Cy Young Picks

Posted: 09/26/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Last week, I made my picks for MVP, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout. For me, those were easy picks. The NL Cy Young, of course, is even easier: Kershaw will win it easily. The AL Cy Young, though, is the first tough choice I’ve been faced with. Up until a couple of weeks ago, it looked as if Felix Hernandez would run away with the award. He was flirting with a sub-2 ERA, and the Mariners looked set to make the playoffs. Now, the choice is tougher, as the Mariners look unlikely to win a wildcard and Hernandez got shelled in a game he absolutely had to win; he gave up eight runs in a 10-2 Wednesday loss as his ERA ballooned from 2.07 to 2.34. He’s still a viable choice, but he’s no longer the only choice. Before I start, I’ll clarify that these are my picks, and not necessarily what I think will happen. Since the AL Cy Young is such a close race, I will also include who I think will win at the end.

AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber
That has rapidly developed into a three-man race between Hernandez, Kluber, and Jon Lester. Of course, others have also had great years. Chris Sale has a lower ERA than all of them, but he missed a month of the season and would need Kershaw’s numbers to be in the race. He doesn’t have Kershaw’s numbers. Last year’s winner, Max Scherzer, has had another good season, but his 3.86 ERA in his last eight starts has pushed his season ERA above 3 and probably eliminated him. Same goes for David Price, who has more strikeouts than anyone but has a 5.22 ERA in the past month. That leaves us with the three candidates: Hernandez, Kluber, Lester. Lester’s a weird case, because he was traded from the Red Sox to the Athletics in the middle of the season. Rick Sutcliffe is the only player to win a Cy Young award after being traded at midseason, and that was in 1984. But should Lester be the second? Probably not. His numbers are very similar to the other two, but he hasn’t had to deal with some of the uncontrollable hindrances that the other two have. The fact is that he’s played in front of two good defenses. The Red Sox are third with 50.4 FanGraphs defensive runs saved, while the Athletics are ninth at 13.7. Meanwhile, the Mariners are 12th at 6.6 and the Indians are 29th at -63.2. That’s big for Lester, who even with the advantage hasn’t posted better numbers than the other two. On the other hand, Lester’s set to be the only one of the three who makes the playoffs (whatever that means) and has called two hitter-friendly parks home. He also has nineteen straight quality starts.

But while Lester’s a fine third choice, in the end this is probably going to come down to Hernandez and Kluber. The main Hernandez argument is the fact that he’s given up a significantly fewer number of hits and baserunners. While hitters are hitting .233 against Kluber for a .629 OPS, they are hitting just .201 with a .556 OPS against Hernandez. As a result, Kluber has a 1.10 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) while Hernandez’s is .94. Felix also has his pedigree and the fact that he made history with his 16 straight starts with at least seven innings and no more than two earned runs allowed going for him. Kluber is the analytical darling of the two. His ERA is higher (2.53 to 2.34) but his FIP is lower. Why? Because, as I mentioned before, his defense has been that much worse. Along with the Astros, the Indians have a far worse defense than the rest of baseball. Their UZR (ultimate zone rating) is worst in baseball, and they’ve made more errors than anyone else in the league. Meanwhile, the Mariners have about a league-average defense, thanks to above-average guys up the middle (Mike Zunino, Robinson Cano, Chris Taylor, and Austin Jackson are all solid) and one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball in Kyle Seager. The defensive difference can pretty much explain the difference in ERA and hits allowed. Hernandez also pitches in a very pitcher-friendly environment (Safeco has been just that for pitchers: safe. It ranks as the second most pitcher friendly atmosphere) while Kluber’s home park is about league average. Kluber also has the advantage of turning it on late in the season (1.88 post all-star break ERA), while Hernandez has struggled (2.71). It’s likely that neither team will make the playoffs, so voters are going to have a tough choice to make. I like Kluber because I think he’d be having a better season if they had the same defense behind him and because he’s been more electric (17 more strikeouts in three fewer innings). It’s fair to say, though, that each pitcher’s final start will be very important, if not for his respective team than for his respective Cy Young hopes.

Who will actually win? I think because of his lower ERA, record-breaking season and pedigree (he’s long been an ace, while this is Kluber’s first great year), voters are going to lean towards Felix Hernandez by just a hair. Including Lester, all three choices are viable, but Kluber, the analytical darling, has the best all-around case. It depends on how each fairs in their final start, but Hernandez probably has the slight public edge right now.

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
Since I have him as the NL MVP, I don’t really think I have to add anything here. It’s just been an incredible year for Kershaw, who has a sub-1.80 ERA and a 21-3 record despite missing a month of the season.
Honorable mention: In a league bereft of Clayton Kershaw, Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright would go head-to-head for the award. I think Wainwright is slightly ahead, for the record. I’d vote 9-8 Cole Hamels fourth, if only as a reminder that his fourth-place 2.47 ERA means more than his 9-8 record.

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