 2017 season, and if I may say so myself, it’s outperformed the Cy Young voters.
Corey Kluber won the 2017 AL Cy, but finished 2nd to Chris Sale (46.8) in TPRAA. Blake Snell, this year’s likely NL winner, won the hardware in 2018, but finished 5th in TPRAA with 21.4; Justin Verlander “should have” won the award with 36.1. Verlander then won the 2019 Cy but his 44.5 TPRAA finished 2nd behind Gerrit Cole’s 51.0 mark. In the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, Shane Bieber won the Cy and led in TPRAA (15.2). Cole (25.2 TPRAA) “should have” won the Cy again in 2021, but Robbie Ray (11th in TPRAA with 16.7) stole it. Verlander won the Cy and led in TPRAA (24.1) in 2022. Pablo Lopez’ 31.4 TPRAA this season holds up very well historically – it’s the best AL mark since 2019.