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Separating Rick Porcello from Jim Lonborg

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The way the world reacted to Rick Porcello’s Cy Young win, you’d think it was 1967.

Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Last night, when Rick Porcello was named the winner of the American League Cy Young Award, the reaction was less than enthusiastic from those outside of the Boston area. Even ignoring the ranting of Justin Verlander’s wife, Kate Upton, there was some sense that this was a robbery. A triumph of The Almighty Win over the righteous forces of statistics and strikeouts.

Nearly 50 years ago, Jim Lonborg became the first Red Sox pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. Like Porcello, Lonborg led the league with 22 wins. Unlike Porcello, this number actually belied a somewhat less impressive season from Lonborg. He also led the league in strikeouts, but had a fairly high walk rate for the time, and ultimately wound up with just a 112 ERA+ in the year he was named the best pitcher in the American League.

If you were a Twins fan when Lonborg won, you might have felt awfully slighted, and with good reason, as they had not just one starter, but two who easily should have taken the prize over Lonborg. Jim Merritt held the league’s best BB/9 at 1.2, less than half of Lonborg’s. His ERA was 60 points lower than the Cy Young winner’s, leaving him with a 138 ERA+. The real knock against him would be that he did come in some 50 innings below Lonborg, who threw 273 (one of those numbers we certainly won’t be seeing again anytime soon).

You might be able to argue that a lot more of a less impressive thing is good enough to win Lonborg the Cy Young Award over Merritt, but that kind of flies out the window when you loop 1964 Cy Young winner Dean Chance in. Merritt’s teammate, after all, actually managed to throw more than Lonborg in 1967, with 283 innings of work for the Twins. Chance, like Merritt, couldn’t match Lonborg’s strikeout numbers, and his walk rate is not as impressive as his teammate’s, but taken together he had a 3.24 K:BB compared to Lonborg’s 2.96, a 2.73 ERA compared to Lonborg’s 3.16, and a 128 ERA+ to Lonborg’s 112. About the only arguments that can be made in Lonborg’s favor are strikeouts in a vacuum and, well, wins.

Despite all these disadvantages, Lonborg became the first winner of the AL Cy Young, and it wasn’t even close. Lonborg received 18 votes to Joe Horlen’s 2. If you want a travesty of a vote, there you go.

2016 on the other hand? Eh, not so much.

When you’re mashing various statistics together and trying to come up with proper weights and values to get a total-picture for a vote like Cy Young, things can certainly get messy. Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference both try their hands at it with WAR, and come to very different conclusions on the Cy Young race. BR would say Porcello had a great season, but like a number of other high-quality AL pitchers, was crushed by an overwhelming Verlander Performance. Fangraphs, on the other hand, would tell you Porcello is the first among near-equals, with Porcello, Verlander, Sale, and Kluber all within a point of one another.

Trying to separate those four can be awfully difficult, too. Verlander has the best ERA and K/9, yes. Both of these facts are being trumpeted by those who think he should have won, and they certainly have a point. I think it’s probably easiest to make an argument for him. But he does fall well short of Corey Kluber’s 3.26 FIP, and allowed the most homers of any of the “big four” while riding a .255 BABIP to that lowest of ERAs. And environment certainly should be taken into account, too. Kluber’s 3.14 ERA actually translates to a 149 ERA+—best of the bunch—with Porcello’s 3.15 good for a 145 courtesy of playing in Fenway Park and facing AL East teams.

There’s two places where Porcello doesn’t come close to the rest, and that’s in K/9. He comes in at 7.63 where the lowest among the other three come in below 9.25. This is something that has certainly not escaped the Verlander supporters. Here, for instance, is Ben Verlander’s self-described salty younger brother:

Notably absent from this and so, so many other such comparisons: walks. WHIP is the only way it shows up on that whole chart. And conveniently, that’s where Porcello shined most of all. It’s the other place where he doesn’t come close to his competition, with a 1.29 BB/9 that’s nearly 28% lower than Sale’s second-best 1.79. For some reason, though, despite the importance of both being built on the same foundation—the idea of removing the uncertainty that defense adds to the equation of a plate appearance—everyone pays attention to high strikeout totals, and nobody much cares about the guy who produces fewer walks.

Again, when you’re attempting to synthesize a bunch of small individual component statistics into one bigger picture, it can get awfully messy. It’s reasonable to think that the Baseball-Reference take is more accurate. It’s reasonable to look at how they got to their respective vote totals, with Verlander being left off two ballots, and say that some individual ballots were very wrong indeed. But Rick Porcello, with his exceptional control and superior ERA+ is far from an undeserving winner. This is not Jim Lonborg over Merrit and Chance. It’s a group of great pitchers putting up great performances, as hard to separate as the vote totals would suggest.