On Wednesday, it will be once more unto the breach in the war between old-school and new-school MLB awards voters.

The debate over the 2016 American League and National League Cy Young Awards—to be revealed at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network—isn’t as fiery as the last great battle in this war. That was in 2012, when the American League MVP race became an argument with baseball card hero Miguel Cabrera on one side and sabermetrics hero Mike Trout on the other. That one got a little too real.

By default, fewer mental gymnastics are required to define “best pitcher” than “most valuable player.” And with the omission of record-setting Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton from the AL finalists, there’s already a sense that new-school thinking gained the upper hand when the votes were collected at the end of the regular season.

Then again, that was the sense when Felix Hernandez claimed the 2010 AL Cy Young Award after winning only 13 games. The Cy Young voting has sent mixed messages ever since.

That could be the case once again. Whether the AL Cy Young should go to Corey Kluber, Rick Porcello or Justin Verlander is a matter of opinion that could tilt in either the old-school or new-school direction. Same goes for the NL Cy Young race between Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer.

This leaves us with only one thing to do in the meantime: break it down.


The American League Race

Let’s talk about wins. Though it’s now widely accepted that they’re an imperfect measure of pitching success, there remains a strong bond between wins leaders and Cy Young Award winners.

Especially in the American League, where the last five winners have been pitchers who have either led the league or tied for the league lead in wins:

This is a good sign for Porcello. The Boston Red Sox right-hander’s 22 wins led not only the AL, but also all of MLB. He further padded his Cy Young resume with a 3.15 ERA (fifth in the AL) and 223 innings (fourth). He also finished eighth in the AL with 189 strikeouts.

All this might have been enough for old-school voters. But in a day and age where cracks are easy to find, new-school voters may have been distracted by the cracks in Porcello‘s 2016 season.

Porcello certainly isn’t guilty of hurting himself. He walked just 1.29 batters per nine innings, which was second only to Josh Tomlin in the AL. But despite his high strikeout total, he landed below the MLB average with his rate of 7.63 strikeouts per nine innings.

He therefore required more help from his defense than the average pitcher. This made it fair game for new-school voters to scrutinize whether Porcello earned the way-better-than-average .269 mark he allowed on balls in play.

And he arguably didn’t.

For instance: With an average exit velocity of 88.9 mph, according to Baseball Savant, batters hit Porcello nearly as hard as they hit the average pitcher (89.1 mph). New-school voters could have seen that (among other things) and concluded luck was a factor in Porcello‘s success.

And this could have tipped the scales in Verlander’s favor.

The Detroit Tigers ace bested Porcello with a 3.04 ERA and 227.2 innings in part because he left little to chance with his 2.25 BB/9 and his 10.04 K/9. That led to an AL-high 254 strikeouts, which were 254 outs his defense didn’t have to get for him.

But for old-school voters, it may have been a deal-breaker that Verlander won six fewer games (16) than Porcello. And if new-school voters took issue with how Porcello managed contact, it was only fair to do the same with Verlander. He may have posted a better average exit velocity (88.4 mph), but he also allowed 30 home runs to Porcello‘s 23.

This brings us to the intriguing wild card in the AL Cy Young race: Kluber.

From a traditional sense, the Cleveland Indians ace’s 18 wins, 3.14 ERA and 227 strikeouts all put him between Porcello and Verlander. Kluber, who also pitched 215 innings, thus offered the best of both their worlds, which could have earned him some compromise votes from old-school voters.

Kluber averaged 9.50 K/9 with 2.39 BB/9, and he surrendered only 22 home runs. He allowed fewer homers than Verlander and Porcello in part because hitters had a difficult time making good contact against him. He finished with the lowest average exit velocity (87.0 mph) of the three.

So while nothing about Kluber‘s season jumps out, there’s not a box on either side of the aisle that he didn’t check. That could be his ticket to a second Cy Young.

However, it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which the voting bloc was dominated by traditional voters who went for Porcello‘s wins. And it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which new-school voters mostly gravitated to Verlander’s strikeouts rather than his dingers allowed.

What’s the right answer? Trick question. There is no right answer. But we’ll find out what the answer is, and that will shed light on the prevailing wisdom among the AL Cy Young Award voters.

Spoiler: The prevailing wisdom in the NL Cy Young race could be different.


The National League Race

If the AL Cy Young race is to be a referendum on wins, the NL Cy Young race could be a referendum on the other go-to Cy Young stat: ERA.

This is otherwise known as the stat that makes Hendricks loom large. His 2.13 ERA led not only the National League, but also all of MLB. And by a 0.31 margin over Lester at that.

But while that could be enough to deliver him the Cy Young, it might not be. As Zack Greinke in 2015 and Clayton Kershaw in 2012 can vouch, leading the majors in ERA isn’t always enough to earn a Cy Young. An ERA leader usually needs more.

This could be Hendricks’ undoing. He boasts only 16 wins and 190 innings, numbers that may not have impressed old-school voters. Like Porcello, he also didn’t match the MLB average in K/9 en route to his 170 strikeouts, which is yet another unimpressive figure.

New-school Cy Young voters would have known that Hendricks’ real skill is contact management. He blew away both his Cy Young competitors and the average pitcher with just an 87.2 mph average exit velocity.

This is how Hendricks allowed only 15 home runs. But as for the .250 average he allowed on balls in play, new-school voters might have hesitated to assign all the credit for that to Hendricks.

The elephant in the room is the Chicago Cubs defense. As Sam Miller noted at ESPN.com, the Cubs were the best defense at converting batted balls into outs in 34 years. It’s no exaggeration to say Hendricks had the benefit of a historically good defense.

You know who else benefited from that defense? Lester.

In Lester’s, um, defense, he didn’t need to rely on the Chicago defense as much. He beat Hendricks’ 8.05 K/9 with 8.75 K/9. As such, he arguably earned more of his 2.44 ERA than Hendricks did of his 2.13 ERA.

But if it was fair for new-school voters to use the Cubs defense to take credit from Hendricks, it was even more fair to do the same with Lester. With inferior average exit velo (87.8 mph), he didn’t make it as easy for Chicago defenders to catch the ball as Hendricks did.

Of course, Lester would still have a chance at the Cy Young if it was mainly old-school voters who did the voting. They could have acknowledged the excellence of his 2.44 ERA as well as his edge over Hendricks in wins (19), innings (202.2) and strikeouts (197).

Trouble is, it’s Scherzer who was the big winner in those latter three departments.

The Washington Nationals ace had “only” a 2.96 ERA, but he led the NL with 20 wins and 228.1 innings and MLB with 284 strikeouts. He also walked only 2.21 batters per nine innings, putting him ahead of Lester (2.31) but behind Hendricks (2.08).

The stain on Scherzer‘s record is the 31 homers he allowed, which tied for the most in the National League. But those might not have scared away contact management sticklers. Scherzer wasn’t immune to hard contact, but he finished in between Lester and Hendricks in average exit velo (87.7 mph) anyway.

There may be no clear choice in this race, but Scherzer does seem to be the guy who both old-school and new-school voters could agree on. If not, ERA is going to have either a partial (Lester) or a complete (Hendricks) say in the final decision.

Have a headache yet? If so, good. That means you’re prepared to find out what these conversations lead to Wednesday evening.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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