Breaking down the Robbie Ray vs. Gerrit Cole 2021 Cy Young race

Not only was Thursday’s game against the New York Yankees enormously consequential for the Toronto Blue Jays, it also represented the closing argument for Robbie Ray’s Cy Young case.

It’s safe to say that it didn’t go as planned for the southpaw as he allowed five earned runs on four home runs in a six-inning stint. It was his season high for earned runs allowed.

Ray came into the year as the ultimate wild card, and he’s finishing it as a pitcher his team specifically lined up for a Wild Card Game. He’s been nothing short of spectacular, and from his simplified two-pitch repertoire to his internet-famous pants, he’s put up his eye-popping numbers in style.

The question for the southpaw is whether that will be enough, and the answer to that will depend on how voters feel he compares to Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. Although a tortured FIP-based argument could be made for Nathan Eovaldi to factor into the race, the reality is that this is Cole vs. Ray.

So, how do the two stack up?

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The WAR war

Although not everyone agrees on which version of WAR is the best, or how much weight the metrics should carry, the reality is that Wins Above Replacement will be the first port of call for many awards voters.

This how it breaks down:

There’s a significant difference between how the two models see Ray — we’ll circle back on that — but there isn’t a big enough advantage for either pitcher to establish a frontrunner on this basis.

Edge: Push

The narrative game

There’s an argument to be made that MLB awards are being given more on merit in recent years than they have in the past — no one is winning a Gold Glove based on just 28 games in the field like Rafael Palmeiro did back in 1999 — but that doesn’t mean voters are immune to a good narrative.

This aspect of the race is somewhat unresolved due to the Blue Jays’ unknown playoff fate, but there are some components that are resolved.

Cole has name recognition and a superior win total in his favour, but he doesn’t have too much more to recommend him. The 31-year-old did much of his best work early in the season, and if the Yankees make the playoffs, which is extraordinarily likely at this point, the perception will be that Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton got them there — not their ace. It doesn’t help Cole’s case that he laid an egg in his biggest start of the season on Wednesday night, and his September ERA sits at 5.13.

Ray, on the other hand, has the underdog story working in his favour considering that disastrous 2020 he had, and if the Blue Jays reach the Wild Card game there will be no doubt they couldn’t have gotten there without him. Even if Toronto misses the playoffs, he probably has more narrative goodwill with the voters — especially considering Cole became a face of the “sticky stuff” controversy earlier in the season.

Edge: Ray

There’s a case to be made for leaving it at that. The total value numbers are relatively similar and Ray bests Cole when things get less tangible. However, there is still a debate to be had between the two and it comes down to the best way to value pitchers.

Fielding-independent numbers

If you think the best way to determine pitcher value is to focus your analysis on strikeouts, walks, and home runs, Ray’s case weakens significantly.

Not only does he have the tendency to get victimized by the long ball, none of his other fielding-independent stats match Cole’s:

This looks a little bit grim for Ray, but it requires some context.

Valuing FIP over ERA has some logic behind it, but it also originates from an era before contact quality statistics were readily available. When a pitcher’s ERA used to be higher or lower than their peripherals would indicate, the assumption tended to be that luck was the primary factor at play. Luck still plays a role that we should acknowledge, but now we have Statcast numbers that give us a precise idea of the quality of contact a pitcher is allowing, making it less wise to ignore balls in play.

That’s exactly what FanGraphs’ version of WAR does, which is why it favours Cole by a solid margin.

Edge: Cole

Run prevention and contact management

The number that those who see Ray as the Cy Young favourite cite the most is ERA, where the southpaw has a significant advantage, beating out Cole 2.84 to 3.23. For many voters that will be an unbridgeable gap. The job of a pitcher is to keep runs off the board and there’s no disputing that Ray has done that better than Cole.

Where things get a little sticky is when you look at how that happened. If we establish that Cole has done better than Ray on fielding-independent measures, that means the Blue Jays ace’s advantage comes when the ball is put into play. However, there’s significant evidence to suggest the ball is hit with more authority off Ray than Cole:

That information leaves you a tough spot for Ray because Cole’s got him beat on strikeouts and walks, suppressing home runs, and managing contact with balls in the play.

Based on that information, you wouldn’t expect Ray to have the better ERA, but he does for two reasons. The first is that he’s been supported by better defence. We don’t think of the Blue Jays as a top-tier defence — and they aren’t — but the Yankees have been brutal in the field this year and Toronto has them beat by 70 runs according to DRS and 11.8 by UZR. That’s a massive difference, but the bottom line is that they’ve been better.

The second factor suppressing Ray’s ERA is his incredible rate of stranding runners. The left-hander has left a MLB-leading 90.1 per cent of runners on base compared to Cole’s 77.9. That’s a tricky stat to parse because Ray deserves some credit for performing better with runners on base, and his strikeout ability plays into that, but there’s also some luck and sequencing as well.

For instance, the left-on-base numbers there might have you believe that Ray has performed far better with runners on than Cole has, but they’ve allowed hitters to produce almost identical lines in those situations:

This category is where voters’ preferences will come into play because there are multiple ways to interpret it.

Edge: Ray (in most voters’ minds)

It’s probably safe to say that Cole has pitched better than Ray this year. It’s also reasonable to assert that Ray has gotten better results. The race between the two is close enough that a vote for either is valid — but Cole’s case is more esoteric while Ray’s seems more likely to resonate with the voters.

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