First of all, no offense at all to Kate Upton, but you could make a strong argument for any of the three. We’re talking American League Cy Young Award here, and anyone who would argue that Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello or Corey Kluber definitely DID NOT deserve the award is being a bit disingenuous, I think. All three have a good case.
Verlander led the league in Baseball Reference WAR, WHIP (by a touch over Porcello) and strikeouts.
Porcello led the league in Fangraphs WAR (by an insignifant hundredth of a decimal point over Verlander), strikeout-to-walk ratio and, yes, the dreaded wins.
Kluber led the league in adjusted ERA+, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), and Adjusted Pitching Runs.
You could make a persuasive argument, I think, that Verlander was the most DOMINANT pitcher, that Porcello was the most EFFECTIVE pitcher and Kluber was the BEST pitcher after you took out some of the statistical noise. There are certainly enough differences here to have a firm opinion on which one had the best year. But even with a firm opinion — I would have voted Verlander — you have to acknowledge how absurdly close this is.
The voting reflected the closeness — it was, in fact, the strangest vote in the history of the Cy Young Award. Porcello won, upsetting Verlander’s fiancé Kate Upton, who went on a fantastic Twitter rant about it all, at one point saying that she apprently isn’t the only one who is f– Justin. It was quite a night.
And don’t worry. We’ll get to Zach Britton in a minute.
The vote. Verlander, you probably know, got 14 first place votes to Porcello’s 8. There is no precedent for a pitcher getting that many more first place Cy Young votes and not winning the award. Yes, it has happened twice before that the Cy Young winner did not get the most first-place votes, but in both cases the first-place voting was much closer.
In 2009, Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young with only 11 first place votes; St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright got 12. That was a bizarre year — Lincecum probably WAS the league’s best pitcher if you consider the advanced stats (led the league in strikeouts, FIP, both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference WAR, etc.) but he won just 15 games and that undoubtedly bothered the majority of the writers. Pitcher wins are funny; even if you KNOW that they are extremely limited statistics for evaluation purposes, they still ring the bell. I’ve been ranting against pitcher wins FOREVER and even so, because I grew up around them, I still see Porcello’s 22-4 record and think, “Whoo!” It’s an instinctive reaction.
Anyway, In 2009, Wainwright and his teammate Chris Carpenter both had strong cases (and more wins) but they split their 21 first place votes. They split the vote in such a away that Lincecum won the Cy Young.
In 1998, Tom Glavine only had 11 first place votes — and San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman had 13. But Hoffman, being a reliever, did not do well enough downballot, and Glavine actually won by a fairly comfortable margin of 11 points. Hoffman must have been left off several ballots entirely.
So something SIMILAR to what happened to Verlander has happened before … but it was never quite as pronounced. I mean, Verlander had six more first place votes. That’s a lot.
Look: The Cy Young voting goes like this:
1st place vote: 7 points
2nd place vote: 4 points
3rd place vote: 3 points
4th place vote: 2 points
5th place vote: 1 point
That’s a big gap point gap between first-place votes and second place — it’s the same gap as between a 2nd and 5th place vote. Getting six more first place votes than anyone SHOULD, mathematically, be enough to seal the deal.
But what happened here is fascinating, at least to me. Verlander’s year turned out to be, by far, the most CONTENTIOUS year in memory. Some loved it. Some didn’t get it all. It was like the baseball version of “Vanilla Sky.”
Look at it this way:
Fourteen voters thought Verlander had the best year.
And the other sixteen voters thought Porcello had the better year.
That’s what all this comes down to. Yes, we can and will talk about the two voters who left Verlander entirely off their ballot or the seven others who had him fourth or fifth on their ballots. But this is the point: Verlander’s season did not wow everyone. Porcello appeared on all 30 ballots. He was first or second on ALL SIXTEEN ballots where Verlander did not get the vote. Everyone seemed to agree that while Porcello might not have had THE BEST year, he was close. People were much more divided on Verlander.
Well, let’s talk for a minute about Baltimore closer Zach Britton. He had, more or less, the perfect modern closer season. It is almost impossible to be better within the confines of the closer role than Britton was this year. He finished 63 games (most in the league) and had 47 saves (most in the league) and he did not blow a single save, and he gave up FOUR earned runs all year (seven total). That’s it. You basically can’t do better than that. His 0.54 ERA is the lowest in baseball history for anyone who pitched 50-plus innings.
So, did Britton deserve the Cy Young Award? Well, if he did not then no modern closer will EVER deserve it.
And … the voters were largely unmoved. He got five first place votes, and the other 25 were pretty unimpressed — 20 of the 25 put him fourth or lower (six left him off the ballot entirely). This was a philosophical divide. A small but vocal minority of people believed that Britton’s year was so special that he deserved the Cy Young even though he only pitched 67 innings. The rest were just not that dazzled. I must admit, I probably would have picked Britton fourth too; I just don’t think a closer can ever be as valuable as a top starter.
Anyway, all five of the people who voted Britton first voted Porcello second. So those five thought Porcello was the league’s best starter. That’s 13 who basically voted Porcello first compared to 14 who voted Verlander first.
Then: Three people voted Corey Kluber first. Kluber’s case is more subtle than either Verlander or Porcello. He pitched fewer innings than either, had a higher ERA and fewer strikeouts than Verlander, had fewer wins and a higher WHIP than Porcello. The way Kluber’s year made sense for Cy Young was to acknowledge that he pitched in a hitters’ ballpark and was a bit unluckier on balls hit in play … and then make the various adjustments. Like I say, it was subtle.
All three of the people who voted Kluber first voted Porcello second.
And that’s why Porcello won. Yes, you could argue that the five voters who picked Verlander lower than fourth don’t really have much of a leg to stand on — I’m not sure how you make the argument that J.A. Happ or Masahiro Tanaka or Aaron Sanchez had better years than Verlander. Both of the Tampa Bay writers left Verlander entirely off their ballots, which is weird and made me look up how Verlander pitched against the Rays in 2016.*
*He was good — made one start, went seven innings, gave up two runs (one earned) and struck out eight. So that one baffles me.
But even if those two had given Verlander their fifth place votes, he would not have won. Even if they had given him their FOURTH place votes, he would not have won. Yes, you can maneuver around the down-ballot voting to give Verlander a victory. You can also count just top three votes the way the Cy Young used to do it, giving five points for a first place vote, three for a second place vote and 1 for a third place vote.
In that case, Porcello wins even MORE convincingly:
1. Porcello, 96 points
2. Verlander, 81 points
3. Kluber, 45 points
4. Britton, 36 points
This bottom line ended up being that Verlander’s year — probably because he won just 16 games, but also perhaps because he gave up 30 home runs and didn’t finish Top 5 in strikeout-to-walk ratio and came on so late after an indifferent first half — left half the voters a bit cold. Pitching is still like modern art; people see it how they want to see it. I would have voted Verlander. But Porcello is a worthy Cy Young winner.