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Baltimore Orioles v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

NL Cy Young vote showcases new battle lines in tradition vs. analytics

What’s more important... durability or dominance?

Ever since Zack Wheeler, Corbin Burnes and Max Scherzer were announced as the three “finalists” for the National League Cy Young Award, debate has grown over a key difference between Wheeler and Burnes.

Was Wheeler’s durability and endurance, combined with outstanding numbers, more “valuable” than Burnes’ ridiculously good rate statistics and other advanced metrics?

Thankfully, this was not a debate about “wins,” which used to be a major factor in how the Baseball Writers Association of America voted on these things. Nevertheless, the NL Cy Young vote, which saw Burnes edge Wheeler by 10 points as both received 12 first place votes, saw some old battle lines being redrawn.

In short, this fight is pitting the “nerds,” who are all about the “rate stats” on Fangraphs and Statcast that attempt to tell a story of how effective a pitcher is beyond the back-of-the-baseball card numbers, against the “traditionalists” who believe ERA, innings pitched, and other traditional statistics should be weighed just as heavily.

Clearly, a balance in the middle is the way to go, but sometimes finding that balance is difficult and, at times, unsatisfying. Such is the case here with two extremely effective starting pitchers, each of whom had a strong case to take home the hardware.

Of course, you do have random writers like this guy, who put Wheeler 5th on his ballot.

“His Statcast page is incredible” refers to numbers that track the exit velocity a pitcher allowed, spin rate, pitch movement, how often he allowed a hard-hit ball, and predictive numbers like expected slugging percentage (xSLG), expected ERA (xERA) and more.

There’s value there, but one hopes a voter is looking beyond that particular item.

In short, the argument for Wheeler over Burnes broke down to a few main points:

  • Wheeler pitched far more innings (213.1) than Burnes (167) and, in point of fact, so did 18 other big league starters this year.
  • Wheeler got 139 more outs than Corbin Burnes, according to Paul Hembekides. That’s more than five games’ worth of outs.
  • Burnes was in a six-man rotation for parts of the season, which is certainly not his fault but is also a compelling reason to knock him down a peg or two.
  • Wheeler’s numbers were still incredible, leading all MLB pitchers in bWAR (7.6) and strikeouts (247) while finishing 2nd in fWAR (7.3), FIP (2.59) and xERA (2.78).
  • Wheeler pitched an average of 6.6 innings per start, which means he pitched into the 7th inning on average every time out. Burnes averaged 5.96 innings per start while making fewer starts.
  • As Jayson Stark recently noted, if Wheeler, Burnes and Scherzer never threw a pitch after the 6th inning, Wheeler’s ERA would have been 2.32, better than Burnes’ 2.34 and Scherzer’s 2.60.

This isn’t to say Burnes is undeserving. He was the MLB leader in ERA, strikeout rate (35.6%), K/BB ratio (6.88), FIP (an insane 1.63) and barrel rate (2.9%). That 1.63 FIP is second-lowest in the divisional era (1969), with only Pedro Martinez’ 1.39 in 1999 lower. But Wheeler was penalized for making more starts, pitching more innings, and pitching deeper into games.

To oversimplify the issue, the debate essentially settled around innings pitched vs. fielding independent pitching. And in this case, FIP won, by a nose.

An important facet of the Wheeler vs. Burnes conversation is the bullpens these two pitchers had behind them. Milwaukee’s ‘pen had a 4.02 ERA and a closer in Josh Hader who was as dominant as they come. Only five teams had a worse bullpen ERA than the Phils’ 4.60, with a league-worst 34 blown saves (tied with the Nationals).

The Brewers had the luxury of pulling Burnes early to turn games over to their generally excellent relievers, while Wheeler and the Phils didn’t have that luxury. Zack Wheeler a third time through the lineup was generally a better option for Joe Girardi than using the likes of Conor Brogdon, Sam Coonrod or Jose Alvardo.

Wheeler is a throwback hurler, a starting pitcher who can, and does, go through a lineup a third time. A pitcher who routinely goes seven or eight innings every time out and saves his bullpen when they really need him to. And it’s not as if Wheeler had an ERA over 3.00 or that his rate stats were substantially worse, because they weren’t.

But we’ve learned over the years that traditional stats, like ERA, sometimes don’t tell the whole story of just how dominant a pitcher truly is. So we use rate stats and FIP and others to help tell a more complete story, and many of those numbers points to a brilliance by Burnes that was unmatched by Wheeler in 2021.

In this case, Wheeler’s numbers were hurt by pitching more, and Burnes’ effectiveness in fewer innings produced some eye-popping stats. It was a razor thin vote that has launched another great debate over “analytic” vs. “traditional” numbers in baseball.

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