Did Corbin Burnes deserve NL Cy Young over Zack Wheeler?


Those who recall the American League Cy Young debate of 2010 remember it as a turning point for MLB awards voting.

Felix Hernandez went 13-12 with the best ERA in the majors (2.27) and the most innings in the American League. His competition was CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18) and David Price (19-6, 2.72).

Back then, it was half-expected that Hernandez would lose out on the award because of his low win total. He didn't. He won because momentum had shifted away from "wins" as a barometer of pitching success.

But even as baseball fans and those who cover the sport have shifted more in the direction of rates, percentages and more predictive advanced metrics, one counting stat that hasn't and will never go out of style is innings pitched.

Zack Wheeler led the majors in 2021 with 213⅓ innings pitched. He faced 849 batters, meaning he was involved in more plate appearances than any pitcher or any hitter in the National League this season. He had strong credentials -- the innings, the league-leading strikeout total of 247, the 2.78 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, the 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings against 1.9 walks.

Did he deserve to win? Maybe. He had a case, as did Corbin Burnes, Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler. Burnes won an extremely close vote, tying Wheeler in first-place votes with 12 (out of 30) and finishing with 151 voting points to Wheeler's 141.

How close was this race?

The only other time in history that the Cy Young winner and runner-up tied in first-place votes was in 1981 with Fernando Valenzuela and Tom Seaver.

In terms of voting points, Burnes' 10-point win over Wheeler was the closest since 2012, when Price edged out Justin Verlander by four points.

The closest-ever NL Cy Young vote came in 1987 when Phillies reliever Steve Bedrosian beat out Rick Sutcliffe by two points.

Wheeler's case was his workload. 

Burnes' case was his filth and dominance, albeit in a smaller sample.

Scherzer's case, beyond the Dodgers going 11-0 in his starts, was that he was the midpoint between the workloads of Wheeler and Burnes and just as productive as either.

Buehler had a case, too, after going 16-4 with a 2.47 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He finished fourth.

A portion of voters, 40% of them, valued Wheeler's stamina and durability. Wheeler needed to log all of those innings because the Phillies' bullpen was not reliable for most of the season. Burnes did not, for multiple reasons, including Milwaukee's use of a six-man rotation and their lights-out bullpen.

Here is an interesting note, one that was hopefully recognized before votes were cast:

Wheeler's ERA in the first six innings of his starts was 2.42.

Burnes' ERA in the first six innings of his starts was 2.48.

Why does this matter? Because Wheeler pitched into the seventh inning 20 times. Burnes pitched into the seventh inning nine times. If Burnes was pushed beyond six innings more frequently, would his numbers have been the same? His opponents hit .314 with an .811 OPS the third time through the lineup compared to .165 with a .432 OPS the first two times. Telling.

In a way, Burnes was rewarded for his team's strength and caution in pushing him deeper into games, and Wheeler was penalized a bit for being so integral to his team's success. 

It doesn't necessarily make the decision wrong, it just makes the 2021 NL Cy Young race a fascinating one that will likely be revisited in future years.

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