Jacob deGrom would join exclusive club with Cy Young Award victory

Not just Cy Young Winners — Cy Young Winners on losing teams.

Nate Rattner

A great pitcher on a bad team is a rare occurrence across baseball history — at least by Cy Young standards.

Of the 114 Cy Young winners, dating back to the award’s inception in 1956, only 16 pitchers have been granted the honor after spending the season on a sub-.500 team. So while all six Cy Young finalists are vying for a rare piece of MLB history this week, a win for Mets ace Jacob deGrom — whose team finished the 2018 season 77–85 — would be an even more exceptional occurrence.

DeGrom, with his 1.70 ERA but weak supporting cast, is trying to do something that only 16 MLB pitchers in history have pulled off: win the Cy Young on a losing team.

Interactive version of this chart available here.

Part of the reason for this uphill battle is that, even in the age of analytics, success in the win column — both for the pitcher and his team — matters to many in the baseball media who ultimately cast the Cy Young votes. “Win the game,” Mike Wilbon cried on an ESPN segment discussing deGrom’s candidacy earlier this year. “The Cubs probably had some Cy Young Award-winning ERA champions in that 100-plus year period, and if somebody said I’ll trade that for the wins that get me a World Series, what would you do?”

Notably, Wilbon did not mention the fact that deGrom received the second-lowest run support average per start among qualified pitchers in 2018. He also does not appear to have a Cy Young Award vote, but the fact remains: right or wrong, playing on a losing team makes it significantly harder to win the award.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the best pitchers in baseball history can, in many cases, carry their teams to a quality season. But often, a team’s record does not tell us very much about a player’s individual performance. That was the case with deGrom this season, and this holds true for a handful of other exceptions to the Cy Young norm.

Felix Hernandez of the 2010 Seattle Mariners may be the best example of this phenomenon. His team finished 61–101 that season, second-to-last in the major leagues, but his 2.27 ERA was good enough to capture the award and cement the 2010 Mariners as the worst MLB team in history to have a Cy Young winner.

Here is a closer look at the pitchers, plus a prospective deGrom, to win the Cy Young on losing teams:

Interactive version of this chart available here.

DeGrom faces challenging odds despite his league-leading ERA and top-five finish in strikeouts (269) and WAR for pitchers (9.6). Only 15 percent of Cy Young winners — the pitchers in the above chart — have done what he might accomplish this week.

Recent history shows some signs of hope for deGrom, though, as more than half of the award winners on sub-.500 teams have come since 1990. Cy Young voters may be warming up to the idea, and we only have to look a few years back in the history of deGrom’s own team for a relevant comparison. R.A. Dickey was the last pitcher to win the award on a losing team, taking home the Cy Young in 2012 as a member of the 74–88 Mets — a team with three more losses than this season’s club.

This story also appeared on fansided.com. Charts were built with Plotly, and the code for both the analysis and visuals is available here. Data source: Baseball Reference.

Nate Rattner

Written by

@SeatGeek | @venture4america, @NorthwesternU, @MedillSchool alum

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