Philadelphia Phillies RHP Aaron Nola, despite not having his best stuff, tossed six more scoreless innings last Saturday evening against the San Diego Padres. After 24 starts, Nola has a 2.28 ERA, the same ERA that Hall of Famer Steve Carlton had after 24 starts in 1980, when the Phillies won the World Series and he won his third National League Cy Young Award. His 7.2 bWAR is already the highest total a Phillie has posted in a season since Cliff Lee’s 8.9 bWAR in 2011. In a normal year, Nola would be the favorite to win the National League Cy Young Award. In 2018, he may not even finish in the top two.
The top two National League Cy Young candidates appear to be Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets and Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals.
deGrom, despite pitching for one of the National League’s worst teams, has been the best pitcher in all of baseball according to FanGraphs. The 30-year-old’s 7-7 record reflects that he pitches for a team that is out of contention. However, he leads National League pitchers with a 6.2 fWAR, a 1.81 ERA, a 208 adjusted ERA+ and a 2.13 FIP. He’s second among National League pitchers in bWAR (which is calculated differently than fWAR), trailing only Scherzer.
Meanwhile, Scherzer continues to add to what will be an interesting Hall of Fame case. The 34-year-old was a late-bloomer (at least in terms of becoming an annual Cy Young Award contender), but could very well win his third consecutive National League Cy Young Award in 2018, which would add onto the American League Cy Young Award that he won with the Detroit Tigers in 2013.
In 2018, Scherzer is 15-5, with a 2.19 ERA that’s second only to deGrom in the National League. His 5.6 fWAR is second among National League pitchers, but he leads the pack with a 7.7 bWAR. Scherzer’s 194 adjusted ERA+ is second in the National League. His 2.63 FIP is third in the National League, behind deGrom and Patrick Corbin of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Scherzer’s strongest case may be that of the National League Cy Young Award candidates, he’s the biggest “workhorse,” as he leads baseball with 168.2 innings pitched. However, while deGrom hasn’t thrown a complete game in 2018, Scherzer has only one. deGrom has also thrown 159.0 in 2018, so it’s not as though the Mets haven’t leaned on him heavily. But Scherzer just pitched seven dominant innings against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday Night Baseball, so he may grunt his way into the narrative that in an era where pitchers are often pulled earlier than fans would like, Scherzer is a throwback.
So where does Nola – who is having one of the best seasons that a Phillies pitcher has ever had – fit into the equation?
The 25-year-old is 13-3 with a 2.28 ERA, which is third in the National League, behind deGrom and Scherzer. His 0.47 HR/9 is second in the National League, behind deGrom. His aforementioned 7.2 bWAR is third among National League pitchers, nearly identical to the 7.3 mark that deGrom currently has.
However, fWAR values FIP more than total runs allowed. It’s probably better at predicting future performance than bWAR, though some would argue that bWAR, which values total runs allowed most, is more indicative of the success that a pitcher has had. Though Nola’s ERA (2.28) is 90 points lower than Corbin’s ERA (3.18), his FIP is 2.81, while Corbin’s FIP is 2.41. Nola’s FIP is still the fourth best mark in the National League. However, Corbin’s is the second best, which largely contributes to him having a 5.1 fWAR, which tops Nola’s current mark of 4.7.
To baseball statistics savants, the most interesting debate might not be whether deGrom or Scherzer should win the National League Cy Young Award, but whether Nola or Corbin should finish third. If you value fWAR and FIP heavily, you would probably lean towards saying Corbin, a free-agent-to-be, has been slightly better than Nola, but unlucky. To more traditional baseball minds just looking to factor in the most basic sabermetrics, Corbin may not even factor into the debate. While Nola has a 7.2 bWAR, Corbin has allowed 15 more runs in 2018 and his 3.8 bWAR reflects that.
When you factor in voters that will altogether ignore advanced metrics and just look at the back of the baseball card statistics, Nola seems to have a very good chance to finish third in National League Cy Young Award voting. Nola tops Corbin in ERA, WHIP and (cringes) wins.
Though Matt Carpenter and Freddie Freeman could have something to say about this, it’s entirely possible that one of these pitchers wins the National League MVP as well. And it might not be the same one that wins the National League Cy Young Award.
While Scherzer leads all National League pitchers in bWAR, his bWAR just as a pitcher is 7.0, just lower than that of deGrom and Nola. However, his total 7.7 bWAR is the highest in baseball, because in addition to his superb pitching, he has a 0.7 offensive WAR, backed up by his .288 batting average in 2018. So it’s possible that deGrom wins the Cy Young Award, but Scherzer wins the MVP. In theory, it should be possible that Scherzer wins the MVP but finishes third in National League Cy Young voting – behind deGrom and Nola – though the guess here is that’s pretty unlikely. There just aren’t enough voters that would do a deep enough dive to arrive at such a conclusion. It’s hard enough convincing some that a pitcher could win MVP.
In any event, just three years after Cole Hamels – despite being traded in July – led Phillies pitchers with a 2.6 bWAR, Nola finds himself in the thick of one of the most contested Cy Young Award races in recent years. And he may not win, but he’s nine years younger than Scherzer, five years younger than deGrom and four years younger than Corbin. Nola figures to have the most staying power of any of the names discussed in this article, meaning a National League Cy Young Award is likely in his future, even if it doesn’t come in 2018.
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