2020 Cy Young Award Race

2020 Cy Young Award Race

Written by: Sam Minier
Follow him on Twitter: @sminier3
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter: @ProspectsWorldW

Throughout the postseason I will be discussing the MLB award races, which will be voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWA) and announced in November. Starting with the Cy Young, I will include traditional statistics and advanced metrics to do a complete evaluation of the finalists. This season both leagues had a few starting pitchers dominate opponents.

In the AL Shane Bieber is my lone finalist for the Cy Young. Nobody in the league came close to his season and I will tell you what changed from last year to elevate his game to the next level.

The NL race is much more complicated. Traditional fans would argue Trevor Bauer is a clear winner because he led the league in traditional categories like ERA.

However, a deeper evaluation challenges the traditional school of thought and suggests maybe Bauer has more competition than most think. I will explain why finalists Yu Darvish and Jacob DeGrom both have strong cases and why the voters should consider them both. Finally, I will tell you who I think the winner should be and why.  

American League Finalists:

CLE SP Shane Bieber (8-1)
77.1 IP, 1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 2.07 FIP, 3.2 WAR, 14.2 K/9

In a league with aces like Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, Shane Bieber will be the unanimous selection for the 2020 American League Cy Young Award. Pitching for the Cleveland Indians, his offense struggled this season finishing 27th in OPS and 24th in runs. Cleveland scored more than 5 runs just once in Bieber’s 12 starts and they scored 3 runs or fewer in seven of those starts. Despite pathetic run support, he managed to go 8-1 in his decisions and the team was 10-2 in his starts.

Going beyond team results, Shane won the pitching triple crown, leading the AL in strikeouts, wins, and ERA. In a 60-game season, he still managed to strike out 122 batters, posting double-digit strikeout performances in 8 of his 12 starts. In the AL no other pitcher reached the century mark, with the Chicago White Sox Lucas Giolito finishing a distant second with 97 K’s.

Bieber made a big change this season adding a fifth pitch to his repertoire, a cutter. Although it was by far his least effective pitch, putting it in the minds of hitter’s certainty helped him set up his other four pitches. He also threw his slider much less down 14.9% in usage from last season. He ran it away from right-handed hitters and rarely threw it to lefties. Instead, he relied on the changeup against them throwing it 96 times compared to just six times against righties. Both the changeup and slider generated a whiff% above 50% and saw hitters combine for just six hits. 

The cutter, curve, and four-seamer were all used more often against both righties and lefties. Because of the addition of the cutter his fastball was more effective at missing bats seeing a 12% jump in whiff% and a 5% increase in putaway%.

His spin rate also climbed by 100 revolutions, which contributed to an extra .7 inches of horizontal break on average. That horizontal movement on the 4-seamer played a big role in those positive swing and miss metrics. But when it comes to Shane Bieber his most effective pitch this season was without a doubt the curveball. He mastered the pitch make huge gains in movement when compared to the league average from a year before. Last season Bieber’s curveball moved vertically 1.1 inches above the league average and was a shocking 4.2 inches below the league average in horizontal movement. This season his curveball moved vertically 6.2 inches more than the average and horizontally 0.7 inches above the average.

These are huge gains in movement, which explain his increased usage of the pitch. Bieber allowed just 8 hits in 89 PA with his curveball and struck out 50 batters, nearly half of his K’s on the season. Adding the cutter to his repertoire and drastically improving the movement on his curveball played a huge role in his success. As a result, Bieber led all pitchers in K/9, ERA, WHIP, FIP, and WAR. It is clear he dominated not only AL pitchers, but also all of baseball, and his .267 BABIP suggests his success was not a product of luck. There is no doubt Bieber deserves the 2020 AL Cy Young and might even have a case for the MVP award. 

National League Finalists:

CIN – Bauer (5-4)73.01.730.802.512.332.102.88.2151.11
CHC – Darvish (8-3)
NYM – DeGrom (4-2)68.02.380.962.613.762.382.26.2880.93
Data collected on fangraphs.com

The NL Cy Young race also seems clear cut at first glance and traditionally would have been. But sabermetrics paint a picture of a competitive race with several guys standing out from the crowd. Let’s discuss these three pitchers’ repertoires, their success, and their case for the award.

Both Bauer and Darvish rely on a deep arsenal of pitches to keep hitters off-balance because neither pitcher has the fastball velocity of DeGrom.

