A Chris Sale Cy Young discussion


Ole crazy-arms. // Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This is a White Sox blog, chronicling a terrible baseball team with one elite player to savor and enjoy. There’s no way to come off reasonable about Chris Sale‘s CY Young award candidacy, but we can try.

First of all, there are things more satisfying to me than Chris Sale winning the Cy Young. It doesn’t redeem an awful season anymore than his work already has. If anything it will generate more focus on how much the White Sox have blown his brilliance. Sale went to the All-Star Game, he ground everyone good on the Colorado Rockies into a jelly–the national audience is aware of him enough, and a stale press conference held weeks after the end of the season is not the forum in which to crown Sale king of the game.

If someone is going to force Sale down the baseball world’s throat, it should be the man himself. The only proper way to honor him would be a standing ovation as he strides off the mound after a dominating performance in Game 1 of the ALDS, fresh off humbling a playoff-caliber lineup and leaving to them to stew in the knowledge that this gangly figure has taken their best effort and championship ambitions and thrown them into crippling doubt.

That would be proper.

Instead, we have the Cy Young race is kind of sliding back to Sale and becoming a debate about pitcher wins. Debating pitcher wins is a bit like walking outside and getting into a boxing match with your trash can. And when it breaks, the contents empty out all over you. That’s no fun.

Still, I can’t reasonably include win-loss records in an actual assessment of who deserves the AL Cy Young. It didn’t even occur to me to do so when putting together this chart, and there’s no going back.

Through Friday:

ERA+ is representation of how much better than league-average a pitcher’s ERA is (higher is better). ERA- is expressing the same idea, but lower is better. This is a tool FanGraphs uses because they think it is more intuitive, since a better ERA is a lower ERA. FIP- is the same except for FIP.

Max Scherzer has a boffo win-loss record while playing with one of the best offenses in baseball, Sale has a mediocre one playing in front of whoever Rick Hahn can cajole in from the shipping yards every morning. They have different records when they play and I’m not going to waste anymore time on it other than to say it’s probably a big reason why Scherzer will win the award. Another not particularly relevant curiosity is that Sale has a slight innings lead, despite having less starts than everyone on this list, including two less than Scherzer and Hernandez. In case you were suspicious that Sale was being pushed hard in his starts, he either is, or every other team in the sport is made of softies.

The problem with Sale’s case is that it exists in a weird middle ground that is going to struggle to ignite any large consensus. His most notable feature is that he leads the American League in wins above replacement according to Baseball Reference, and by a pretty significant margin (7.1, when Anibal Sanchez is in second place with 5.8). B-Ref calculates it’s version of WAR by simply taking ERA, factoring in run environment (as in the ballparks pitched in) and multiplying the rates by the innings pitched.

FanGraphs calculates WAR using FIP, a measure that examines how pitchers fair in events the defense takes no part in–home runs, strikeouts, walks–and uses it to project what the likely, or as some might say, “deserved” ERA for the pitcher would be.

Conveniently (I suppose), I prefer to just take raw results of runs allowed when we’re handing out awards for a season’s accomplishments, especially when everyone in question is going to eclipse 200 innings of work. The rub is, that even by just ERA, Sale’s advantage with B-Ref is based on their idea on how much U.S. Cellular Field promotes scoring. They think it promotes it a whole hell of a lot.

Sale dismisses plans to kidnap Derek Jeter, concluding that no one would respect a ransom demand of “run support.” // Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Even with an ERA .04 higher than Yu Darvish, Sale is given an ERA+ (where higher is better) four points higher than Darvish, who pitches in The Ballpark in Arlington. It’s not everyday someone gets docked points for pitching in Texas, but B-Ref thinks that run prevention is just that impossible on the South Side (just in case you thought the Sox offense would get through this post without further embarrassment).  Even if FanGraphs did run WAR based on ERA- (their way of factoring ERA to run environment, where lower is better), Sale would not enjoy such an absurd advantage in park factors.

With Scherzer enjoying such a substantial advantage in terms of FIP, and thus FanGraphs’ WAR, and also his stone-cold iron grip on the AL lead in wins and wins percentage, that leaves the only point from which to launch a Sale campaign is by championing RESULTS! but making sure no one conflates such a campaign with win-loss record, and even how much of an advantage he has in that regard in muddied by disagreements on park factors.

In other words, Sale seems to lack a chance in hell of capturing a groundswell unless he separates himself from the pack over his final three starts, and he’ll have to overcome his issues with Cleveland to do so. Fortunately, this hardly ranks as the greatest injustice in the history of this reward, or even an injustice worth braying about, though Sale’s finish in the race and the degree to which Scherzer will annihilate the field in the vote will suggest that we are father away from these matters receiving much more than surface-level analysis than our insulated discourse would suggest.

In a fun way, the Cy Young race mirrors the state of the White Sox. Until they build a winner behind, his best years are just going to waste.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan