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Trevor Bauer Is Taking Command Of A Tight NL Cy Young Race

As we enter the stretch run of this, uh, unique 2020 season, the individual award races are beginning to take shape. Earlier this week, we discussed the shape of the AL Cy Young race – this time, we look at the same contest in the NL.

The current conventional wisdom seems to be that Shane Bieber is a clear choice in the AL, and that the NL field is crowded at the top. While I do see Bieber as the AL leader, I have that race rated as closer than its NL counterpart, and I see the NL leader, Trevor Bauer, running ahead of all major league pitchers.

To rate these hurlers, I am utilizing my batted ball-based metrics, Adjusted Contact Score and “Tru” ERA-. I take the exit speed and launch angle of every batted ball allowed by ERA title-qualifying pitchers and determine how much damage they “should have” allowed.

Adjusted Contact Score, on a scale where 100 equals league average and the lower the number the better, measures the level of production they should have allowed on balls in play. I then add back the Ks and BBs into the mix, resulting in a pitcher’s “Tru” ERA-, where again 100 equals league average, and the lower the number the better.

This number, in my humble opinion, is a better measure of pitcher performance and true talent level than either traditional ERA- or FIP-. For individual pitchers, “Tru” ERA- is much more stable from season to season than its counterparts.

As a final step, I then weight each pitcher’s “Tru” ERA- by innings pitched, resulting in Pitching Runs Above Average. At the end of each season, I crown a Contact Manager of the Year (lowest Adjusted Contact Score), “Tru” ERA- Leader, and Cy Young Award winner (highest PRAA) in both leagues. At this late stage of the season, Bauer leads the NL in “Tru” ERA- and PRAA, while the Braves’ Max Fried (9.6 PRAA), who just missed the top five listed below, is the front-runner for Contact Manager of the Year honors with a 60 Adjusted Contact Score.

The Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen (8.6 PRAA) and Reds’ Luis Castillo (8.5) also just missed. Hurlers such as the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes and Padres’ Dinelson Lamet also missed the cut, as they fare much worse in my batted ball-based analysis than they do in current Fangraphs WAR.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the top five NL Cy Young contenders as we approach the final week of the regular season.

#5 – RHP Kyle Hendricks (Cubs) – Surprised? He’s nowhere to be found at the top of the starting pitcher Fangraphs WAR rankings. Once you take batted ball authority into account, Hendricks shines (69 “Tru” ERA-, 10.1 PRAA). His Adjusted Contact Scores from 2016-19 are brilliant – 75, 89, 88 and 84, with his 2016 mark pacing the NL. His 75 mark thus far in 2020 is also exceptional. How does he do it? By stifling authority of all types of contact, consistently. This season, he’s muffling liners in particular, with his 88.9 MPH average liner velocity allowed and 86 Adjusted Liner Contact Score very near the top of the league.

#4 – RHP Jacob deGrom (Mets) – The deGrom train was temporarily slowed on Wednesday night when he exited his start after two innings with a hamstring spasm. Before that, he seemed to be trending to the top of the charts, but instead stands 4th with 12.2 PRAA; he led in 2019 with 43.7 PRAA. deGrom is going for his third straight year leading the NL in “Tru” ERA-, PRAA and Adjusted Contact Score – a very difficult trifecta to pull off. He posted Adjusted Contact Scores of 77 in both 2018 and 2019, but is at 87 in 2020. He’s allowing fewer pop ups and yielding harder fly ball contact than in the recent past. deGrom still ranks as elite with a 56 “Tru” ERA- that ranks 2nd in the NL.

#3 – RHP Brandon Woodruff (Brewers) – Another name that may surprise you. I wrote about him early this season, and despite a subpar won-lost record, Woodruff has delivered on his promise. Like Hendricks, Woodruff absolutely throttles batted ball authority. Though he didn’t qualify for the ERA title in 2019, he would have ranked 14th among NL qualifiers with 14.2 PRAA, and his average fly ball and liner exit velocity allowed were both over two full standard deviations lower than league average. He’s at it again, with an NL best 82 Adjusted Liner Contact Score and a 73 Adjusted Contact Score that ranks among the league’s best. He’s nowhere on the Fangraphs’ WAR leader list, but is 3rd in the NL with 12.5 PRAA. Woodruff’s 58 “Tru” ERA- is much better than his FIP- of 77, as the latter measure doesn’t reward him for his authority suppression.

#2 – RHP Yu Darvish (Cubs) – Darvish ranked 13th among NL qualifiers with 16.5 PRAA in 2019, and has almost matched that mark with 13.1 PRAA in this shortened season. Most pitchers are consistent from year to year in their contact management performance. Not so Darvish. It’s been a good year-bad year sequence going back to 2016, as he posted Adjusted Contact Scores of 98, 110, 84 and 105 from 2016-19. On cue, he’s been solid in 2020, posting an 84 mark. True talent-wise, I think it’s a bit deceptive. Darvish has benefited from allowing an unusually large number of can-of-corn fly balls in the 85-95 MPH range. This has keyed an exceptional 60 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score that I doubt he can maintain over the long haul.

#1 – RHP Trevor Bauer (Reds) – Like Darvish, Bauer has been the rare inconsistent contact manager in recent years, posting Adjusted Contact Scores of 98, 110, 84 and 105 from 2016-19. This year he’s at 74, but unlike Darvish, there are reasons to believe it can be sustained moving forward. Bauer has allowed 29 batted balls with launch angles over 50 degrees (the standard definition of a pop up) and 31 batted balls with launch angles between 20 and 50 degrees (the standard definition of a fly ball). This near 1:1 ratio is way out of kilter compared to the MLB-wide ratio of less than 1:3. His closest match in this department among NL qualifiers? Woodruff, with 22 pop ups to 39 fly balls. Bauer needs those free outs, as he typically allows loud contact across all batted-ball types. Even in this banner season, his Adjusted Fly Ball, Liner and Grounder Contact Scores are all over 100; to post a 74 overall Adjusted Contact Score despite that fact starkly shows the impact of all those pop ups. He currently leads all MLB qualifiers with 15.1 PRAA and a 47 “Tru” ERA-.

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