The Quest For The Cy Young: How Each Of The Candidates Stack Up

September means pennant races and award chases. After nearly six months of baseball, it’s time that we turn our attention to the Cy Young Award for the 2016 season. All together it’s been an odd season for pitchers, there’s been so few front-runners in both leagues, especially in the AL, where a reliever actually could win. Here is a full breakdown of each Cy Young candidates – separated by league — and their vital stats using Fan Graphs and Baseball Reference.

American League Candidates

The left-hander Cole Hamels has pitched like a consistent ace for the Rangers. Will it end with an AL Cy Young? Photo Courtesy of CSN Philly.
Left-hander Cole Hamels has pitched like a consistent ace for the Rangers. Will it end with an AL Cy Young? Photo Courtesy of CSN Philly.

The front-runners

Cole Hamels: So you want a starter who can provide quality outings, strike out hitters fairly often, and keep a relatively low walk rate? Look no further then Texas Rangers’ left-hander Cole Hamels. The 32-year old has been so consistent for so long and his 2016 campaign has been nothing but stellar.

At the surface, Hamels’ numbers aren’t pristine – he isn’t in the Top 5 in terms of ERA, nor in the Top 10 in inning pitched for the the American League – despite him being well on his way for a seventh consecutive 200+ inning regular season. However, Hamels is backed up by several strong measurables. For example, his 9.02 K’s per 9 innings is sixth best among all AL qualified starters. In addition, he sports the fourth best WAR (5.1) in baseball. Over the years, the WAR metric has been used more and more in determining a Cy Young winner. Case in point, the 2014 and 2015 winners for both leagues finished in the Top 3 in WAR in the majors. So, in all likelihood Hamels could get away with having an ERA over 3 if in fact he has a superior WAR to replace it. And in this case, he does.

Corey Kluber: You can’t have an imposing starting rotation – which flashes the fifth best team ERA (3.82) and strikeouts (1,298) in baseball – without the service of a front-line ace. Corey Kluber exemplifies just that for the AL Central’s best team, the Cleveland Indians. After being named to his first All-Star Game in his career this season. Kluber is in solid shape to make a contingency for the the league’s best pitcher, an award he previously conquered in 2014.

This season, Kluber has shown that he is one of the more complete pitchers in the majors. After eclipsing his third consecutive 200 inning season last Friday, Kluber has attained baseball’s best WAR (6.4), fourth best ERA (3.12) and lowest hits per 9 innings average (7.0). If you want to find a pitcher who’s at the top of the league in terms of metrics, as well as recent success, then Kluber is your guy.

Second-Tier Candidates

Zach Britton: Britton is trying to accomplish something that has only been done nine times throughout baseball history: be a closer that wins a Cy Young. It hasn’t happened since Eric Gagne of the Los Angles Dodgers did it in 2003, when he recorded a 1.20 ERA and 0.81 FIP in 82.1 innings pitched en route to a 55-save season.

Although the odds may be stacked against him, the Baltimore Orioles’ closer has produced outlandish numbers to back himself up. In 60.1 innings of work Britton has converted 45 out of 46 save opportunities, by far the best in the majors. In addition to Britton’s lockdown work in the late innings. He also sports a microscopic 0.59 ERA, 2.04 FIP and 29.1 K-BB percentage overall, which is No. 1 among all major league relievers. Despite WAR being an increasingly vital measuring stick, Britton’s 3.7 doesn’t compare to the likes of Hamels, Chris Sale, or Kluber, which is why it’s harder to justify his case. Either way, Britton’s stretch of dominance this season will go down as an historic pace. Something, that can be built-on in the years to come.

Rick Porcello: By a show of hands, how many people at the start of the season really believed that Rick Porcello would find himself in the thick of the Cy Young race? Probably no one. Porcello came into this season as a clueless No. 5 starter, posting a career 4.21 ERA, 3.96 FIP, and no more than 145 strikeouts and 180 innings in a single-season. In a sense, Porcello was barely keeping his head above water and his contract was slowly dying in Boston.

Well, here we are in mid September and Porcello is the Red Sox’s ace. Through 31 starts, Porcello has reached a career-high in strikeouts (174), ERA (3.08), FIP (3.44) and innings (210.2). This is only the second time in his career that he’s pitched 200 innings in a season. Stats wise, Porcello has everything you need to win a Cy Young; a low ERA, outstanding winning percentage, and a wealth of innings. But it goes without saying if it’s enough to outperform his consistent competitors such as Kluber and Hamels?

Third-Tier Candidates

Chris Sale: Based off his numbers alone, Sale should be in nomination for a front-runner position. Sale has pitched the second most innings among qualified AL starters (210.2). In addition, he has served up the second best ERA (3.05) and fourth best WAR (5.4) in the league.

Sale made modifications to his delivery this past off-season – taking an approach of pitching to contact rather than striking every hitter out. This philosophy has helped Sale greatly by keeping his endurance in check, going deeper into games than ever before. Case in point, out of Sale’s 29 starts this season, 24 of them he has pitched into at least the 7th inning. He has also delivered a MLB-leading 22 quality starts.

