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Lack of wins are harming Carlos Martinez’s Cy Young case

While the Cardinals’ ace should be near the top of Cy Young consideration, lack of run support is making it an uphill climb

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday night, Carlos Martinez threw six innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who entered the game with baseball’s third best winning percentage. In six innings, Martinez allowed just two earned runs—both in a sixth inning that perhaps could have been expedited if the St. Louis Cardinals had a deeper and more effective bullpen, but that’s a different story. While his three walks were a bit less than ideal, his ten strikeouts more than made up for it. It was the fourth start of the season in which Carlos Martinez struck out double-digit batters, and by striking out 38.5% of batters he faced, it was his most strikeout-heavy performance of 2017.

Carlos Martinez is having the best season of his young but to this point accomplished career, and this was despite a fairly lackluster April. In May and June, barring a surprise appearance in tonight’s game, Carlos Martinez’s ERA/FIP/xFIP stood at 2.20/3.00/3.47. Including April, Martinez’s marks stand at 2.88/3.24/3.48. Carlos Martinez ranks tied for second in the National League by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, trailing only defending Cy Young winner Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals and tied with Scherzer’s teammate, Stephen Strasburg.

Scherzer leads Martinez by ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and also holds an edge in innings pitched. If Cy Young Award voting were held today, Scherzer would win and he would deserve to win. I would vote for him.

But despite a very impressive statistical resume, many voters would likely leave Carlos Martinez off their five-man ballots altogether. And it is in large part due to a glaring weakness in his season’s statistics—his 6-6 win-loss record.

As it stands, Martinez has the same win-loss record as Atlanta Braves pitcher Julio Teheran. Teheran, however, has a 5.30 ERA, a 5.77 FIP, a 5.39 xFIP, and is below replacement level by both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference’s WAR models. Martinez is surrendering nearly two-and-a-half earned runs fewer per nine innings than Teheran and yet the two pitchers have identical records.

Martinez’s Tuesday start is a quintessential example of why the pitching win has been so roundly criticized and devalued over the years. Martinez allowed two runs in six innings, not his greatest outing but also solidly above-average by MLB standards, and left the game while the game was tied and therefore, he was not in line for the win. Martinez then became lined up for the win thanks to factors completely beyond his control—after a string of hits, including one by the pinch-hitter, Luke Voit, who had replaced Martinez in the game, the Cardinals took a three-run lead. And then Martinez lost control of the win after Trevor Rosenthal and Seung-Hwan Oh (neither of whom, if you are keeping score at home, is Carlos Martinez) gave up runs in the eighth and ninth innings.

Currently, Carlos Martinez stands at 2.8 Baseball Reference pitching WAR and six wins. If Martinez maintains his current pace, he would be the first Cardinals pitcher with such a lopsided ratio of WAR to wins since Jose DeLeon in 1991, when he was worth 3.4 WAR in a five win season. Prior to that was Joe Magrane’s 3.7 WAR, five win 1988. Prior to that were two 20-win seasons from Bob Gibson in 1968 and 1969 (Gibby was really good). Amazingly, Martinez isn’t even the presently qualifying Cardinals starter with the most WAR per win—tonight’s starter, Mike Leake, currently has 2.5 bWAR and five wins. It’s been a really annoying season so far for the Cardinals.

The pitcher win has been increasingly regarded as a novelty by fans and analysts (not to mention front offices) for years. But there remains a bias in favor of pitchers with good win-loss records, perhaps subliminally, not as an absolute determination of a pitcher’s worth but rather as something of a tiebreaker in cases where pitchers have otherwise similar resumes. And unless Carlos Martinez is able to pull considerably ahead of the competition, he will need the Cardinals to score more runs in his games in order for him to stand a reasonable chance at the Cy Young Award.

One particular example is usually cited as proof that baseball awards voters have become more enlightened and less receptive to awarding individual players for a team accomplishment such as a win: when Felix Hernandez won the 2010 American League Cy Young Award with the Seattle Mariners despite a less-than-impressive looking record of 13 wins and 12 losses. But Hernandez also benefited by having the best season in the AL by a fairly wide margin—he led the league in bWAR by 1.5 and he led Cy Young runner-up David Price in ERA by nearly half a run and in innings pitched by 40. And both Price and CC Sabathia still garnered first-place votes. There remain absolutists that a Cy Young winner needs a strong win-loss record, not enough to swing the election on their own but enough to put pitchers lacking run support at a disadvantage.

In the years since Hernandez’s victory, voters have remained mostly inclined to vote for winning pitchers. Since 2011, only one pitcher has won the Cy Young Award courtesy of leading the league in WAR (either of the two major versions) and not leading the league in wins—Clayton Kershaw in 2013. Additionally, RA Dickey won the 2012 NL Cy Young Award by combining high but not league-leading wins and WAR numbers (this season, Cliff Lee had a nice year and tied Dickey in fWAR but he had a 6-9 record). In three cases, the award went to a league win leader who did not lead in WAR (2011 Kershaw, 2012 David Price, 2015 Jake Arrieta).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of the awards were won by guys who led the league in wins and WAR. Wins remain a mostly effective correlative statistic, and if you had to choose between absolutely no statistical information and only knowing a player’s win total, you’d do a far better job evaluating pitchers with wins than by random chance. But with access to, well, pretty much any other stat, wins are only relevant as trivia and not as a determining factor of a pitcher’s ability.

Carlos Martinez is pitching very well, and if he can maintain his last two months’ level of performance (it seems unlikely but I’ve learned to never count him out), he should be one of the top pitchers, if not the top pitcher, in the National League this season. But unfortunately, Martinez could be deprived of such recognition of a true superstar because of factors beyond his control.