Awards Watch: Gray, Keuchel, Archer in tightly fought AL Cy Young race
Awards Watch’s second look at the Cy Young award races finds new leaders in tight races in both leagues and three new names joining the conversation.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, June 10. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.
In the first of Gray’s four starts since we last checked in on the Cy Young races, the 25-year-old Oakland ace was hit on the right ankle with a comebacker in the fourth inning and forced to leave the game in the fifth. That cut short what could have been an extremely impressive day from Gray, who had held the Rays scoreless on just four singles (and no walks), thrown just 67 pitches and gone eight batters without allowing a ball out of the infield.
Gray gets no extra credit here for what might have been, but he doesn’t need it. In his next two starts combined, he allowed just two runs on six hits over 16 innings; he has allowed three or more runs in a game just twice all season, and never more than four. The game in which he was hit in the ankle, meanwhile, was just one of two in which he has failed to complete six innings.
2. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros (1)
Season Stats: 7–2, 1.90 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 204 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 1–2, 2.40 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 6.50 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS, 1 SHO
Keuchel has allowed four runs in a game three times this season, but never more, and has completed at least six innings in all 13 of his starts. The majors' leader in innings pitched with 94 2/3, Keuchel is something of a throwback on these lists. He won’t rack up a ton of strikeouts (though he did whiff a season-high 11 in his shutout of the White Sox on May 30), but he will get his opponents to beat the ball into the ground, resulting in efficient outs and giving him the ability to absorb a high quantity of innings. That’s tremendously valuable, and the gap between him and Gray on this list is small enough you could hide it in Keuchel’s beard. Then again, you could probably hide Tal’s Hill in Keuchel’s beard.
3. Chris Archer, RHP, Rays (5)
Season Stats: 7–4, 1.84 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 11.7 K/9, 5.40 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 206 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 3–0, 0.64 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 14.6 K/9, 11.50 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS
I had to calculate Archer’s K/9 for the last three weeks twice just to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. It’s not. In his last three games, Archer has allowed two runs (one earned) in 23 innings, walked no one and struck out 38 men. In striking out at least 11 hitters in each of those three games, Archer became the first pitcher to have three straight starts with double-digit strikeouts and no walks in the last 100 years.
This is the second streak of dominance Archer has gone on this season: From April 11 through April 26, he went four straight starts without allowing an earned run and completed seven innings in three of those four. His current run actually stretches back six starts, over which he has gone 4–0 with a 1.09 ERA and 58 strikeouts against six walks in 41 1/3 innings. A disaster start prior to that run (3 1/3 innings, five runs against the Rangers) and occasional bouts of inefficiency keep him from passing Keuchel and Gray, though he has now pulled close enough that we can call it a three-man race.
• CORCORAN: How to fix AL's All-Royals All-Star team problem
4. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (3)
Season Stats: 9–2, 2.51 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 3.52 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 142 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 3–1, 2.93 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.36 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 SHO
Looking at the AL field this week, I saw three groups of pitchers: The top three listed above, another group with impressive ERAs but weak-to-lousy peripherals, and a group comprised of names you would expect to see on this list with strong peripherals but higher ERAs. Of the pitchers in those last two groups, Hernandez has had the best overall season and gets a nod here despite being touched up for seven runs in 4 2/3 innings by the Yankees two turns ago. In the two starts sandwiching that disaster, however, he held the Rays to one run on six hits over 16 innings, tying Shelby Miller for the major league lead in shutouts in the process.
Kluber is something of a default pick here, as the AL field is surprisingly shallow thus far. It's also one I made by consulting a new statistic: Baseball Prospectus’s Deserved Run Average, which attempts to go beyond ERA and FIP to adjust for nearly every variable that impacts pitching performance. The goal is to charge pitchers only with the portions of their actual runs allowed for which the math says they were responsible. That means correcting for everything from ballpark and opponent to catcher framing and throwing to defense and bullpen performance, even as far as platoon advantages to home plate umpires and game-time temperature.
DRA is an impressive undertaking and will likely undergo various tweaks in the formula as the rubber hits the road, but while I’m not yet ready to give it full weight in this column, I’m compelled enough to consult it. Here’s the current DRA leader list of qualified AL pitchers:
And here’s the leader list of AL pitchers by the unfortunately named DRA PWARP, which is simply Wins Above Replacement Player factoring in DRA—effectively the cumulative-stat counterpart to the new rate stat:
As someone who greatly values innings pitched in the Cy Young conversation, the latter statistic is more telling to me, and it suggests that Kluber, despite his 3.53 ERA, has been the fourth-best pitcher in the AL this year.
