NL Cy Young Award: Why Corbin Burnes and not Zack Wheeler?

Sep 22, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) throws a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles during the third inning at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 22, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) throws a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles during the third inning at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /
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Voting for the National League Cy Young Award was always going to boil down to an ink blot test of what voters most valued in a candidate. That’s how it turned out.

The three finalists (eventual winner Corbin Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers plus Zack Wheeler and Max Scherzer) all had strong resumes, but with strikingly contrasting strengths and weaknesses. What resulted was an almost evenly divided voting populace that gave Burnes a narrow victory.

Burnes finished with 12 of the 30 first-place votes, and 151 total points. Wheeler also got 12 first-place votes, but he fared worse in second- and third-place votes. As a result, he received just 141 overall points.

What swung the National League Cy Young Award vote for Corbin Burnes over Zack Wheeler

Considering the most important performance categories in recent seasons lent no clear picture of who was likely to emerge because the three finalists each lined up as strong in some but weaker (in an award sense only) in others.

Since Burnes emerged with the win, it is reasonable to assume that voters ended up placing slightly more importance on his strengths (ERA and strikeouts) than on those categories favoring Wheeler or Scherzer.

At 2.43, Burnes led the majors in ERA, although just fractionally ahead of Scherzer’s 2.46. ERA turns out to be a prime litmus category for Cy Young voters. Since 2011, 14 of the 22 winners led their league in ERA. That includes Ray, the 2021 American League winner, as well as Burnes.

Burnes also led the majors in Adjusted ERA+, a relatively new, SABR-friendly category that the game’s statistical cognoscenti tend to like. To a lesser degree than ERA, but still a significant one, ERA+ has become a Cy Young indicator category. Since 2011, 10 of the 22 award winners (again, including both Ray and Burnes) led their league in ERA+.

Wheeler, the NL runner-up, led in two important categories (strikeouts and innings pitched). Indeed, he built up large margins over Burnes in both. He pitched 213.1 innings, 46 more than Burnes, and fanned 247 opponents, 13 more than Burnes.

Wheeler’s problem was twofold. First, Cy Young voters have simply not prized cumulative categories such as workload and raw strikeout numbers as highly as rate-based categories such as ERA and ERA+.

Since 2011, only seven strikeout leaders have won the Cy Young. Only six leaders in workload won the award during that time … and two of those also led their league in both ERA and ERA+.

Beyond that, Wheeler’s 2.78 ERA was, in the minds of voters, about as far in arrears to Burnes’ 2.43 as Burnes’ 167 innings were compared with Wheeler’s 213.

That’s not literally true, by the way: Wheeler finished fifth in the majors in ERA, while Burnes ranked 34th in innings.

But since voters continued their historical trend of preferring ERA-based stats to workload-based stats, Burnes’ weakness in workload was more than offset by Wheeler’s weakness in ERA.

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That historical preference is why Corbin Burnes, not Zack Wheeler, now holds the National League Cy Young Award.