Who the Heck is Going to Win the AL Cy Young Award?

Posted: 08/11/2015 by levcohen in Uncategorized

This is around the time in the baseball season that it makes sense to start looking ahead to the playoffs and to the award races. I started doing the former with my Mets post and figured that I’d get going on the latter today with one or both of the MVP races. The problem is that both the NL MVP and the AL MVP races are effectively over, with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout running away with their respective races. The comparison between those two is another post entirely, one that’s probably been over-analyzed already. And the NL Cy Young is Zack Greinke’s to lose, given that Greinke is 11-2 and has a sub-2 ERA. If Greinke has more starts like the one he had against the Phillies (six runs in six innings), the back door could open up for Max Scherzer or Gerrit Cole, assuming Greinke and fellow-Dodger Clayton Kershaw split votes. But the award is Greinke’s if he continues to pitch well, which is something that can’t be said about any pitcher in the AL.

This race is refreshingly wide-open. You’d normally see a semi-decent candidate from the best team in the league gaining momentum, but there’s nobody on the Royals who deserves much of a look, barring a 2008 CC Sabathia stretch from new acquisition Jhonny Cueto (in 2008, Sabathia finished sixth in the NL MVP voting despite starting just 17 games for the Brewers after a mid-season trade. In those 17 games, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA while averaging nearly eight innings a start. Cueto won’t do that.). The Yankees, the team with the second best record in the AL, also don’t have a viable starting candidate for Cy Young, although reliever Dellin Betances might have an argument (more on that later). Many of the best pitchers in the AL pitch on teams that are below .500, which, while in no way a death knell, is a big negative for some voters. Another problem is that there’s no pitcher who’s racked up an anomalous number of wins. Felix Hernandez leads the AL with 14 wins, and even he has a less than 50-50 shot at 20 wins. Lastly, nobody’s having a Greinke-esque season in the AL when it comes to ERA, with no pitcher currently posting an ERA under 2.00 as we slog through the dog days of August.

Ok, so we know why this is a close and congested race. Who are the frontrunners? First, let’s learn something from previous AL Cy Young winners. Since 2008, the seven winners have averaged just north of 19 wins with only one, Felix Hernandez in 2010, winning fewer than 16. Only one of the seven has posted an ERA higher than 2.60, and that was Max Scherzer in 2013 when he had a ludicrous 21-3 record along with a 2.90 ERA. So anyone with an ERA above, say, 3.20 (anyone below that can easily get under the threshold) and anyone with single-digit wins should be eliminated. Already, we’re left with just six candidates: Sonny Gray, David Price, Dallas Keuchel, Chris Archer, Felix Hernandez, and Edinson Volquez. And given that every Cy Young winner since 2009 in both leagues has struck out more than 200 batters, we can eliminate Volquez, who has just 102 strikeouts in 139 innings. Besides, he’s Edinson Volquez. That should have been enough. So we’re left with five candidates.

I wouldn’t have said this a couple of weeks ago, but right now it looks like Price should be the favorite to take home his second AL Cy Young award in four years. Three great things have happened to Price’s stock in the last two weeks. First, he was traded from a sinking team in the Tigers to a team with a much better chance of making the playoffs in the Blue Jays. Second, the Jays have gone 11-1 since the trade, drawing within a single game of the Yankees in the AL East. Price isn’t responsible for most of that, but most voters are frankly too shallow to realize that. The Jays have gone from a fringe playoff contender to a likely playoff team, and that matters to voters, especially if they go on to win their division. Finally, Price has pitched extremely well since the trade, allowing just six hits and one run in 15 innings while striking out 18 and winning both starts as a Blue Jay. So he now sits at 11-4 with a 2.35 ERA. He sits just fifth in the AL in WAR at 4.1, but that won’t matter to most voters. Price ranks fourth in the AL in innings pitched with 161 and has 156 strikeouts, which should allow him to break the 200 mark easily. Minus a few wins, in fact, his season very much mirrors his 2012 Cy Young season; in 2012, he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA for a 90-win Rays team that barely missed the playoffs. Again, though, more important than all of the stats is the fact that Price is making a clear impact on a team that’s exploded since it has acquired him. If the Blue Jays win the AL East with Price pitching well, the former Ray and Tiger will probably win the award. If not, though, there are plenty of other candidates for the award.

The ERA leader always has a chance in the race. This year, barring a late slump, that guy will be either Sonny Gray or Scott Kazmir. And since Kazmir is just 6-6, Gray is the guy with a chance to capitalize on his low ERA. The 25-year old has been good ever since being called up in 2013 but is having his true breakout season this year. He’s 12-4 with a 2.06 ERA and seems to be well on his way to a 17-7, 2.30 type season, numbers that would put him squarely in the race. Unfortunately, Gray happens to pitch for the Athletics, who are 12 games under .500 and are just half a game better than the Red Sox, the worst team in the AL. He’s also not the prototypical dominant Cy Young candidate, as while he throws as fast as any candidate besides Price, Archer, and Betances, he lacks the out pitches the other guys have, as evidenced by his lackluster 7.57 K/9 rate, which, if it remains static, will leave him just short of 200 strikeouts. Gray pitches to contact, and he’s gotten really lucky this year, with a lot of balls finding gloves. That explains why his FIP is nearly a run higher than his ERA, and it could mean that his ERA will regress meaningfully over the final few months. And while a relatively unknown 17-7 pitcher with a 2.10 ERA on a bad team might win the Cy Young, the same guy with a 2.50 ERA would probably fall short. Gray’s a very good pitcher, but I think he could fall short of a top-three finish.