There are reasons to believe that may be true. Kluber is second in the majors in innings pitched with 91 2/3 and third in the majors in innings pitched per start (behind Keuchel and Johnny Cueto). He leads baseball in strikeouts with 109, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is second in the AL to Michael Pineda’s 10.86. And his teammates are offering him no help: Cleveland is second-to-last in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency.
We’ve seen Kluber be brilliant this season. His 18-strikeout outing (8 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 18 K), was the most dominant single-game performance of the season, Chris Heston’s no-hitter included, and that was just one of six super-quality starts this season by Kluber (min. 7 IP, max. 2 R). DRA didn’t inform the rest of this list much—I already had my top three before I consulted it—but it convinced me to put Kluber in the fifth spot. Going forward, I expect his inclusion on this list to be less controversial than it might be here.
Off the list: Jake Odorizzi (4)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
The top three from this list three weeks ago all had underwhelming performances in the interim. In Scherzer’s case, he allowed four runs in each of his last two starts, losses to the Blue Jays and Yankees. It’s hard to blame anyone for getting lit up by the Blue Jays these days, however, and Scherzer has maintained his excellent peripherals throughout. He also completed at least six innings in both of those starts (and, in fact, in all 12 of his starts on the season) and held the Cubs and Phillies to one run over 15 innings in the two starts prior, striking out 19 against just two walks. Having out-pitched the top two men on my last list over the last three weeks, Scherzer rises to the top here.
Cole shoots up to the second spot here after an outstanding three-week stretch in which he completed at least seven innings in all four of his starts and allowed an earned run in only one of them (though he did give up three unearned runs). Like Gray, Cole is having a breakout year in his second full major league season: He hasn’t allowed more than three runs in a game all season and has failed to complete six innings just twice.
One could argue that Cole should be leading this race, but his DRA is 2.79 and he’s 11th in the league in DRA PWARP. Some of that is due to those unearned runs (Cole has five on the season, more than any other pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA in the NL). Another factor could be Francisco Cervelli’s pitch-framing, which grades out among the best in the majors in Baseball Prospectus’s numbers and for which DRA corrects. I’m also guessing that high WHIP has something to do with that. That’s interesting, but I’m not ready to drop Cole off this list because of it just yet.
• POWER RANKINGS: Cardinals hang on to first, red-hot Yankees surge
Greinke’s string of ten quality starts to start the season was snapped in Colorado on June 2, when he allowed five runs in six innings in a game the Dodgers won, 9–8. That remains his only non-quality start on the season; in fact, it was the only one of his last seven starts in which he allowed more than one run. As consistent as he has been, however, Greinke hasn’t had any real eye-popping starts this season: He has yet to complete the eighth inning or strike out ten men in a game.
Meanwhile, in his last three starts, Clayton Kershaw—who ranks fifth in the NL in DRA PWARP, behind the four men on this list not named Gerrit Cole—has gone seven full innings each time and compiled this line: 3–0, 0.82 ERA, 0.59 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in 22 innings against just three walks. That’s the story of Greinke’s Dodgers career: always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
4. Shelby Miller, RHP, Braves (1)
Season Stats: 5–2, 1.84 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 2.28 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 212 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 0–1, 2.96 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 1.56 K/BB, 6.1 IP/GS
DRA has Miller as the best pitcher in the NL, ahead of Scherzer and Greinke, in that order. For me, his ugly outing in Arizona two turns ago (4 1/3 IP, 4 R, 6 BB, 2 K) was enough to sink him to the back of this closely-packed top four, as the three pitchers above him all have superior peripherals and competitive run-prevention numbers. Scherzer has also thrown six more innings, or the equivalent of an extra quality start, in the same number of appearances.
Out goes one Met (Matt Harvey: 1-3, 7.20 ERA over the last three weeks) and in comes another. deGrom is proving that his Rookie of the Year campaign was no fluke by pitching even better as a sophomore this year, reducing his walks while maintaining his strikeout rate and, in the last four weeks, using the resulting efficiency to pitch deeper into games. The 26-year-old righty completed the seventh inning nine times in 22 starts last year, but he has done it six times in 12 starts this year, with four of those coming in the last three weeks. In two of them, he went eight scoreless innings, including his dominant outing against the Cardinals on May 21 (8 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 K), which ranks behind only Kluber’s 18-strikeout game and Heston’s no-hitter among the top Game Scores of the season.
Off the list: A.J. Burnett (4), Matt Harvey (5)