Know Your xRVAA: Analyzing the 2018 Cy Young Award Finalists Using STATS Advanced Analytics

By: Jeff Lindberg | November 14, 2018

This year’s Cy Young finalists all have strong cases for the award, each delivering great performances throughout the year. But the winners should be determined by unique differentiators that are only detectable through advanced analytics.

The American League leader in wins, Blake Snell (21), also posted a league-best 1.89 ERA. Justin Verlander struck out 290 batters to pad his MLB-best 0.90 WHIP. Corey Kluber led the AL in innings pitched (215) and walks per nine innings (1.4) while winning 20 games.

Max Scherzer, meanwhile, aims for his third-consecutive NL Cy Young after a dominating 300 strikeouts over 220 2/3 innings to lead the MLB in both categories. Jacob deGrom led the Majors with a dazzling 1.70 ERA and tied for first in the NL with a 0.91 WHIP. Aaron Nola posted a 0.97 WHIP (third in NL) over 212 1/3 innings to lead MLB in WAR for pitchers (10.5), per baseball-reference.

Those are your bare-bones statistics. However, STATS applies innovative pitch-by-pitch data to present a more in-depth analysis of each pitcher. To do so, we use BIP- (ball in play quality), Whiff+, xRVAA (expected run value above average), xRVAA- (xRVAA adjusted per plate appearance), and our version of WAR (wins above replacement).

BIP- uses Statcast batted ball numbers and additionally accounts for defensive shifts, spray angles and the running speed of the batter to determine the percentage of more damaging contact than average that a pitcher allows. Whiff+ measures the ability of a pitcher to generate swings and misses better than average, adjusted by the role of the pitcher. These two metrics have a base value of 100 to indicate league average. xRVAA is an estimation of how many runs a pitcher is better than average, based on whiff rate, location, ball in play, stadium adjustments, etc. xRVAA- can be used to measure the effectiveness of each at-bat given the situation.

Using a base value of 0, a pitcher with an xRVAA below 0 would be identified as above average. STATS’ version of wins above replacement (sWAR) is a value based on xRVAA. It is converted from runs to wins and relative to the average player. The league average WAR is roughly 2.5 per 200 innings pitched for a starting pitcher and 0.4 per 70 innings for relievers.

American League

Blake Snell, Rays

While the Tampa Bay Rays spearheaded the “opener” movement across MLB, they had a young lefty establish himself as the ace of their pitching staff. Featuring a curveball that ranked an astounding 92 percent better than average and a straight over-the-top delivery, Snell produced a BIP of 84 and whiff of 144. This means that he gave up contact that was 16 percent less damaging than the average pitcher and he got 44 percent more swings and misses per pitch than the average starter. His -38.4 xRVAA led to a 6.1 sWAR, making Snell worth 6.1 wins more than a replacement starting pitcher.

Justin Verlander, Astros

The 35-year-old right hander is looking for his second Cy Young award after yet another dominating season. His MLB-leading WHIP (0.90) was backed up by a 79 BIP- and 149 Whiff+. This was due largely in part to his bread-and-butter 4-seam fastball that was 71 percent better than average. His fastball alone prevented nearly 43 runs, accumulating as much value as the ninth-best pitcher in the league, Aaron Nola. Verlander prevented roughly 55 runs relative to the average pitcher, which was 10 runs more than the second pitcher in xRVAA. His ability to prevent runs at an incredible rate, combined with his season-long durability, made him worth 8.2 sWAR. This was the highest of any pitcher in MLB this season.

Corey Kluber, Indians

The reigning Cy Young winner returned with another good season in 2018. Kluber was hit a little harder than the other pitchers on this list, posting a 102 BIP- and 119 Whiff+. This means that he actually gave up contact that was 2 percent more damaging than the average pitcher and only generated 19 percent more swings and misses per pitch than the average starter. His best pitch was his curveball with an xRVAA- of 25. He was still able to produce a -32.1 xRVAA, making him worth 5.9 wins more than a replacement starting pitcher.

STATS Pick: Verlander

Honorable Mentions

Pitcher BIP- Whiff+ xRVAA sWAR
Gerrit Cole, HOU 90 141 -36.6 6.2
Trevor Bauer, CLE 79 132 -38.3 6.1
Chris Sale, BOS 94 155 -39.8 6.0

National League

Jacob deGrom, Mets

Despite a mediocre 10-9 record, deGrom pitched as well as — if not better than — any of the finalists on this list. He set two MLB single-season records with 24 consecutive quality starts and 29 consecutive starts giving up three runs or fewer. Using primarily three pitches, he held hitters to a BIP- of 85 and generated 47 percent more swings and misses per pitch than the average starting pitcher. His changeup was the most effective, measuring 68 percent better than average. He led the National League with a -44.9 xRVAA and 7.1 sWAR.

Max Scherzer, Nationals

“Mad Max” could become one of five pitchers in MLB history to win the award four times. His 300 strikeouts were rooted in his 156 whiff, the highest among qualified starters. Although Scherzer has the deepest arsenal on this list, his 4-seam fastball led the way with a 42 xRVAA-. He also had a BIP of 90 while preventing 42.5 runs relative to the average pitcher. All of which made him worth 6.9 sWAR on the mound this season.

Aaron Nola, Phillies

In the best season of his short career, Nola has developed into the ace that the Phillies selected seventh overall in the 2014 draft. Relying heavily on his devastating curveball that was 87 percent higher than average, he gave up contact that was 11 percent less damaging than the average pitcher and a 121 Whiff+. Nola generated a -32.0 xRVAA and was worth 5.7 wins more than a replacement starting pitcher.

STATS Pick: deGrom

Honorable Mentions

Pitcher BIP- Whiff+ xRVAA sWAR
German Marquez, COL 94 118 -21.0 4.5
Patrick Corbin, ARI 107 147 -20.7 4.4
Jameson Taillon, PIT 93 105 -19.7 4.3