The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #5: The amazing NL Cy Young race

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Sometimes the Cy Young Award goes to the guy with the most wins. Sometimes a guy posts an ERA so low that it’s impossible to ignore him. Sometimes there’s a strikeout pitcher so prolific that denying him the top vote is next to impossible. Every year the Cy Young voters balance these things. Some years it’s harder than others. It’s difficult to recall, however, a year in which it was harder to make a choice than it was in the 2015 NL Cy Young race.

Jake Arrieta led the league with 22 wins. Zack Greinke led the league with a microscopic 1.66 ERA. Clayton Kershaw struck out 301 batters and was the first to top 300 in that category in a dog’s age. The thing that made this even more difficult, however, was that each of those three category leaders were also spectacular in the other two categories and in just about every other statistical measure you could find. It was like paper-scissors-rock, writ-large, with every argument in favor of one pitcher making way for an argument in favor of another.

In pitching WAR, ERA and WHIP it went Greinke-Arrieta-Kershaw. In wins, Greinke was tied for second behind Arrieta while Kershaw posted a still-respectable 16 victories. Arrieta led the league in hits allowed per 9, just ahead of the two Dodgers pitchers. Kershaw led the league in innings pitched but Arrieta and Greinke were right behind him. Arrieta and Kershaw tied for the league lead in complete games, games started and shutouts. Arrieta was the stingiest in the league in allowing homers. Kershaw led the NL in Fielding Independent Pitching. The linear weights-based Adjusted Pitching Runs and Adjusted Pitcher Wins stats and the Win Probability Added stat said Greinke was the best in the game. Situational Wins — an adjusted Win Probability stat which takes more context into account — gave the nod to Arrieta.

Ultimately, there was no definitive answer and no wrong answer. And ultimately Arrieta won it, earning 17 first-place votes to Greinke’s 10 and Kershaw’s three.

If you wanted to parse the voters’ collective methodology it’s possible to construct an argument in which Arrieta’s very strong second half and the Cubs’ storybook surge to 97 wins carried the day while Kershaw’s slow start (at least slow for him) and the fact that he won the year before made his case somewhat less compelling in the minds of voters. For Greinke, you might argue that his second half was not as good as his first — he ONLY had a 1.99 ERA after the break, heaven forfend! — and that August, his worst month, is when voters start to think harder about postseason awards. Those are as good as can be expected as far as explanations go.

All of that is stretching things a bit, though. Ultimately, there were no wrong answers for voters, as long as those three pitchers appeared 1-2-3 on the Cy Young ballot in one combination or another. Those three pitchers who, in most other years, would each walk away with the Cy Young but, in 2015, found themselves in one of the best awards races we’ve ever seen.