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Gerrit Cole deserved to win the AL Cy Young Award

It was a close race between Gerrit Cole and winner Robbie Ray, but the Yankees’ ace had a great case backed by numbers.

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole finished second in the American League Cy Young Award voting, and saw Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Robbie Ray take home the recognition. Cole received a single first-place vote and 29 second-place votes, while the southpaw’s split was the complete opposite: 29-1.

Ray had a fantastic season, and there is no doubt about that. He finished with a 2.84 ERA, leading the American League among qualified pitchers in the category. He also paced the junior circuit in WHIP (1.05), strikeouts (248) and innings pitched (193.1).

It’s really impressive the way Ray overcame a lousy 2020 in which he had a 6.62 ERA in 51.2 innings (with an ugly 7.84 walks per nine frames) to win the AL Cy Young this season. He trimmed that BB/9 to 2.47 in 2021, and that was really the foundation of his resurgence: throwing strikes consistently.

But Ray, as impressive as he was this year, wasn’t the best pitcher in the AL. Cole was — and the numbers prove it. Ray’s lead in the traditional categories earned him the voters’ regard, but the underlying numbers support Cole’s case for having the best campaign among AL pitchers.

In fact, here is a full comparison between all three finalists, including the third-place Lance Lynn:

Cy Young finalists comparison

Stat/Pitcher Robbie Ray Gerrit Cole Lance Lynn
Stat/Pitcher Robbie Ray Gerrit Cole Lance Lynn
IP 193.1 181.1 157
ERA 2.84 3.23 2.69
FIP 3.69 2.92 3.32
xFIP 3.36 2.93 3.81
xERA 3.55 3.15 2.59
SIERA 3.22 2.93 3.72
WHIP 01.05 01.06 01.07
K% 32.1 33.5 27.5
BB% 6.9 5.6 7
K-BB% 25.2 27.8 20.4
fWAR 3.9 5.3 4.2
bWAR 6.7 5.7 5.4
WPA 3.31 3.45 3.00

As you can see, Cole takes most of the meaningful categories. Yes, at the end of the day, ERA is the most widely used run-prevention stat, but we shouldn’t ignore external factors that contributed to that ERA: quality, type and quantity of contact, luck, defense, parks, competition, and many others.

After all, we are trying to determine who pitched the best. And, weighing all stats and innings pitched, Cole should have won the Cy Young Award. Make no mistake — he wasn’t robbed. Ray had a very good case, so it’s not like Cole was competing against a run-of-the-mill opponent. But the numbers say that the Yankees’ ace should have taken home his first Cy, not Ray.

Even after the crackdown of foreign substances, Cole more than held his own. Yes, he had some blips, but he mostly excelled. The most problematic development for him, however, was his September hamstring injury, one that may have costed him a chance at the award.

He was otherworldly from the start of the season until the first rumblings that MLB was going to inspect pitchers for foreign substances: from April 1st to June 9th, he had a 2.31 ERA (2.12 FIP, 2.40 xFIP) in 81.2 innings, striking out 12.45 hitters per nine and walking just 1.21 per nine. From June 16th until September 1st, the start before his hamstring injury, he covered 73.1 innings of a 3.19 ERA, 3.02 FIP, and 3.08 xFIP, with 12.52 strikeouts per nine frames and 2.58 walks per nine. Great, albeit not quite otherworldly.

However, from September 7th (the day of his injury) until the end of the season, Cole slumped to a 6.15 ERA in 26.1 innings, with a 5.14 FIP, a 4.19 xFIP, 9.57 whiffs per nine, and 3.08 walks per nine. He didn’t want to make excuses, but it became evident that he wasn’t the same after his injury by watching him pitch in September and in the Wild Card Game.

Cole will have many more chances to finally get the hardware for the first time down the road. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that this one hurt.