"While we’d never say “never,” it’s a reasonable bet that we’ve seen the last of the short-reliever Cy Young award. While relief pitching as a whole is more important than ever, individual roles are now being put in proper context, and a credible case for the 70-inning closer as the most useful and valuable to his team simply can’t be made. Even the most nostalgic of voters has come to recognize the immense value of innings pitched: Since Dennis Eckersley took honors in 1992, the best showing by a reliever is Eric Gagne’s sixth-place finish in 2003 – and to get there, Gagne had to convert 55 saves in 55 opportunities, pitch to a 1.20 ERA, and strike out 137 batters in 82 innings."
Now, the Cy Young Award isn't the MVP Award. The voters tend to approach them in very different ways. The Cy is clearly reserved for the "best" pitcher in the league, while the MVP lends itself to (infuriating) interpretation. But as far as I'm concerned, the paragraph above holds true.
Which makes Baltimore closer Zach Britton's likely coronation as the league's best pitcher all the more galling.
The argument, made by several chroniclers of the game, is that there was no standout performance by a starting pitcher in the AL this year, opening the door for a standout reliever to claim the prize. The voters are literally saying "since we can't pick between the two best pitchers in the league, we'll give it to a third pitcher who wasn't as good."
It's an absurd argument. Detroit's Justin Verlander and Cleveland's Corey Kluber were both excellent. Both have a claim as the best pitcher in the American League. Were they historically good? No. But they were the two best the league had to offer in 2016 (lest we forget, the Cy Young is a single-season honor, and players can only judged by their performance relative to the league that year). In other words, in what universe does it make sense to penalize a pitcher for being the best, but only the best by a little bit? Michael Phelps gets the gold whether he wins by .10 seconds or .01 seconds.
Justin Verlander led the league in WAR, strikeouts and WHIP; he placed second in ERA and innings pitched. He should be recognized with the Cy Young award (and we're not just saying that because we might've predicted it some time ago). If you feel it should go to Kluber, who was almost exactly as good, we won't argue.
Zach Britton will probably claim the prize.
NL Cy Young
The NL Cy Young is a doozy of a ballot, featuring four or five legitimate candidates for the award.
But before we get to that, a word or two on Clayton Kershaw.
Clayton Kershaw missed more than two months of the season due to a herniated disc in his back. Before injury struck, the Dodgers superstar was on pace to record the finest season of his extraordinary career, leading the league, by comfortable margins, in just about every meaningful pitching category. As of June 7, his record stood at 11-1, with an ERA of 1.57. He struck out 141 batters over 115 innings, walking seven. This was a mastery of command previously unseen in major league history. Clayton Kershaw was striking out 20 batters for every one he walked. "2016 Kershaw" seemed destined to join "1968 Gibson," "1985 Gooden," and "2000 Pedro" in the exclusive pantheon of pitching seasons identifiable year and surname.
Alas, it was not to be. Kershaw was only able to log 149 innings in 2016, failing to qualify for the league ERA title (had he been able to take the field for two more starts, he comfortably paces the NL in ERA, FIP, ERA+, WHIP, and SO/BB ratio). Despite his 149 IP, Kershaw still tied for second in the league in pitcher WAR (5.6).
Kershaw is the best pitcher in the world. The fact that he missed about a third of the season doesn't change that. But since Kershaw pitched so few innings, he has no chance at securing the NL Cy Young award. And this seems appropriate. Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game, but in 2016 he didn't pitch enough to provide the most value to his team.
In other words, Cy Young voters will ignore Clayton Kershaw for not pitching enough, but will honor Zach Britton, who threw less than half as many innings as Kershaw.
Oh right. The NL ballot:
The feeling here is that Chicago's Kyle Hendricks takes the award with that sparkling ERA, which is 88% better than the league average, and 16% better than the runner-up in that category (teammate Lester). Hendricks wouldn't be the worst pick for the honor, but he isn't the best: His innings total would be the lowest ever (in a non-strike season) for a Cy Young starter, and that sparkling ERA is somewhat misleading: His fielding-independent pitching is more than a run higher (though still very good), suggesting an element of luck (and outstanding defense behind him) was at play for Hendricks in 2016. But this is nitpicking: As his league-leading 2.52 runs-allowed-per-nine-innings can attest, Hendricks was very, very good in 2016.
Washington's Max Scherzer was better, leading the league in pitcher WAR, innings, strikeouts, WHIP, and SO/BB ratio (it should also be noted that Scherzer gave up more home runs than any other pitcher in the league, but he mitigated the damage with his excellent control and overall unhittable-ness). From my perspective, Scherzer's significant advantage in innings closes the ERA gap with Hendricks. He pitched in tougher parks, with a weaker defense and bullpen behind him (factors reflected in Scherzer's superior WAR rating).
For his durability, effectiveness, and dominance, Scherzer is the pick for the NL Cy Young.
It is with some measure of disappointment that we inform you that this year's MVP vote will lack controversy (it's the entire point of the award after all).
As we noted back in September, Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. Has been for a while now. Five seasons and counting, in fact. He won't be named MVP. And that's OK.
Boston's Mookie Betts will likely claim American League honors. And that's OK. He was one of the two or three best players in baseball, within shouting distance of Trout as a hitter and, if defensive metrics are to be believed, the superior outfielder.
They're not booing. They're saying "Mooooook!"
Kris Bryant is a utility player masquerading as a superstar. It's true. Don't let the .292/.385/.554/149 OPS+/7.7 WAR line fool you; don't let the 39 HR/102 RBI fool you; don't let his size and power fool you. He's a utility player. How else to explain the fact that the Cubs can't find a position for him?
Utility player. Seriously.
Photo: Keith Allison CC-SA 2.0