Max Scherzer, Chris Sale prove voters still care about pitcher wins

Need evidence that wins still matter to voters? Look no further than the two guys above. (USATSI)
Need evidence that wins still matter to voters? Look no further than the two guys above. (USATSI)

MORE: EOB votes on the Cy Young

Let this be said at the outset: I have no use for pitcher win-loss records. The win-loss is a (preeminent) team stat; game outcomes are dependent on much, much more than “merely” the performance of the starting pitcher, and assigning a win or a loss to an individual player has always seemed, to be frank, terrifically silly to me. So it’s a good thing that Cy Young voters have begun to drift away from giving pitcher win totals primacy in the balloting process. That’s made clear by the Cy Young victories of Felix Hernandez in 2010 (13-12) and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum in 2009.

Progress, though, isn’t linear, and the 2013 AL Cy Young vote is evidence of that. This isn’t to say that Max Scherzer is undeserving -- I think it’s right that he won. However, the margin by which he prevailed -- 28 of 30 first-place votes -- suggests that his shimmering 21-3 record was an important factor. After all, consider how Scherzer compares to his fellow finalists -- Yu Darvish of the Rangers and Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners -- in other, more illuminating measures …

2013 AL Cy Young finalists
Pitcher/Stats Innings ERA+ K% BB% WAR
Scherzer 214 1/3 145 28.7% 6.7% 6.7
Darvish 209 2/3 145 32.9% 9.5% 5.8
Iwakuma 219 2/3 138 21.4% 4.9% 7.0

(Note: For a more thorough explanation of each stat click on each acronym in the table above.)

Other than Scherzer's 21-3 record, is there any way to to plainly distinguish among these three pitchers in terms of breadth of excellence? Not especially, if we're being honest. It bears repeating that I support Scherzer's winning the award, but, again, it's the margin of his victory that I find puzzling.

That's not especially important as the handing out of hardware goes, but it does, as noted above, imply that Scherzer's substantial advantage in wins over Darvish (13) and Iwakuma (14) is the driver here. Maybe it's a mere tiebreaker for some BBWAA members, but that means win-loss records still have some import within the voting body.

Here's another piece of evidence to that end: Chris Sale of the White Sox. Sale, of course, wasn't a Cy Young finalist (he wound up finishing fifth), and that simply must come down to the fact that he went 11-14 while toiling for a 99-loss team and being hamstrung by a measly 3.2 runs of support per 27 outs. In other words, Chris Sale's 11-14 record has very little to do with Chris Sale. 

To put a finer point on it, let's look at a smaller table devoted just to Sale and using those same measures seen above ... 

One particular 2013 AL Cy Young non-finalist
Pitcher/Stats Innings ERA+ K% BB% WAR
Sale 214 1/3 140 26.1% 5.3% 6.9

Same innings total, park-adjusted ERA a little worse than Scherzer's and didn't miss bats as often. However, Sale boasts a better BB% and a narrowly higher WAR, and he did a much better jobs of keeping the ball on the ground. The real case for Sale, though, may be this: In terms of quality of opposing lineups, as measured by runs-per-game, Sale faced the fifth-toughest slate among AL qualifiers (4.49 R/G), while Scherzer checks in at 27th out of 35 overall. In other words, Sale's very similar numbers were forged against measurably tougher competition (Scherzer's never facing his own powerful Tigers and Sale's never facing his own punchless White Sox has a little something to do with that). 

You can mount a case for Scherzer above all without leaning at all on his win-loss, but the voting patterns say that's not what happened. Look at how Scherzer dominated the balloting despite not being that much better than the other finalists, and then look at how Sale was given short shrift in the process. The only takeaway is that wins still matter to an extent in the Cy Young process, even if they shouldn't. 

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