How to pick Cy Young winners: John Smoltz shares his formula

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FOX Sports lead MLB analyst John Smoltz knows a thing or two about winning the Cy Young. He also has a specific formula he uses when it comes to picking a winner of the prestigious pitching award, which he shared in the latest “Saturdays with Smoltz” segment on “Flippin’ Bats.”

First, Smoltz likes to narrow down the contenders to just a handful of players, typically around four. 

Then, the 1996 National League Cy Young winner looks at how they rank compared to each other in five stats: innings pitched, strikeouts, batting average against, WHIP and ERA.

Once Smoltz has determined where each contender ranks in the five categories, he adds their numbers up, with the first-place player getting one point, the second-place player getting two, and so on add so forth. The player with the lowest score is Smoltz’s pick to win Cy Young. In the event of a tie, he uses wins as a tiebreaker.


Smoltz guessed that his formula has been in line with the players that have won the Cy Young in both leagues for most of the last 15 or 20 years, remaining adamant that the stats he uses are the very best indicator of which pitchers are the best in baseball for that given year. 

“I’m only taking the top four [candidates] and going No. 1-4 and squeezing it together,” Smoltz said. “If you want to take some analytical statistics, go ahead. … I guarantee it’s going to come out similar to my formula is of simple, back-in-the-day [stats].”

There’s one stat that Smoltz is particularly passionate about in his formula that he thinks should hold a lot of value — innings pitched. He said that the “biggest thing I’ve learned over the last 20 years” is that innings pitched is a “huge difference-maker,” adding that it should stand out if there’s a major gap in that category.

“You can’t have a bad year throwing 220 innings,” Smoltz said. “You can’t. It’s impossible. You really can’t have a bad year if you don’t give up a lot of hits. … Strikeouts could be the same as outs. I could argue that [if] you strike out 200 [hitters] and I strikeout 130 [hitters] and there’s not that big of a difference in our ERA [we shouldn’t be ranked too far from each other]. I know we want to quantify ERA differently, but I still think ERA is a big part of, even if you can’t control every component of ERA.”

Smoltz has yet to put his formula to work for this year, but he has a good feeling who would be in the lead for both Cy Young awards if they were voted on today. 

In the American League, Smoltz guessed that “Gerrit Cole would be the leader in the clubhouse,” which would be correct, as Cole has the best score using his formula among the other AL Cy Young contenders he named (Framber Valdez, Nathan Eovaldi and Zach Eflin). 

Cole has graded well in the efficiency stats (WHIP, batting average against and ERA) that Smoltz includes in his formula. But what helps him separate himself from the pack is his innings pitched. He leads the AL with 150 ⅓ innings pitched entering Saturday, helping him have the most strikeouts out of the contending group.

“[He has the] ability to get batters out, obviously,” Smoltz said of Cole. “All of those things that, I think, are important. So, he’s in the mix. Framber [is] in the mix. Eovaldi [has] had an incredible year. You even look at a guy like Zac Eflin, [who has] had a great year. [Shane] McClanahan, I thought, was running away with it for a while. But his injuries are going to cost him. (McClanahan has been ruled out for the season.) So, the guy that stays healthy and goes to the post, at the end of the day, is going to win Cy Young in the AL.”

In the NL, Smoltz views the race as a bit more open. 

“I think it’s going to be a good one because it’s a mixed bag,” Smoltz said. “You’ve got Zac Gallen, Spencer Strider, Corbin Burns, who maybe doesn’t get the run support and therefore his wins are a little less.”

Until recently, Smoltz had Strider as the clear favorite of the group.

“I thought it was Spencer’s to [lose] for a little while,” Smoltz said. “But he [has] run into a couple of games that have run up his ERA with short innings. He’s pitched 132 innings and has 200-something strikeouts. It’s ridiculous. I get it. He’s a power pitcher. At the same time, if he lags 30 or 40 innings behind the next guy that’s in the category, then I think there’s a case to be made for the guy who has pitched the most innings and has similar numbers, minus the strikeouts, would give him the edge for me.”

A few of Strider’s lesser-than-usual outings have actually hurt him in Smoltz’s formula. Adding San Diego Padres ace Blake Snell to the list of pitchers Smoltz mentioned, Strider trails slightly behind him and Gallen, who currently holds the lead in Smoltz’s formula.

But Smoltz thinks that if Strider can keep his strikeout numbers up and last longer in his starts while not giving up as many runs, it’s back to being his to lose.

“Let’s say he’s not giving up many hits, and he’s striking out 12, 13 or 14 hitters [per game],” Smoltz said. “Then yeah, he’s definitely [a lock]. That’s always going to catch the eye of the voter. He’s got the wins. He’s just missing some of the run prevention and the innings.”

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