The AL Cy Young Race’s Surprise Contenders — ERA Guys and (maybe) Favorite?

Posted: 08/19/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

I wrote about the elite pitchers of the AL and how none of them have pitched well enough to make a super compelling case for the Cy Young. Now, let’s look at the less heralded pitchers who have a chance to sneak into some first place votes in the award voting. These guys are a mixture of low-innings stalwarts, the two starters with the most wins in the league, and even a relief pitcher. Today, I’m going to write about the three starters with the best ERAs in the American League, one of whom I think may be the favorite for the award. Next, I’ll write about the two wins leaders and the closer.

Michael Fulmer has pitched 120 innings for the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers have played 121 games. In order to qualify for the ERA title, you need to pitch at least one inning per game played, so as of this moment, Fulmer doesn’t qualify. Now, I mentioned that he pitches tonight, and if he stays healthy for the rest of the season, he should crack 162 innings with room to spare. But the Tigers have talked about skipping a few starts down the stretch because he threw just 124.2 innings last season. There’s no “hard cap” on Fulmer’s innings, but Detroit will be cautious about him as the season draws to a close even as they remain in the thick of the AL wild card race. So there’s some question regarding whether Fulmer will even qualify for the ERA title. But we’re talking about the Cy Young, not the ERA title. Is, say, 170 innings enough to propel Fulmer into the thick of the Cy Young voting? Well, he’s 10-3 with a 2.25 ERA, so that helps. Even if he has a rough start or two down the stretch, he’ll likely have the best run prevention number in the AL, as he currently has a 48 point jump on second place Danny Duffy (more on him soon). He’s really snuck up on me in his rookie season. After generally being considered a mediocre prospect, he was ranked at the back end of the top-50 entering this season and made just three starts in AAA before getting the call-up. He was a first round pick who’s always performed pretty well, so his success makes some sense, but I don’t think anyone expected him to be this good. And he’s actually been even better since his first four starts. Since he shut down the Rays on May 21st, he’s made 15 starts. He’s 8-2 and has a 1.43 ERA and a .84 WHIP. He doesn’t have the strikeout-to-walk rate of Clayton Kershaw, but that’s a 15 start stretch that seems very Kershaw-esque (or Arrieta-esque, for that matter). Now, a lot of this is down to luck. He’s leaving a higher percentage of baserunners on base than anyone in the league besides Ian Kennedy and Duffy, and he’s holding hitters to a .248 average on balls in play, second-lowest in the league behind Marco Estrada. This is where the difference between Fangraphs WAR, which is based on FIP, and Baseball-Reference ERA, which is based on ERA, comes into play. Fulmer is tied for 12th in fWAR at 2.6 but first in bWAR at 5.1. At the end of the day, I don’t believe that a starter whose thrown 60-70 fewer innings than the league’s workhorses belongs in the Cy Young debate. But for the ERA-obsessed voters, it’s pretty hard to ignore someone who seems likely to have the best ERA in the league by a long shot, especially if he can win three or four more games and if the Tigers can make the playoffs.

Danny Duffy’s thrown more innings and has been slightly less lucky than Fulmer, but I put him in pretty much the same category. He’s thrown 132 innings and is 10-1 with a 2.73 ERA in 34 appearances, 18 of which have been starts. Had Duffy, who ranks ninth in fWAR and seventh in bWAR, started for the whole year, this award might be his to lose. But he didn’t start until May 15th, and he didn’t throw more than 88 pitches until June 22nd. He has a 2.68 ERA and sub-1 WHIP as a starter, but it probably won’t matter much. Despite his 10-1 record, Duffy’s generating even less Cy Young talk than Fulmer is, both because he’s been around for a while (he was a former top prospect who was 24-30 with a 3.80 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in his first five years) and because he’s pitching for a World Series Champion that is barely over .500 and seems unlikely to make a playoff run. Duffy really seems to have figured something out; he’s generating far more swings-and-misses than he ever has, largely because he’s nixed his curveball in favor of a slider and has thrown his changeup much more often and much more effectively. That’s good news for the Royals, but Duffy probably won’t end the season with the Cy Young.

When the Blue Jays traded for Francisco Liriano at the trade deadline, Toronto GM Ross Atkins said that Aaron Sanchez would be heading to the bullpen. But he’s made two starts since then and is scheduled to start again tomorrow. Why? Because the Blue Jays have decided to go with a six man rotation instead of wasting their talented young starter. Now that we know he’s remaining in the rotation, Sanchez might be the frontrunner for the award, because he seems like the guy in the race who checks off the most boxes. Workload? He’ll probably be 30 innings behind the league leaders, but he’ll start 29 or 30 games and get close to 190 innings, which will give him significantly more innings than Duffy. Record? He’s 12-2 and, given the quality of Toronto’s offense, seems to be in a good position to end up with 15 or 16 wins. He’s five wins behind J.A. Happ and four behind Rick Porcello, but he’s just two behind Chris Sale, one behind Corey Kluber, and tied with Justin Verlander with time to move ahead of those guys. Narrative? The Jays currently lead the ultra-competitive AL East by a game and a half, and Sanchez is the ace. Run prevention? His 2.84 ERA ranks behind only Fulmer and Duffy. Advanced stats? His FIP is 3.30, behind only Kluber and Duffy. His BABIP is .278, which is pretty middle of the road. While he doesn’t have a high strikeout rate, he generates a huge number of ground balls (253). His ground ball rate is 57.1%, which puts him behind only Marcus Stroman and Dallas Keuchel and miles ahead of Fulmer (50.6%), who’s next among Cy Young candidates. He gets 2.53 ground balls for every fly ball, behind only Stroman and again many degrees of separation away from the other contenders. And his hard hit% against is only 28.7%, fifth in the AL. Duffy is getting hit hard 34.6% of the time and has the fifth worst grounder to fly ball rate in the league. In other words: Sanchez has been more good than lucky.

He really does check all the boxes, but while I would vote for Sanchez or Corey Kluber if I had to cast a vote today, neither of them are really running away with the award. That’s why the race is still open for three other surprise candidates who I still haven’t gotten to. When I said this was a wide open race, this is what I meant.



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