The best pitcher in the American League is…by Chad Dotson
August 16, 2013
Let's get one thing straight, right from the beginning: I don't know who's going to win the American League Cy Young Award. I'd like to say that I don't even care, but that's not quite true. Certainly, I don't care as much as I once did, but awards, and the arguments that they cause, are ingrained in the very DNA of baseball fandom, right?
Well, forget about all that. We're not talking about a trophy here.
Of course, despite the fact that I'm not talking about a trophy, I will mention the Cy Young one last time. Popular opinion seems to have settled upon the top three candidates for that honor: Detroit's Max Scherzer, Seattle's Felix Hernandez, and Texas' Yu Darvish. So, are those actually the three best pitchers in the league? Who is the best?
Scherzer, the American League's starting pitcher in this summer's All-Star Game, has an eye-popping 17-1 record to go along with a 2.85 ERA and a 148 ERA+ in 164.1 innings pitched (ERA+ is basically an adjusted ERA, taking into account a pitcher's ballpark and the ERA of his league; 100 is average). That won-loss record, not surprisingly, is far and away the best mark in either league. The ERA, on the other hand, is just sixth-best among AL starters. Only sixth best? I don't mean for that to sound like a criticism. That's a good ERA, and the advanced metrics (especially the fielding independent numbers) seem to be in agreement that Scherzer is having a very good season indeed.
So, Scherzer's numbers are good, right? Probably not 17-1 good; he's benefited from some great luck and good run support from his teammates. On the other hand, he has posted an outstanding five WAR. At this point in the season, only two pitchers in the major leagues have tallied a higher WAR. One of those pitchers is the aforementioned Felix Hernandez.
The fact that these two guys are battling it out for supremacy among AL pitchers is quite an interesting contrast, especially given the firestorm that surrounded Hernandez's surprising victory in the 2010 Cy Young Award balloting. (Oops, I mentioned that award again. Sorry.) If you'll recall, Hernandez won that Cy Young despite a 13-12 record, edging out David Price (19 wins), CC Sabathia (21 wins), and Jon Lester (19 wins). The fact that Hernandez won the award was hailed in some quarters as a sign that baseball writers had become more enlightened as to what proves a pitchers value (in other words, pitching wins is a terrible measure of a pitcher's worth).
This season, in 173.2 innings pitched (the highest total in the AL), King Felix is 12-5 with a 2.28 ERA and a 161 ERA+. Just like in 2010, most of the advanced metrics place Hernandez at the top of the heap among AL pitchers, including the 5.2 wins above replacement he has accumulated. Only Matt Harvey, over in the National League, has a higher WAR.
Compare these two: Scherzer has more wins, but Hernandez has thrown more innings, with a better ERA, and has been slightly more valuable according to WAR. Scherzer strikes out more batters per nine innings (nearly ten a game) than Hernandez (9.22 per nine innings), but Hernandez issues fewer bases on balls (1.71 walks per nine innings, compared to Scherzer's 2.08).
Looks like the edge goes to King Felix, though it is close. And that brings us to the third member of this trifecta, Yu Darvish.
Darvish is a marvel, perhaps the most delightful pitcher to watch in the majors who isn't named "Bronson Arroyo." In 2013, Darvish is 12-5 with a 2.64; his ERA+ is 161, identical to Hernandez. Incredibly, Darvish is striking out 12.12 batters per nine innings. As Jason Linden noted earlier this week at THT, that's the seventh-highest rate in baseball history. Yeah, that's good.
Unfortunately for Darvish, he missed a couple of starts this year, so his 153.2 innings pitched is less than the totals compiled by Scherzer and, especially, Hernandez. That's also reflected in Darvish's WAR, which is 4.1, the sixth-best total among AL pitchers.
If I had to rank them (and I do, because it's fun), I'd put the three in this order: Hernandez, Darvish, Scherzer. But why limit it to just those three? Some other guys are having nice seasons of their own.
Let's start with the ace of the White Sox staff, Chris Sale. Sale will win no awards with that 8-11 record, but he has posted a sterling 2.73 ERA, an ERA+ of 158, and 4.2 WAR. He strikes out a lot of guys (9.49 strikeouts per nine innings) and doesn't walk many (1.99 walks per nine innings).
Before the 2011 season, I wrote that Sale and Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman should be starting, rather than relieving (both were in bullpen roles at the time). The White Sox made the smart decision, and Sale is now a top-shelf starter. The Reds kept Chapman in the bullpen where he pitches 1-3 innings a week. As a Reds fan, this makes me sad, so for that irrational reason (and for the rational reasons noted in the previous paragraph), I can't place Sale in the AL top three.
Another guy who is pitching well, though you may not have noticed, is Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda, pitching for a struggling Yankees team that has been hard-hit by injury, is 11-7 with a 2.33 ERA and a league-leading 172 ERA+. If Kuroda had been pitching for a typical Yankees team, he'd garner much more publicity, but he's been awfully good in a tough situation. When you start digging into the peripheral numbers, it looks like he's been a little lucky (he doesn't strike out many, his BABIP (batting average allowed on balls in play) is a low .257, and his fielding independent numbers are a good bit higher than his ERA), but he has been very, very good this year.
What about Anibal Sanchez? We've already talked about Scherzer, but there's a pretty good case to be made that Sanchez (10-7, 2.58 ERA, 163 ERA+) has not only been better than his Detroit teammate, but has been more dominant than any other pitcher in the league. Almost all of Sanchez's stats (advanced and traditional) compare very favorably to Scherzer, but there's a very big caveat to that: Scherzer has started four more games and thrown nearly 40 more innings. That's a huge difference, and it's why Sanchez doesn't quite sneak into the top three.
So there you have it. As I said at the beginning, I don't know who will win any awards. There are lots of games yet to be played, and things could change substantially. I feel pretty confident, however, in declaring that Felix Hernandez has been the best pitcher in the American League thus far. Ask me again, after Darvish's next start, and I may have a different answer.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can find him on Twitter as @dotsonc.