Trevor Bauer bounced back from a disappointing second half in 2019, finishing as the league leader in ERA and WHIP this year, which many would argue is enough to win the award. Bauer saw huge jumps in the spin rates of all of his pitches leading to jumps in both whiff% and putaway% with all of them. The stat most worth noting is the putaway% of his four-seamer, which climbed from 16.0% in 2019 to 29.2% this year, despite a 1 MPH drop in velocity. He has long been vocal about his scientific approach to the game and the importance he places on the spin rate of his pitches. It paid off this season as he delivered by far the best numbers of his career.

However, some statistics suggest his league-leading ERA and WHIP do not mean he was the best pitcher this season. Bauer’s FIP was far lower than Darvish and DeGrom, finishing at 2.88 compared to 2.23 and 2.26 respectively. This metric captures the pitcher’s success independent from the defense behind them. It has become one of the most important stats for truly evaluating a pitcher’s performance. He also had a much lower BABIP than the other two at .215. DeGrom’s was .288 and Darvish’s was .295, suggesting that Bauer benefited from much more luck than the other two pitchers on balls in play. Despite a stellar campaign where he led the league in two major categories, a deeper examination reveals he is not necessarily deserving of the award.

Both Darvish and DeGrom posted similar numbers in BABIP, FIP, and WHIP. The two-time defending Cy Young winner, Jacob DeGrom, dominated RHH with his fastball and slider, throwing those pitches 95.2% of the time. He utilized his curveball and changeup slightly more against LHH, throwing them 27.5% more than he did versus righties.

The fastball and slider made huge jumps in whiff% as DeGrom averaged significantly higher spin rates than last season. His fastball velocity was up 2 MPH from a year ago, but he went to the slider more and the fastball less than in 2019, likely because of the improved spin rate on the off-speech pitch.

He led the league with 13.79 K/9 and posted another terrific season. Darvish holds a slight edge in ERA and BB/9. In HR/9 Darvish holds a pretty significant edge allowing just 0.56 HR/9 compared to DeGrom’s 0.93.  Limiting the long ball is becoming more important each year as lineups are constructed to hit home runs and managers have abandoned traditional elements of the game like bunting. Last year we saw two teams, the Twins and the Yankees, both break the record for team home runs in a season, which emphasizes the importance of Darvish’s edge here. Even more telling, Darvish has both of the other two finalists beat in WAR at 3.0 compared to 2.6 for DeGrom and 2.5 for Bauer.

Darvish utilizes six pitches, throwing more junk to lefties and primarily going after righties with the four-seam and cutter. His most dominant pitch was the slider, with opponents hitting just .093 against it. The success he saw this season can likely be attributed to the bump in the usage of his cutter up 8% from 2019. Because he threw the cutter more, hitters were getting fooled by the slider. On average it moved horizontally 10 inches further and 5 mph slower than the cutter, generating a 39.8 whiff%. It was one of his most effective put-away pitches as hitters swung and missed 1 out of 3 times in two-strike counts.

Throwing his fastball less, he saw almost a 2 MPH jump in velocity from 94.1mph to 95.8mph. His four-seam whiff% soared from 29.5% to 41.5% and his putaway% pitch climbed from 22.2% to 33.9%. By throwing his cutter as a primary pitch he set up his four-seam and slider effectively, which contributed to the success he had with those pitches.

Also, Darvish harnessed his ability to command the zone this year, posting a career-low 4.7 BB%. In the past four seasons, he never posted a BB% below 7.5%, indicating he was pitching at another level this season.

The combination of finding a healthy way to mix his pitches and command the zone propelled Darvish to a league lead in both WAR and FIP while being hampered by the worst luck on balls in play of the three finalists, which is why I believe Darvish is the most deserving of the 2020 NL Cy Young.

My Picks:
AL CY Young: CLE Shane Bieber
NL CY Young: CHC Yu Darvish

Pitch usage data was collected on https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/

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2 thoughts on “2020 Cy Young Award Race

  1. I was reading this wondering why the author made it so difficult for the NL. Then I saw the pick was Darvish aaaand it all made sense. Loads of mental gymnastics required to arrive at anyone by Bauer. But giving it to Darvish b/c he had bad luck on balls in play… laughable.

  2. I get why people don’t like Trevor Bauer, as his personality can be very polarizing. But the Cy Young award isn’t a personality award, it’s a pitching prowess award. If you take Bauer “the person” out of the equation leaving just his stats, I think he should be the unanimous winner in the NL. Instead, you’ll have a bunch of people, like the author here, citing a bunch of BS sabermetrics and other unrelated stats to convince themselves that Bauer doesn’t deserve the award, simply because they don’t like Bauer as an individual. Thats’s BS.

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