2018 NL Cy Young Race: Aaron Nola

By: Robb Dehney

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Phillies fans entered the 2018 season with largely the same expectations as those of any fanbase suffering through a rebuild. Following a102-win campaign in 2011, the Phillies had descendedinto irrelevancy, bottoming out in 2015 with 63 wins and 99 losses. That year, they also traded long-time ace and 2008 World Series hero Cole Hamels to the Texas Rangers. The future faced by the franchise could only be described as bleak, yet in reality, the seeds of future success had been sown. Though Hamels was gone, a then 22-year-old rookie hurler by the name of Aaron Nola would soon take his place. Little did the team know that its 2014 first round pick would go on to become an upper echelon starter, a stopper, a staff ace, and a Cy Young worthy pitcher.

Thus far in the season, the club has far exceeded expectations, though it has struggled recently. The Braves maintain what has become a significant edge for the division lead, but both clubs are far ahead of schedule in what was expected to be a pair of arduous rebuilds with the Phillies in contention until recently. It is in this context that we witness the rise of the next great National League pitcher. In recent years, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have cast Cy Young size shadows over the league, combining for five of the last seven awards for the Senior Circuit’s top pitcher (Scherzer also won the American League Cy Young award in 2013). The status quo has been challenged this year with newcomers who have inserted themselves into the Cy Young conversation.

Whether just or unjust, team success has always been a factor in awards voting. For all of Max Scherzer’s success this year, the Nationals have floundered. Jacob deGrom, another legitimate Cy Young candidate, pitches for the abysmal Mets. While he has been deGrominant, he trails Nola by over one whole point in bWAR and his 1.71 ERA will likely not be enough to offset his mediocre 8-9 record. deGrom has pitched at the highest level imaginable in 2018, but precedent dictates that team success (or lack thereof) is a significant impediment to his candidacy. Most recently, no player has won a Cy Young award with fewer than 16 wins since Felix Hernandez in 2010. If we look at every season since the award was created in 1957, there have been 114 winners (due to changes in the way voting occurred). Out of those 114 winners, only ten have taken home the hardware with less than 15 wins. Of that group, eight have been relief pitchers. In fact, the first reliever to win the award was Mike Marshall in 1974 who won it with 15 wins. The only starting pitcher to win with less than 15 wins other than Felix Hernandez was Fernando Valenzuela, who won both the Cy Young and NL Rookie of the Year awards as a first-year hurler for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. While his candidacy was buoyed by “Fernandomania,” his win total of 13 was only acceptable due to the players’ strike that occurred that season, leaving the country without baseball between June 12thand July 31st. If we look only at starting pitchers during full seasons, there is only one pitcher out of 102 who has won the Cy Young with less than 15 wins. Fortunately for deGrom’s candidacy, this occurred rather recently and evidences the decreased importance of the win stat. While not a guarantee, it is certainly hard to imagine voters abandoning this stalwart statistic entirely. As recently as 2015 a few wins proved to be tremendously consequential in Cy Young voting, as Jake Arrieta had Zack Greinke beat in the category 23 to 19 and that proved to be the difference maker despite Greinke’s deGromesque 1.66 ERA. deGrom proponents will point to his league leading FIP, ERA+, and HR9 rates to support his miniscule ERA, but a case based on such advanced metrics as his without traditionally accepted statistics too will face an uphill battle. Ultimately, it will be the failure of the Mets team to give deGrom the support he needs that leaves him high and dry come awards season.

While context is key, performance is crucial. These days, everyone has a statistic of choice. Whether you prefer WAR and ERA+ or Wins and ERA, Nola covers all of the bases. His 16-5 record leaves him with the highest winning percentage in the league at .762. Although his bullpen has blown a few of his leads recently, he has managed to lower his ERA to 2.42. He doesn’t strikeout batters at the same rate as Scherzer, but his other peripheral stats give him the advantage. The lack of strikeouts is likely the biggest knock against Nola, however per Fangraphs he has managed to limit hard contact to 24% of all batted balls, which is over 3.5% lower than his career average and has allowed him to pitch effectively without blowing the ball by batters. His primary method for dominance is not relying on an overpowering fastball, but instead by using it less than 50% of the time, opting instead to depend on his best-in-baseball curveball and increased usage of his change-up. On the whole Nola falls right between Scherzer and deGrom in the majority of statistical categories. Per Baseball Reference, he currently ranks in the top three in 17 major pitching categories and is number one in four of them. What separates him however, lies in the trend. Scherzer has struggled with command as of late, but Nola has gotten better as the season has progressed. Statistics support this notion, as his ERA dropped from 3.23 in June to 1.91 in July before plummeting further to a 1.06 mark in August. In addition to success in high temperature games, there is no doubt as to his success in high leverage games. In crunch time, Nola has been at his best, and down the stretch run that will only continue. Now tied with Scherzer by bWAR and leading by nearly a whole point according to ESPN’s WAR metric, the crux of the matter becomes this: do you value strikeouts from a perennial candidate or high leverage effectiveness from a young pitcher with a superior WAR in the middle of the playoff hunt.

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As of 9/12/18: Aaron Nola vs. Jacob deGrom, two leading candidates for the NL Cy Young award.

No matter how you slice it, each of these three pitchers brought their A-game in 2018. At present we are comparing microscopic ERA’s and FIP’s as well as other incredible statistics across the board. Ultimately, the award winner will likely be chosen based on more than just the numbers. In fact, the 2018 National League Cy Young race is shaping up just like it did in 2015. While the Phillies were cellar dwellers, then Chicago Cubs stud Jake Arrieta narrowly took home the award over the Dodgers duo of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. Greinke paced the three in ERA with a 1.66 mark, while Arrieta followed closely behind with a 1.77 ERA and 22 wins thanks to an incredible run down the stretch. Kershaw was the biggest name of the three but likely the weakest competitor with a 2.13 ERA and 16 wins in an abbreviated season. Based off of the graphs attached below, I would argue that Greinke was hands down the best pitcher that year, far better in nearly every key category except wins and strikeouts, but Arrieta’s storyline of a strong stretch run and his ability to reach the 20-win mark appealed to voters and ultimately tilted the contest in his favor.

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Graphs comparing Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta in 2015, when Arrieta narrowly won the NL Cy Young award.

In yet another year with similarly tight competition, this next month will be the determining factor. If Scherzer hits 20 wins, the award will likely be his. If deGrom can somehow rattle off victories in his next few starts, the same goes for him. If Nola remains the Phillies elixir down the stretch and wills them into the postseason on every fifth day, then he will be victorious. In a year with statistics this close, the storyline will make the difference. In other words, if all goes well the newly minted ace is a just a few successful outings away from the first, of what promises to be many, piece of hardware in his trophy case.


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