Nothing gets pretty inane arguments going like individual baseball awards. I can’t claim to be above them, but I also have never claimed to be a functioning member of society. To a lot of people, and they aren’t completely wrong to think so, who we give a Cy Young or MVP award to is a statement on what the game of baseball is today, and how we view it. And obviously, once you break down that wall, voters think they’re the ones actually changing the game. Which isn’t entirely wrong either, because what gets valued by front offices and what gets valued by observers tends to bounce back and forth.
Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young win in 2010 was a true watershed moment for the analytics crowd, because for once, win total (he was 13-12) was basically ignored. And since then, we don’t really judge pitchers on wins, which is something of a seismic shift in at least how baseball is studied and analyzed.
We have another pretty hot debate after Corbin Burnes was awarded the NL Cy Young yesterday, narrowly beating out Zack Wheeler. Both obviously have pretty good cases. What had Twitter riled up last night was that Wheeler had thrown nearly 50 more innings than Burnes had, while maintaining similar rates and stats wherever you look.
My first instinct was to be annoyed by the arguments, because I’m a miserable prick. But the more I looked at it, the more fascinated I got. Looking at all the rates, Burnes is pretty much superior. Burnes struck out 35 percent of the hitters he saw. Wheeler struck out 29 percent. They were pretty even on walk-percentage, with Burnes shading it 5.2 to 5.4. Burnes had a sub-1.00 WHIP, with Wheeler just above it. Burnes also had the superior FIP and xFIP, which takes out how his defense might have affected his ERA, which are stats more fair to Wheeler because the Phillies have been running out elephant-like feel-and-touch guys when it comes to defense for years.
And yet, because of the innings difference, Wheeler and Burnes basically finished even in fWAR (FanGraphs), and Wheeler absolutely dusted him when it came to bWAR (Baseball Reference), with the latter the one more people think properly weighs pitchers.
So you have two pitchers having excellent seasons, with one shading the other by what he did when he was on the mound, but the other doing it for some 6-7 more games’ worth of innings.
Burnes clearly had the more effective pen behind him, as the Philly pen has been kindergarten recess for season upon season, so you can see why Burnes’ manager would be quicker to hook Burnes than Joe Girardi would have been to pull Wheeler. But that obviously doesn’t explain it all.
This was Burnes’ first full season as a starter, so he was obviously shielded some. Wheeler is a veteran, and the Phils had to chase down a playoff spot until the last throes of the season, so they couldn’t pull the handbrake on him.
I can’t say I have an answer. Wheeler did more of the great pitching, while Burnes burned brighter (say that three times fast yadda yadda yadda). Burnes’ innings weren’t really a personal failing, but just a measure of where he is in his career and how the Brewers play the game. This is something we all have to consider, and it’s only a recent development.
The prevailing argument against Burnes on Twitter was that “innings matter.” Well, they did for the Phillies, because they couldn’t turn it over to the clown car coming out the pen all that much. Did they matter as much to the Brewers, who could consistently turn to their pen for the final 9-12 outs? These days, you can’t just make a blanket statement that innings matter without considering the roster you’re talking about.
This of course opens a trap door, where any amount of innings could be considered enough. Yes, relievers have won the Cy Young before, so maybe the total shouldn’t matter at all. But in the future, will a pitcher who runs a 1.30 ERA with glittering underlying numbers but only averaging four innings a start win? If that’s where the game goes?
Baseball awards, and evaluating players overall, don’t lend themselves to “feeling” at all, because we can just about quantify everything. At the end of the day, I think Burnes’ 7-to-1 K/BB ratio, and his giving up just seven homers all year, speaks for themselves. Maybe Wheeler carrying it over 50 more innings is more impressive in some light, but Burnes didn’t have to. For my money, the voters got this one right.