Quantifying the “Clutch Gene” and How it Proves that the Only Cy Young Candidate that Makes Sense is Jacob deGrom
For something that should almost be a foregone conclusion, there sure is a lot of debate as to who will win the Cy Young award in the National League. Sportswriters, baseball analysts and TV pundits alike are all scrambling to name their top pick in what they deem to be a race much closer than it actually is. Some point to Max Scherzer of the 2.53 ERA and his dominant 300-strikeout season (though MLB’s strikeout percentage has gone up at an alarming rate over the years). Others say it’s Aaron Nola, who had a breakout year and lead the major leagues with a 10.5 pitching WAR.
Then of course, there is Jacob deGrom. Never has a non-controversial player had a season more polarizing than deGrom simply by doing his job. A lot has been made of his historic streak of games started allowing three runs or less, surpassing even Ryne Stanek (who doesn’t even pitch the amount of innings deGrom does in order to validate his streak). We know about the minuscule 1.70 ERA, best in the major leagues and by a convincing margin. We also know about the lack of run support the Mets gave deGrom all year, basically turning whatever pitching opponent he faced into a CPU opponent on MLB the Show on Legendary difficulty.
One of the arguments against deGrom winning the Cy Young award is wins, despite this being an outdated statistic that has no measure on ability and is biased toward having a good team around you. If you’re still arguing against deGrom winning the Cy Young based on wins, chances are nothing anyone will say can enlighten you at this point. One of the more annoying arguments has been that deGrom wasn’t pitching important innings and that there was more pressure on Nola and Scherzer because they played on teams hoping for a postseason berth. This argument is flawed for multiple reasons, but before we get into that part, here’s a newsflash: the Nationals and Phillies finished eight and ten games back of the Braves, respectively, and neither of them made the postseason. So how meaningful or pressure-filled were their games really?
However, if we want to talk pressure, we can quantify that for you and show you exactly which pitcher was best under pressure. Never mind that deGrom allowed four runs on April 10th to the Marlins and then never allowed more than three. Never mind that Scherzer allowed four-plus runs multiple times this season, including six earned to Atlanta as late as September 14th, two days after Nola gave up four runs himself all while deGrom was maintaining his dominant form well past the time his team was eliminated from the postseason. If we want to talk pressure, we have a statistic for you.
Baseball Reference and FanGraphs have found a way to quantify and explain something most baseball fans can understand and rationalize, but not completely explain why they can: the ability to be clutch. This statistic for pitchers is called Bases-Out Runs Saved (RE24), and it measures how much better a pitcher is above the average pitcher in allowing expected runs to score. Depending on situation, every at bat has a different run-scoring expectation per team. For example, this season based on the league’s average runs scored per game, a bases loaded and nobody out situation would have expected to yield at least 2.2 runs to the team that is at bat. For every out that a pitcher gets without allowing a run (or maybe allows one run but gets a big double play), their RE24 number rises by the difference between runs expected before the play, to runs expected after the play. An example: bases loaded nobody out (2.2): a pitcher records a strikeout and now its bases loaded and one out. The run expectancy now is 1.5, meaning the pitcher saved .7 runs off that at bat. That number is now “banked” into his RE24 statistic and counts toward a cumulative season total. Obviously a negative performance can lower that number as well.
Using this method to quantify the amount of times a pitcher saved runs, combined with the pressure of pitching knowing that you may get one run from your offense if you’re lucky, it’s a testament to how dominant deGrom has been all season, and how important it was for him to win regardless of where his team was in the standings. deGrom led the league in RE24 with 53.73 base-out runs saved. That’s best in the major leagues by a full five runs over Blake Snell (AL), and 8 runs better than Aaron Nola. Considering that this number usually rises in increments such as .5, .7, 1.2 at most, it’s even more impressive that this number was that much higher than the closest National League pitcher.
deGrom was as dominant as ever this season, but he was even more dominant when the pressure was on. It’s ridiculous to think he is any less deserving because of his win total or the team he plays on, because no one loses on purpose or mails it in when they’re on the field. Conversations about having less pressure or pitching with less importance when people are playing for their livelihood and are one injury away from losing everything simply make no sense. Maybe Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola had Cy Young award winning years if this was any other year, but Jacob deGrom’s performance not only was as good as theirs, it was better when it mattered most.
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