What is the primary job of the starting pitcher?
Think about that question, and how it pertains to the annual award given to the best pitcher in each league.
Had enough time to think?
The starting pitcher’s job, on the most basic level, is to prevent the opposition from scoring runs while pitching deep into games. In 2015, no starting pitcher has done that more effectively than Zack Greinke. As it stands today, Greinke will likely finish the season with the lowest ERA since Greg Maddux posted a 1.56 in 1994. Beyond Maddux, you would have to look all the way back to Dwight Gooden‘s 1.53 in 1985 to find another pitcher with a better ERA than Greinke has through 29 starts and 200.2 innings. Greinke has failed to deliver a quality start in only two of those 29 starts.
Despite his historically low ERA, Greinke is still not the runaway Cy Young winner in the National League. To be fair, there are plenty of other great candidates to go around. Greinke’s teammate Clayton Kershaw is having arguably his best season ever. Jake Arrieta has also seen his ERA dip below 2.00 and has thrown a no-hitter while becoming the ace of the Chicago Cubs. As Jacob deGrom has faded slightly down the stretch, the NL Cy Young race is down to these three.
The award should be Greinke’s to lose.
Those who want to see the award go to Kershaw for a third consecutive year or the newcomer Arrieta, will knock Greinke’s low ERA as the result of good fortune. The advanced statistics will show that Greinke has the highest FIP of the bunch at 2.69. Kershaw leads the league with a 2.10 FIP, while Arrieta has a 2.52 FIP. The problem with FIP, is that it is highly dependent on the strikeout. Kershaw leads the league with 264 strikeouts and had a shot at 300 before striking out only five Colorado Rockies in his most recent outing. The so-called fielding independent pitching downplays a pitcher’s ability to prevent base hits as Greinke has done all season. Greinke has allowed just 6.1 hits per nine innings. Opponents have just a .276 slugging percentage against him. All this despite the fact that he is striking out a seemingly pedestrian 8.2 batters per nine.
Feel free to write Greinke off because he has allowed just a .236 BAbip. That’s a lazy way of analyzing his performance. A pitcher does hold more influence over where the ball goes when it is put in play, and as more Statcast data becomes available, a pitcher’s ability to limit hard contact will become more quantifiable. Greinke has shown a masterful ability to induce weak contact all season thanks to his location and ability to keep hitters off balance. Perhaps that ability is not repeatable or sustainable year-over-year, but the Cy Young is a single-season award, and Greinke’s 2015 has been a work of art.
Let’s take a quick look back on Greg Maddux’s strong 1994 season. As he posted a 1.56 ERA, Maddux struck out just 7.0 per nine. He led the league with a 2.39 FIP. That was still nearly a run higher than his actual ERA. Maddux allowed a .256 BAbip in 1994, 30 points lower than his career average. He won the Cy Young with 28 of 28 first place votes.
Maddux was the runaway winner in 1994, as Greinke should be this year. Back when Maddux was dominating the league, we were not blessed with all of the fun new statistics that we have today. ERA was still king, and maybe it should still be that way. Clayton Kershaw has an ERA over 2.00 this year because he gave up a few more home runs and hits in April and May than the numbers would predict. For whatever reason, he gave them up. Whether it was a missed spot or just bad luck, Kershaw had an ERA close to 4.00 after 10 starts this season. He’s been as good as ever since, but something was up for nearly two months. Advanced metrics are great, and sometimes they do shed light on determining which player had a better season.
Not in this case. Zack Greinke has been the best starting pitcher in the National League when it comes purely to doing his job — preventing runs and base hits. It does not matter how he’s done it. What matters is that he has done it. To get to a 1.61 ERA will take more than a little luck, as evidenced by Maddux’s numbers. It’s virtually impossible to post a sub-2.00 FIP without striking out over 11 per game as Kershaw has, but that should not take away from Greinke’s season. This is an award that will be analyzed to death because all three candidates have been so good. While Kershaw might have the better career, the award is all about single season performance. The advanced metrics have pointed to a regression for Greinke all year, but it never came. If it comes next year (and it probably will), so be it. That does not matter when determining the 2015 National League Cy Young.