Here’s my suggestion on how to fix it.
Sale put himself firmly in the running for the American League Cy Young award but finished fourth, behind Blake Snell, Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber. While I do agree with the voters that Snell was the most deserving of the honor, Sale’s fourth place finish was likely due to his innings total more than anything else.
Sale pitched just 158 innings last year, but he still produced 6.5 fWAR in the process, which would have ranked second behind Verlander had he pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA crown. In bWAR, Sale’s 6.9 WAR also ranked second in the AL, behind Snell.
It’s clear that Sale probably was not good enough to win the Cy Young award. However, he was likely hurt in the voting by not reaching the minimum innings necessary to qualify for the ERA title.
For a pitcher to qualify for the leaderboards of ERA and other rate stats, like WHIP, they need to have thrown at least one inning per team game played. That’s the rule in Major League Baseball, and it’s been that way for a very long time. So, any pitcher who wants to claim that they had the lowest ERA in the game must throw at least 162 innings by the end of the season.
The problem with this, however, is that in an age of openers, closers, and a plethora of relief pitchers in general, pitchers aren’t throwing 162 innings in a season:
In 2018, just 57 pitchers threw more than 162 innings. That is down from 96 pitchers in 1998.
The drastic change, though, didn’t really happen until 2017. From 1998 to 2016, the average number of pitchers who qualified for the ERA title was about 86 with a standard deviation of 6.185. This means that, in 2018, the number of pitchers who qualified for the ERA title was 4.71 standard deviations (!) below the 1998 to 2016 average.
Something has clearly changed. The 162-inning threshold is arbitrary. It’s unable to adjust for different eras. It works for the majority of baseball history when pitchers were throwing 250 or more innings in a season, but it does not work in 2018 baseball.
Sam Miller wrote an interesting article on the subject at Baseball Prospectus back in 2016. He noted that, in 1962, 80 percent of starters with more than 20 starts reached the 162-innings pitched threshold. At the time of his writing, just 63 percent of starters with 20+ starts reached the threshold; the fewest number of starts by any pitcher who qualified for the ERA crown was 27.
Miller suggested, then, that we lower the threshold to 130 innings, which represents 65 percent of a 200 innings pitched “max” season. (Interestingly enough, 65 percent of a 250 innings pitched “max” season was 162 innings.)
The issue that I have with Miller’s suggestion, though, is that every team still (!) wouldn’t have at least one qualified starting pitcher.
I present to you the 2017 Reds, who were fairly insignificant as far as baseball teams go. They were bad, finishing 68-94 and fifth in the NL Central, but they weren’t bad enough to get the No. 1 pick in the draft. So, the 2017 Reds generally go down in history as remembered by few.
Anyway, call it injuries, call it weak starting pitching, call it both, but the 2017 Reds did not have a single pitcher throw more than 122 1⁄3 innings. That was Tim Adleman, who posted a 5.52 ERA and signed in Korea at the season’s end.
Since Adleman was the team leader with just 122 1⁄3 innings, the Reds had zero pitchers reach the 162-innings pitched qualifier. They also would have had zero pitchers reach the 130-innings pitched qualifier. But, using my method, Tim Adleman would have qualified for the ERA crown… finishing 103rd.
It’s quite simple, yet it works. My suggestion to replace the qualified innings threshold is this: find the innings leader for every team, sort them 1-30 and No. 30 becomes the threshold. Round down to the nearest inning for simplicity sake.
Thus, this would mean that, in 2017, the innings pitched qualifier would have been 122 innings pitched. This might seem low, and it is. Under this qualifier, 112 pitchers would have qualified for the ERA crown, and that would have been 4.18 standard deviations above the 1998 to 2016 mean. That’s still not exactly what you want, but considering no relievers threw more than 87 1⁄3 innings that year, the leaderboard still remains that of starting pitchers. That is what you want.
This suggestion works significantly better using 2018. In 2018, just 57 pitchers reached the 162 innings threshold. Marco Estrada had the fewest innings pitched of any team leader, leading the Blue Jays with 143 2⁄3 innings pitched. Making the threshold 143 innings, 86 pitchers would have qualified for the ERA title, which is exactly the average from 1998 to 2016!
There are a couple of downsides to this new threshold, however.
First, It’s harder to calculate on a daily basis, having to re-sort the innings pitched leaders for all 30 teams every day. But, with the technology that is currently available, that shouldn’t be that hard to do. I did it in a few minutes using Google Sheets alone.
Second, one team, like the 2017 Reds, could drop the threshold incredibly far down. Adleman led the Reds with 122 1⁄3 innings; the next closest team innings leader was Derek Holland, who led the White Sox with 135 innings. After that was Astros pitcher Mike Fiers with 153 1⁄3 innings.
Surely, it shouldn’t really be an issue to exclude a few teams’ pitchers from the qualified innings threshold if their respective teams are not good. In other words, the 2017 Reds were terrible, so why do we need their poor pitchers to qualify for the ERA title? That’s a fair point, but in 2018, five teams didn’t have a pitcher reach the 162 innings mark, including two (the Dodgers and Athletics) who made the playoffs! My threshold is the only threshold that guarantees that all 30 teams have a representative on the leaderboard.
Lastly, if you want to make your threshold include include 80 percent of pitchers who make at least 20+ starts (like Miller did), my suggestion does not work as well. In 2018, only 68.8 percent of starters with 20 or more starts reached the imaginary 143-inning threshold.
Nonetheless, no matter how Major League Baseball decides to handle the problem, one thing is for certain: the innings pitched qualifier must be changed.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.