By: Jordan Denish
In one of the closest Cy Young Award races in the past decade, teammates Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander are producing two of the most dominant seasons by a starting pitcher ever. Cole leads the American League in ERA, strikeouts, and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which is a measure that computes a pitcher’s expected ERA given their walks, strikeouts, and home runs given up) while Verlander leads the American League in wins, WHIP, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. In the year of the home run, the performance of each of these pitchers has been remarkable.
The case for Cole’s candidacy comes from the idea that he has statistically been the more dominant pitcher, especially during the final month of the season. In September, Cole went 5-0 with a 1.07 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 42 innings. In 22 starts since May 22, Cole has been undefeated with a 16-0 record with a 1.78 ERA and 226 strikeouts in 146 ⅔ innings. He did not lose a decision in his final 22 starts, which was the longest streak by any starting pitcher during the 2019 season. Verlander had a similarly spectacular September, with a 14 strikeout no-hitter on September 1. He finished the month with a 5-1 record, but a higher 2.08 ERA (which nearly doubles Cole’s minuscule 1.07 ERA) with 57 strikeouts in 39 innings. In races where the season’s numbers are so close, any difference in the final stretch’s performance can push the award in one pitcher’s favor.
The underlying numbers also support Cole as well. Cole’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which measures a player’s value compared to a replacement-level player, was 7.4, which is a full win higher than Verlander’s 6.4. In addition to having a lower ERA than Verlander, Cole has lower FIP and xFIP, which computes a pitcher’s expected ERA given their walks, strikeouts, and expected home runs allowed. Cole’s FIP and xFIP this season were 2.64 and 2.48 while Verlander’s FIP and xFIP were substantially higher 3.27 and 3.18. The significant difference in these underlying metrics illustrate that Cole was the more dominant pitcher. While Verlander may have led the league in wins and WHIP, Cole’s expected ERA for the quality of contact given up was lower than Verlander’s by over half of a run. When looking at the graph below, each point represents one of the top 30 starting pitchers by WAR in the entire league, with xFIP on the y-axis and strikeouts per 9 on the x-axis. Among all 30 pitchers, Cole led the league by a wide margin in both statistics, which are indicators of season-long dominance of hitters. xFIP is a statistic that accounts for the randomness in baseball, where softly hit balls can result in hits and the hardest hit balls can result in outs. Cole was the leader in xFIP by a wide margin.
It isn’t just that Cole is dominating hitters, he isn’t even letting them touch the ball. Cole has struck out 326 batters in 212 ⅓ innings, and his 326 strikeouts are the highest total by any pitchers since Randy Johnson in 2002. In 2019, Cole struck out 13.82 batters per 9 innings and 39.9% of all of the batters he faced, which were both the highest rates by a starting pitcher in any season ever. While the strikeout rate in the entire league is higher than it’s ever been, no starting pitcher has ever struck out a larger portion of the batters he faced than Gerrit Cole in 2019. In the final nine starts of the regular season, Cole’s strikeout totals were 10, 12, 14, 14, 15, 11, 10, 14, 10. With his 10 strikeouts in his final start, he set a new record for consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts, breaking a tie with Pedro Martinez and Chris Sale.
The only argument against Cole can be the rivaling dominance of Verlander, who at age 36, is pitching better than he ever has. Verlander might be the sentimental favorite, given that he has the opportunity to win his first Cy Young Award since he was the American League MVP in 2011. The resurgence of Verlander and his career has been impressive to watch, and he capped off his comeback with the third no-hitter of his career in September.
It is really interesting to think about how the Astros have transformed both of these pitchers into the most dominant 1-2 punch in a starting rotation that has taken the league by storm today. Cole was an underachieving number 1 overall pick with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Verlander was a fading ace whose fastball velocity was dipping. Acquisitions by Houston have resurrected these players’ careers as Cole is set to make over $200 million in free agency and Verlander has become a surefire Hall of Famer. As much as we would like to give the Cy Young award to both aces, unfortunately only one can win and the slight statistical edge and a stronger September performance should give the edge to Gerrit Cole for his first career Cy Young award.