Handicapping the AL Cy Young Race


Last season the Cy Young for the American League was an open-and-shut case, there was no doubt that Justin Verlander was going to win it and all the hubbub surrounded whether he would also win the MVP. This year, JV is certainly in the picture as well – but he has some real competition.

The top two pitchers in the American League, by WAR, WPA and WPA/LI, are former Cy Young winners Verlander and Felix Hernandez. Hernandez is #1 in WAR and WPA, #2 in WPA/LI while Verlander is #1 in WPA/LI and #2 in WAR & WPA. Those are the biggest and best of the sophisticated aggregate stats we can use to evaluate pitcher performance – so it should be a two horse race, right? Not really – at this point I’d say we have five prominent candidates with Verlander and Hernandez trailing and needing to make up ground in the season’s final 6 weeks. Because, of course, the most important stats for Cy Young voters are Earned Run Average and Wins (in that order). Lead in both and your a shoo-in but if you don’t lead in either one…

Here’s how I’d rank them at this point in the season with (probably) 10 starts remaining for each pitcher:
#1: David Price (Tampa Bay) – Price leads the AL with 16 wins and has the lowest ERA among qualified starters at 2.39. That is helped in large part by his league-leading 83% strand rate.
#2: Jered Weaver (Los Angeles) – Weaver is second in the AL with 15 wins and 5th in ERA at 2.74 (he was looking quite a bit better before getting shelled in his last start). He looks pretty shabby in terms of WAR since so much of that success is due to a .233 batting average on balls in play.
#3: Justin Verlander (Detroit) – Among qualified starters, Verlander leads in a lot of important stats… most complete games (6), most innings pitched (181 2/3), most strikeouts (180) and highest strikeout to walk ratio (4.00). The problems would be that he is tied for 6th in wins with 12 and trails the win leader in ERA. Hernandez is one pitcher who has gotten away with a low win total (and still won the Cy Young) but it was universally accepted that his club’s terrible offense was to blame. For JV the fact is that it’s more due to (relatively) poor clutch pitching this season.
#4: Chris Sale (Chicago) – Sale has 14 wins and is 4th in ERA for a division leading club. That’s not good enough to win the Cy Young right now, of course, but it would be pretty hard to vote against Price if the season were to suddenly end. Should Sale string together some good starts, he’s within striking distance of taking the lead in either or both. Unfortunately (for Sale and the Sox) it looks as though the grind might be catching up on the converted reliever – who has a 4.67 ERA and an .817 OPS allowed over his last 5 starts.
#5: Felix Hernandez (Seattle) – The odds are always against Hernandez, since his club still cannot put enough runs on the board behind him but he remains one of the best if not the best outright. When he won the award in 2010 he finished with only 13 wins but dominated every other category – throwing 41 more innings with 44 more Ks and an ERA almost half a run lower than runner-up Price (who finished with 19 wins). He also was also worth 2.4 more wins than Price (the runner up in that category as well) by WAR – but that doesn’t really have much influence. He isn’t going to get there with 6 fewer wins and a higher ERA just because he goes deeper in games (and therefore gets more WAR). What’s more – Hernandez’ strongest points statistically are the counting stats IP and K and his weakest the W column… and he trails Verlander in all 3 (as well as ERA). If the voters want a horse, at this point Verlander looks the better horse. Hernandez could get there with a strong end-of-season stretch, but chances are he’ll need to be content with the perfect game.
#6: Fernando Rodney (Tampa Bay) – this one bears watching. Relievers don’t tend to win the Cy Young [it has only been done once in the past 19 seasons] except when none of the starters distinguish themselves AND that reliever has an incredible year. If the five guys above him on the list “crumble” and nobody finishes with 20 wins or an ERA much below 3.00 Rodney is going to deserve a serious look. He has 37 saves at the moment – putting him on pace to break 50. He also has an absurd 0.81 ERA. I’m a fan of Fernando Rodney, but where was this guy in 2008? Only 3 AL relievers have hit 50 saves since Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young in 1992 with 51 and Eckersley’s 1.91 ERA was lower than any. Francisco Rodriguez did manage 3rd in the voting in 2008 despite a pedestrian (for an elite closer) ERA of 2.24 thanks to 62 saves. Jonathan Papelbon‘s 0.89 ERA in 2006 didn’t even get him a vote – though Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez (with higher ERAs and more saves) got a few. It would be interesting to see what that ultra-low ERA and 50 saves would make a voter think.

Dark Horses:
These are guys that look, at this point, to be far behind in most of the key stat categories BUT who could conceivably put themselves in the picture if they go on a tear. Of course – for that to be possible we’d need to see Weaver and Price have ERAs ballooned over 3.00 and Verlander finish under 15 wins. And, again, those are not impossible dreams for the Dark Horses on the list.
C.C. Sabathia: always a factor due to the Yankees offense, but this year (as in 2010) he looks likely to finish with an ERA too high for serious consideration despite what could be a nice win total (though at this point that sits at only 12)
Matt Harrison: He does have 13 wins, and plays in a ballpark that might get him some sympathy, but he’ll have to get at least 5 wins with an ERA near 2.00 from here on out to put himself in the same league as Price.
Jake Peavy: With only 9 wins to his name (even if it’s solely due to lack of run support) Peavy wouldn’t just need to pitch great, he’d need to get wins in about 70% of his remaining starts.
Hiroki Kuroda: Kuroda did not get a strong start out of the gate, but in his last 15 starts he’s 11-4 with a 2.30 ERA. Expect him to continue gaining ground.
Jason Vargas: The man everyone expected to see traded still wears the Ms uniform. He has 13 wins (tied for 3rd) and has the 3rd most innings under his belt – but weaker peripherals and a 3.56 isn’t going to get there. He’s theoretically within striking distance, but I wouldn’t put any money on seeing him make that run.