While the Red Sox are in the middle of a tight race to make the postseason, and that is undoubtedly the main focus for every player on the roster, there are other races to watch this time of year. Specifically, the award races can be just as fascinating. They aren’t quite as important as the playoff races, but there are certainly some fans who tend to remember great individual seasons over notably successful teams.
The Red Sox — who may be a notably successful team depending on your definition — find themselves with plenty of players in the middle of that award talk. Possibly the most surprising is Rick Porcello, who finds himself in the mix for the Cy Young Award after falling on his face in his first season with the Red Sox. Is it really realistic to put him in that conversation, though?
There are a few different ways to work through this kind of question. The most obvious might be to just look at the other candidates and decide which, if any, have higher qualifications than Porcello. On that front, there are plenty who can at least be argued for. Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Masahiro Tanaka, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana and even Zach Britton are only some of the possibilities. Hell, a strong finish could even push David Price into the conversation, believe it or not.
Instead, I’m going to look at the many different ways one can view this award. While the MVP gets headlines for being a vague award, the Cy Young can be just as confusing if you want to make it that way. Let’s look at the four major voter-types for this award and how Porcello stacks up for each one.
These voters are going to be Porcello’s best friend, which is upsetting to me for a couple different reasons. The first is as something of a new-age fan, who doesn’t really adhere to traditionalists’ values, I’d rather my favorite pitcher in the race not be their number one contender. The other is as a Red Sox fan, because the traditionalists are shrinking in scope and it’s become increasingly difficult to win on a traditionalist-only resumé.
For Porcello, his case here is essentially that he was the season’s first 20-game winner, and could potentially win 24 or 25 games by the end of the year. Yes, pitcher wins are a silly form of evaluation, but it is tough to win that many games without being good. On the other hand, tradionalists value ERA quite highly as well, and six AL pitchers are ahead of Porcello here. In particular, Sale and Kluber’s win/ERA totals could arguably be more impressive than Boston’s starter. This is Porcello’s best category, and even this isn’t a sure thing.
In honesty, this is probably the category I am closest to, though I’m trying to move away from it. Anyway, most baseball research over the last couple of decades have indicated that peripheral-based numbers are more predictive than strict results-based numbers. Some have taken that to mean it is a better indicator of what has already happened, though that is up for a debate that I am not going to partake in with myself at this moment. Whichever side you land on doesn’t matter.
There is a significant portion of the voting population who will vote like this, and that doesn’t bode well for Porcello. He hasn’t been bad in terms of peripherals, as his 3.45 FIP is sixth in the AL. Unfortunately, he’s done so in the most boring way possible, as he’s getting by from limiting walks at an incredible rate while striking out batters at an average one. Once again, Kluber is the winner in this vote right now, as he has a nine point FIP lead over Tanaka and is striking out more batters on a rate basis than any other contender.
The MVP Voter
As I alluded to before, there are a ton of different ways to look at the MVP qualifications, so it’s kind of cheating to bring that viewpoint into the Cy Young process. However, I didn’t know how else to put it. Essentially, I’m talking about the voters who cast their ballot for the pitcher who most helps their team reach the playoffs. Is this a stupid way to vote? Yes, probably. Are there people who vote like this? Yes, almost certainly. Porcello could bode well here depending on the voter’s statistical leanings.
If they are a fan of any version of WAR, he probably falls short. The righty is eighth in the league in Baseball-Reference WAR, sixth in Fangraphs WAR and seventh in Baseball Prospectus WARP. His standing looks better if you look more generally at a pitcher helping his team contend. Porcello has been a consistent force on a Red Sox team that has desperately needed one, and has arguably been its most valuable player. Unfortunately, one could make a similar argument for guys like Tanaka and Justin Verlander who both pitch for teams also in the middle of a tight postseason fight.
The Narrative Pushers
Secretly, this is the group I want to belong to. It’s not quite as simple as just voting with narratives, but also it kind of is. Sports are just stories, dammit, and sometimes the best stories deserve trophies. Haven’t you ever watched the Oscars? Porcello certainly has a hell of a story. A former top prospect who toiled in average-ness in Detroit, then got lit up in Boston after signing a massive extension.
To come back and put up this kind of season after that run deserves some kind of recognition. However, Verlander could have an argument here as well. The former best pitcher in baseball getting back to something close to his old form has been something to behold. Hell, Britton’s contention for this award is based almost entirely on narrative. Porcello could have the best case for these voters, but he doesn’t have the only one.
At the end of the day, it’s not likely Porcello wins the Cy Young. If he does, it probably means he went on an insane run to end the season, which should bode well for the Red Sox’ postseason chances. Assuming that doesn’t happen and he’s merely good down the stretch, that’s okay. He’s had a terrific season, just not as good as Kluber (that’s who I’d vote for, probably). Unless there’s a weirdly disproportionate number of traditionalist voters for the AL Cy this year, there’s just too many other candidates for Porcello to push through.