But what makes Sale’s Cy Young argument murky is the team he pitches for. At 73-77, the Chicago White Sox aren’t going anywhere come October, in fact another below .500 campaign is in their future. Despite Sale being one of the more premiere pitchers in the game, his credit isn’t fully deserved because of the White Sox’s constant falterings. On occasion the Cy Young has been awarded to a pitcher on a last-place team (or at least an under .500 one). 2012 R.A. Dickey of the Mets, 2010 Felix Hernandez of the Mariners and 2009 Zach Greinke of the Royals are the only Cy Young winners the past decade that came on 90-loss or 100-loss teams. All of those pitchers however contained ERAs of 2.70 or lower and 220+ strikeouts. No matter what Chris Sale does the remainder of this season, he won’t reach that mark.

Danny Duffy: Duffy suffers a similar fate as Sale – a left-hander who is also pitching for a team that will be missing the postseason. However, at the start of this season, no one saw Duffy’s resurgence to the top of Kansas City’s rotation coming. After all, for the good portion of last season’s World Series run, Duffy was a staple to the Royals’ middle relief, serving as a “tweener” starter on occasion.

Ever since his role as a bullpen piece changed during the middle of May – when a Kris Medlen season ending injury vaulted him back into the rotation – Duffy has performed like a No. 1 starter. In 24 starts, he boasts the AL’s sixth best ERA (3.18), fourth best strikeouts per 9 innings average (9.6), and third best K/BB rate in baseball (5.1). Oh yeah, did I mention that he is the only starter in baseball that’s unbeaten at home in 2016?

There’s no doubt that Duffy has built himself into a top-of-the-line ace. But as dominant as Duffy has been, his low amount of innings – 169.2 – diminishes his case. Just like how rare it is for a pitcher to win a Cy Young on a losing team. It’s very much unlikely for someone with under 200 innings of work to take home the award. As a matter of fact, 2014 Clayton Kershaw is the only pitcher this decade to win the award with those numbers.

National League Candidates

No one has touched the 25-year olds stuff in 2016. Bumgarner could be nearing his first career CY soon. Photo Courtesy of SF Gate.
No one has touched the 25-year old’s stuff in 2016, as Bumgarner could be nearing his first career Cy Young award soon. Photo Courtesy of SF Gate.

The front-runners 

Madison Bumgarner: Bumgarner is quietly having the best season of his career. At just 25 years of age, he’s posted career-highs in strikeout-rate (10.1 K/9), ERA (2.57) and soon to be innings (213.1). Bumgarner’s decline in production in August, posting a 4.14 ERA and 1.30 WHIP while serving up six homers, hurts his cause. However, from an overall perspective Mad Bum’s consistent dominance is mind-boggling.

His FIP has never been higher than 3.50 in his career and walk percentage above eight percent. Bumgarner has become a specialist in WAR, staying in baseball’s Top 4 all-season. As the Giants desperately hang onto the second NL Wildcard spot, Bumgarner’s late season grit will pay dividends to not only San Francisco’s playoffs odds, but his Cy Young hopes as well.

Kyle Hendricks: Out of all the talented aces within the Chicago Cubs’ rotation – from Jon Lester to Jake Arrieta – did anyone believe it would be Hendricks that would outshine them all in the midst of a pennant race? Hendricks has exploded onto the scene with baseball’s best ERA (2.06) and second best WHIP (0.96).

Hendricks has avoided the rough stretch that most expected would snap him back into reality and end the Greg Maddux comparisons. However, with each and every start he continues to make a top-bid for the award. Just remember, last year’s NL Cy Young winner and fellow Cubs teammate, Jake Arrieta, experienced this very same revival in his career. Does the same happen for 26-year old Hendricks?


Second-Tier Candidates

Max Scherzer: Mighty Max has clawed his way back into Cy Young discussion mainly due to his breakout second-half. Since the All-Star break, Scherzer has accounted double-digit strikeout totals five times. Although a slow start impeded his progress until June (where he had a 4.05 ERA), injuries to Stephen Strasburg and a slight regression from Tanner Roark has made this possible. Scherzer enter the final stretch of the season with 259 strikeouts (most in baseball), a 0.93 WHIP (1st in NL), and 5.0 WAR (3rd in NL).

Jake Arrieta: Just about any major-league starter would love to suffer through a “down season” like the one the reigning NL Cy Young winner is experiencing. Arrieta has been roughed up for five or more earned runs four times since June 27 and his walk total (career-worst 67) is alarming. However, he is still pulling out 16 wins (tied for 1st in NL), 2.96 ERA and a 3.55 FIP. Arrieta may not reach 200 innings like he did last season, but no doubt does he have the peripherals to make a strong case.

Third-Tier Candidates

Johnny Cueto: The return to the National League has done wonders for Cueto, who has been a nice fit in spacious AT&T Park. Cueto’s second-half swoon, posting a 3.90 ERA, coincided with the Giants’ setbacks and Bumgarner’s steady hand guy has dropped him out of the race slightly. However, with four complete games, a 2.96 ERA, 3.05 FIP and 4.4 WAR this season keeps him in the Cy discussion.

Clayton Kershaw: It’s outlandish to think that a three-time NL Cy Young Award winner, who is currently the majors’ best pitcher is a third-tier mention. But Kershaw’s two-month absence of not pitching, stemmed from a back injury on June 26, buries his chance at winning the award.

If he had the innings to qualify, then Kershaw would probably be the No. 1 candidate. Even in an injury plagued season, Kershaw is still generating a 1.73 ERA (1st in NL), 1.68 FIP (1st in NL) and 5.5 WAR (2nd in NL).

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