Who is Really the Best Pitcher in the American League, and Why is the Word Best so Confusing?

The 2018 Cy Young voters received some heat over the winter for their selection of Blake Snell as the best pitcher in the American League. It’s not that Snell did not have a spectacular season, because he did, but rather that there were a slew of other pitchers who also could be said to have deserved it. it really was a no-win situation for the voters, because the race was so tight that there were going to be angry fans regardless of who wound up winning. With as many viable candidates as there currently are, it is almost impossible to know which pitcher is really the best. Really, the answer to that question depends entirely on how you define the word “best” in regards to pitching.

In terms of sheer value given to their team, Snell was the best. His 7.5 WAR via baseball-reference led the American League solidly, as nobody else even managed to get up to seven. He was 1.2 WAR ahead of Justin Verlander, and 2.6 ahead of Corey Kluber, who were the second and third place runners in the Cy Young voting. Snell also led the league in ERA+ and h/9, and a 11.0 K/9 show he was able to miss bats with the best of them, so it doesn’t feel like too big a leap to consider him to have been deserving of being the most valuable pitcher.

The thing is, the title of this article isn’t Who’s the most VALUABLE Pitcher, its who’s the BEST. Although Snell may have produced the most overall value, he also did it in considerably more playing time than two of the other prime candidates, Chris Sale and Trevor Bauer. All of Sale’s peripheral stats were better than Snell’s, as his FIP would have led the league as would his K/9 had he not missed too many innings to qualify. Bauer’s FIP did lead the league, and his K/9 was also higher than Snell’s. If you look at WAR per 100 IP, Snell does edge out Bauer, 4.15 to 3.25, but Bauer was on track to pitch far more innings as he was able to work much deeper into starts. Sale’s WAR per 100 IP beat out both of them at 4.36. Since both Sale and Bauer missed about a month of the season, it’d be easy to see either of them passing him in WAR had they stayed healthy. More notably, Sale’s stats seemed better than either of them in terms of value on a per-opportunity basis, so if you’re just talking about who’s the best pitcher when healthy, the answer seems to shift from Snell to Sale.

At this time of year, considering only on the previous season also doesn’t usually lead to the correct answer. Focusing on last year’s Cy Young race would make sense for only looking at 2018, but knowing the best overall at a given time may require a more in-depth look. We aren’t doing that, though, and instead are looking at who is the most talented pitcher, which means potential for future success is also going to be important. Last season plays the biggest factor, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Instead, it would make sense to look at last year relative to their career, as that probably provides the most clear answer for who simply had a good year, and who is truly a next level talent.

If you average the WAR per 100 of the five pitcher in serious consideration for the Cy Young Award’s 2018 season with their whole career, the order reads as follows: Sale(3.67), Snell(3.23), Kluber(2.66), Verlander(2.63), and Bauer(1.63). Again, this seems to suggest that Sale is the best of all of the starters when he’s able to stay healthy. Frustratingly, though, Sale also has the biggest injury history of anyone on this list.

The truth is that this question seems to depend on your perception of what it means to be good at pitching. In terms of producing the most over the course of a season, it seems like Snell may be the top candidate. If you want to focus on career accomplisment, you should probably choose either Verlander or Kluber, or perhaps even C.C. Sabathia if you’re willing to discount the past few seasons of mediocrity(the reason he isn’t mentioned before now). If you believe being the best shouldn’t be dependent on service time, than the best pitcher is likely either Chris Sale or a number of incredible relief pitchers. The answer to this question is really completely subjective, and it honestly depends on who’s asking. After all, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.