NL Cy Young race down to wire

By Jason Weingarten  (VSiN.com) 

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(To view the chart associated with this report, subscribe to Point Spread Weekly)

With the baseball season winding down, let’s look at the National League Cy Young Award race.

NL CY YOUNG AWARD

DraftKings

Max Scherzer -165

Corbin Burnes + 110

Walker Buehler + 1800

Zack Wheeler + 2000

BetMGM

Max Scherzer -160

Corbin Burnes + 105

Walker Buehler + 1800

Zack Wheeler + 2800

FanDuel

Max Scherzer -165

Corbin Burnes + 135

Walker Buehler + 2500

Zack Wheeler + 5000

For my money, the best and most accurate publicly available Cy Young prediction model is Tom Tango’s Cy Young points model, which is (IP/2 – ER) SO/10 +  W. Tango’s model has top pitchers averaging about 3 points per start and the leaders usually end up with around 80-85 points. Since 2006, all Cy Young award winners have finished either first or second in Cy Young points.

According to the Tom Tango model, Max Scherzer is the front-runner for NL Cy Young, and the only guy who is close enough to overtake him is the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler.

The Phillies are 2.5 games behind the Braves in the NL East, and DraftKings has the Phillies’ playoffs odds at Yes + 425/No -550. Wheeler was the scheduled starter Tuesday in the opener of a three-game series against the Braves that will likely decide the NL East champion and the final NL playoff spot. Wheeler is also lined up for a second start this weekend against the Marlins. If the Phillies are going to make the playoffs, it's likely going to be because Wheeler pitches two great games this week and drags them over the finish line. 

Two more elite starts from Wheeler might be enough to push him past Scherzer who only has one start left against the Padres on Wednesday and is tentatively lined up to pitch either a 163rd game against the Giants or the wild-card game for the Dodgers.

I think the market has the NL Cy Young odds entirely wrong. Wheeler should be 5-1, not 28-1 or 50-1. Any of the available numbers down to 20-1 is a decent bet with the way the final week of the MLB season lines up, but obviously I’d prefer the 50-1 at FanDuel over 20-1 at DraftKings here (Note: I bet 50-1 and 28-1).

The other thing that stands out for me is that Wheeler already leads all NL Cy Young candidates in innings pitched. In fact he leads all of MLB in innings pitched with potentially two starts left. Wheeler is also first in the NL in strikeouts and second in the majors behind Toronto’s Robbie Ray (240 vs. 244).

Max Scherzer: 29 starts, 18 quality starts, 15-4, 2.28 ERA, 174 innings, 44 ER, 21 home runs, 232 strikeouts/36 walks, 12.0 K/9, 0.83 WHIP, 6.3 bWAR, 5.5 fWAR

Zack Wheeler: 31 starts, 19 quality starts, 14-9, 2.79 ERA, 206.1 innings, 64 ER, 16 home runs, 240 strikeouts/45 walks, 10.5 K/9, 1.02 WHIP, 7.1 bWAR, 6.9 fWAR

Wheeler has pitched more innings than Scherzer. Wheeler has more strikeouts than Scherzer and more strikeouts than anyone in the National League. Wheeler’s HR/9 (home runs per nine innings) is third in the NL at 0.70 behind only Antonio Senzatela at 0.69 and Corbin Burnes at 0.33. Scherzer is in seventh place. 

Who leads the NL in FIP? Burnes at 1.56, with Wheeler second at 2.62 and Scherzer behind both of them at 2.86. It’s similar with xFIP. Burnes leads at 2.30, Wheeler is second at 2.86, Brandon Woodruff is third at 2.89 and Scherzer is fourth at 3.19.

The market seems to think Burnes is the second-best choice as a short dog, and the more I look at the FanGraphs NL pitching leaderboard, you can definitely make a compelling case for why Corbin Burnes should win. He has a higher K/9, his ERA is 2.29 compared with 2.28 for Scherzer, and Burnes has significantly lower numbers in xERA, FIP and xFIP (2.01, 1.56 and 2.30 for Burnes compared with 2.76, 2.86 and 3.19 for Scherzer). Not to mention that if you look at FanGraphs WAR, Burnes is the No. 1 pitcher in the NL and all of MLB, according to fWAR. Entering Tuesday, Burnes’ 7.6 fWAR beat Wheeler’s 6.9 and Scherzer’s 5.5. For comparison, AL Cy Young front-runner Ray’s fWAR is 4.4. Burnes is also a full 40 innings pitched behind Wheeler, and that gap is likely to increase this week.

I wouldn’t bet Burnes at the current market numbers, but I would and have bet Wheeler at 28-1 and 50-1. Scherzer is one of the best pitchers alive and he’s done nothing wrong since joining the Dodgers. But he’s third in fWAR behind two other pitchers with legitimate Cy Young resumes, and he’s leading the NL in neither strikeouts nor innings pitched. Don’t overlook the 30-plus-inning workload difference between Wheeler and Scherzer. Thirty innings is like starting five more games and pitching six innings in each of them. Scherzer is going to max out around 180 innings, which would put him on the low end historically for total innings pitched by Cy Young winners. Excluding the shortened 2020 season, the lowest innings total for a Cy Young winner is 180 2/3 by Blake Snell in 2018 and 198 1/3 for Clayton Kershaw in 2014. There are no other non-reliever/shortened season Cy Young winners who pitched fewer than 200 innings.

When you look at the season-long body of work, Wheeler’s and Burnes’ resumes match up against Scherzer, especially if Wheeler pitches the Phillies into the playoffs. The current market prices on Wheeler are way too high for a guy who has a chance to pitch his team into the playoffs and a division title.

If you think the Phillies have a shot at overtaking the Braves and winning the NL East, I’d bet on Wheeler to win the NL Cy Young.

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