In every way except the traditional ones, Archer would be a better candidate than Gray. The two are at similar points in their careers, and Archer’s 10-8 record and 2.62 ERA pales in comparison to Gray’s profile. Archer’s on pace to go 14-12, and only the 13-12, 2.27 ERA King Felix in 2010 managed to win a Cy Young with a record like that. But everything else about Archer, the candidate with the best WAR, screams “stud.” He throws his average fastball 95 miles per hour, and he uses his deadly slider to strike out 11.06 batters per nine innings. He’s on pace to strike out 275 hitters, more than any Cy Young winner since Randy Johnson in 2002. And even if he ends up with 250 strikeouts he’ll be in great shape. The problem is again that he’s a relatively unknown starter on a .500 Rays team that is unlikely (16.8% playoff shot, per Fangraphs) to make the playoffs. So while Archer might be the deserving Cy Young, he won’t have the pedigree, ERA or record to make a serious run barring a dominant final month and a half.

One thing you might have noticed is that most of these candidates have pretty much come out of nowhere. That’s certainly the case for Dallas Keuchel, who after posting an ERA above five in his first two years has bounced back with a 2.93 ERA last season and a 2.40 ERA this year to go along with his solid 13-6 record. Keuchel’s average fastball clocks in at under 90 miles per hour. He’s one of just seven qualified AL starters without a pitch that averages 90 mph, and Hernandez, the next slowest of the candidates, averages 92.1 miles per hour on his fastball. Keuchel might be the guy with the best story. He’s the ace for the biggest surprise in baseball, as his Astros have quickly gone from being baseball’s laughingstock to leading the AL West for almost the entirety of this season. Unfortunately, it looks as if he’s falling off a little as the season has gone on. Since posting a .73 ERA in April, he’s looked a little more shaky, as evidenced by his 3.71 ERA in July and his 3.29 ERA through two August starts. But those numbers are still pretty darn good, and Keuchel will have a legitimate chance at the Cy Young. In order to win the award, the Astros probably need to hold on for the AL West championship, Keuchel needs to keep his ERA under 2.50. Oh, and it would also be nice if he could hit 20 wins. It might be unlikely, but a 20-8 season on baseball’s feel-good team would probably be enough for Keuchel to take home the Cy Young.

Then there’s Felix Hernandez, who along with Price is a guy everyone knew about before the season. Hernandez probably feels robbed of a Cy Young, as he was just edged out by then-upstart Corey Kluber despite leading the league in ERA at 2.14 and WHIP at .92. He now has four top-four Cy Young finishes and could be on his way to adding a fifth this season. Hernandez is an outlier here because his 3.11 ERA is pretty high for a Cy Young candidate, but I had to include him both because he leads the league in wins and because I think he has a good chance of going on a tear to close the season. Let’s say Hernandez allows 10 runs in his final 10 starts (70 innings) while winning six and losing two. Pretty reasonable for an ace like Felix, right? Well, in that scenario, Hernandez would end the season with a 20-8 record and a 2.53 ERA. That probably still wouldn’t be enough to win him the award given that he plays for a pretty poor Mariners team, but it would definitely put him in the conversation. And the name Felix Hernandez is always going to give him a little bump, especially since he’ll be competing with no-names like Dallas Keuchel for votes.

Finally, I’d like to talk about Dellin Betances, my darkhorse candidate. Now, I know Betances has no real shot at winning this award unless all five of the other guys get shelled a bunch and a few other starters get injured. And given that he’s going to end the season with around two-and-a-half times fewer innings pitched than the starters, he probably shouldn’t be in the conversation. But the guy is so dominant for one of the best teams in the league that I almost feel obligated to bring him up. Betances and Aroldis Chapman are the only relievers to post WAR tallies above 1.8, and the Yankees flamethrower (96.8 average fastball, sixth fastest in baseball) leads the way with 2.3. He also has thrown more innings than all but two relievers, and one of those two, Justin De Fratus, has thrown most of his innings in mop-up situations, as evidenced by his 0-1 record and 5.69 ERA. Betances trails only Chapman in strikeouts per nine innings with 14.28, and he leads all relief pitchers with 92 punchouts. Oh, he also has a 1.23 ERA, second best in baseball. But most important is the role he fills with the Yankees. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually think Betances’ six wins say a lot about what he’s done for the team. He always comes in in high leverage situations, and he almost always gets the job done, including when closer Andrew Miller was injured. He has 18 holds and seven saves while often pitching on back-to-back nights. And while this shouldn’t matter, he also looks incredibly intimidating to hit against, as he’s 6’8″ and not all that lanky. So if he brings his ERA lower and keeps dominating opponents, why shouldn’t he be in the discussion? …. Right, the innings thing. Bummer.

The American League is closer to complete parity than I can remember it ever being, with no team even as many as 10 games out of a playoff spot and only the Royals boasting a winning percentage over .555. With that being said, this might be a year in which pitching for a winning team means less than it otherwise would. That opens the door for guys like Gray, Hernandez, and Archer while giving Betances and Volquez less of an advantage. Here’s the way I see the AL Cy Young award race shaking out:

David Price
Dallas Keuchel
Sonny Gray
Felix Hernandez
Chris Archer
Dellin Betances

This is a crazy race, and I can see it going any number of ways. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned the two leaders in WAR in Corey Kluber and Chris Sale simply because this year they don’t fit the profiles of Cy Young award winners. But I feel pretty confident that, barring a collapse or injury, these five starters are all going to finish near the top of the ballot, with Price or Keuchel winning the award simply because they have the best combinations of stats and storylines. And Betances might even find himself on some ballots too.

  1. dpcathena says:

    Ultimately I think it will be King Felix. He is owed.

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