As close as the Cy Young races were in each league this year, the voting was decisive. Cubs righty Jake Arrieta claimed 17 of 30 first-place votes in the National League and Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel secured 22 of 30 first-place votes in the American League to take home the 2015 Cy Young awards.
For the two pitchers, the award was the culmination of an ascendency that began last season and yet another honor for their respective teams, both of which unexpectedly made the playoffs this season ahead of the schedules of their respective rebuilds thanks in large part due to the performance of their now-Cy-Young-winning aces. Earlier this week, the Astros’ Carlos Correa and Cubs’ Kris Bryant won their leagues’ Rookie of the Year awards, and Cubs skipper Joe Maddon was named Manager of the Year on Tuesday night.
The two pitchers deserved the award, but Arrieta’s win was nonetheless remarkable due to the quality of his competition. Third in the voting with three first-place votes was Clayton Kershaw, who won the last two NL Cy Youngs and three of the last four; with his third-place finish, he becomes the first pitcher ever to finish in the top three in the voting in five straight seasons. All Kershaw did this season was lead the majors in innings (232 2/3) and fielding independent pitching (1.99), lead major league pitchers in FanGraphs’ and Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement statistics (the latter based on the new Deserved Run Average) and become the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002 to strikeout at least 300 batters.
Second in the voting, with 10 first-place votes, was Kershaw’s rotation-mate and 2009 AL Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke, who led the majors with a 1.66 ERA, the lowest mark by a qualified pitcher since Greg Maddux’s 1.63 in 1995 and the eighth-lowest ERA by a qualified pitcher in the Live Ball era (since 1920). In any other year, Greinke’s run prevention, 19–3 record (which produced a major-league-best .864 winning percentage) and major league-leading 30 quality starts would have laid easy claim to the award, but not this year.
Arrieta’s park-adjusted 222 ERA+ was just three points lower than Greinke’s major league-leading 225 mark and tied for ninth-best among qualified pitchers in the Live Ball era, directly behind Greinke’s eighth-place ranking on that list. Meanwhile, Arrieta bested Greinke in innings pitched (by 6 1/3) and strikeouts (by 36). Beyond those final numbers, however, was the fact that Arrieta finished the season with arguably the second-best 20-start stretch by any starting pitcher in the live-ball era: Over that span, Arrieta went 16–1 with a 0.86 ERA. Every one of those starts was quality, and in 11 of the 20 he did not allow a single earned run. Three of those starts were shutouts, and one of them, fittingly against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Aug. 30, was a no-hitter, in which he walked just one and struck out 12.
As best I can tell, the only pitcher since 1920 to post a lower ERA than Arrieta's over 20 consecutive starts in a single season was Bob Gibson in his landmark 1968 campaign. In his best 20-start stretch in that season, Gibson—who had the benefit of a higher mound and a larger strike zone which helped make the 1968 season the most pitcher-friendly in nearly 100 years—posted a 0.79 ERA, just six points better than the mark Arrieta compiled over his final 20 starts this season. As historically significant as Greinke’s ERA and ERA+ were this season, the argument could be made that Arrieta’s performance over those 20 starts was even more so.
What makes that performance even more remarkable is Arrieta’s journey to this point. Drafted out of high school by the Reds and out of community college by the Brewers, the Texas native didn’t sign until the Orioles picked him in the fifth round out of Texas Christian University in 2007. After a strong showing in high A in 2008, he was ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus prior to the '09 and '10 seasons, but he struggled in his early opportunities with Baltimore. Arrieta walked four men per nine innings, posting a 5.46 ERA and 1.74 strikeout-to-walk ratio before being traded by the contending Orioles to the Cubs in early July of 2013 with reliever Pedro Strop for righty Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger.
Arrieta opened the 2014 season on the disabled list due to shoulder inflammation, but when he returned in May of that year, he was almost immediately a different pitcher. The result of work with Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, Arrieta greatly improved his mechanics, largely fixing his control problems, and saw his slider (which is really more of a cutter/slider hybrid or “slutter”) take a big step forward in terms of consistency and effectiveness. Arrieta went 10–5 with a 2.53 ERA, just 2.4 walks per nine innings and a 9.6 K/BB in 25 starts that season, drawing three fifth-place votes in the Cy Young balloting.
Healthy for a full season this year, Arrieta built on that 2014 performance by improving his command of his mid-90s sinker, a pitch he wound up throwing more than 43% of the time this season. That pitch contributed heavily to a significant increase in Arrieta’s ground-ball rate, which proved to be the third-best in the NL this year. In combination with his slutter—a pitch he would throw as fast as 95 mph—and his tight, low-80s curveball with a sharp 12-to-6 drop, Arrieta emerged as arguably the best pitcher in baseball in his age-29 season.
The 27-year-old Keuchel is also something of a late bloomer, though one who never carried the prospect label Arrieta once did. Undrafted out of high school, the Oklahoma lefty was selected by the Astros in the seventh round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Arkansas, for whom he pitched in the College World Series that year. A soft-tossing groundballer, Keuchel posted a 5.20 ERA in his first two major league seasons and was considered something of a swingman going into 2014. He opened that season back in the Astros’ rotation, however, and thanks to his work with new pitching coach Brent Strom—which led to improved control and some adjustments to his repertoire—he quickly emerged as the team’s best starter. Ditching his curveball to focus on a deceptive sinker/slider/changeup mix, Keuchel saw his ground-ball rate spike in 2014 and went 8–3 with a 2.38 ERA in his first dozen starts that season, then finished the year with a 2.37 ERA in his final 11 outings.
This year, he used still more sinkers and cutters, yet another pitch that’s difficult for hitters to distinguish out of his hand, to open the season with a 7–1 record and 1.76 ERA in April and May. Keuchel’s ground-ball rate regressed some from 2014 (though he still had the best rate in the AL), but as 2015 progressed, he replaced some of those ground balls with strikeouts. From the start of the 2013 season through his 10th start this year, Keuchel struck out just 6.7 batters per nine innings, but over his final 23 starts this year, he struck out 167 men in 159 1/3 innings, or 9.4 per nine frames.
Along the way, Keuchel went 15–0 with a 1.46 ERA at home, setting a record for most home wins in a season without a home loss. He led the AL in innings pitched (232), innings per start (7.0), WHIP (1.02), wins (20) and ERA+ (162, one point better than Cy Young runner-up David Price, who received the other eight first-place votes). Keuchel also set a career-high with 216 strikeouts and, deservedly, won his second straight Gold Glove.
Though the voting took place the day after the regular season, it also bears mentioning what these two athletic, bearded, late-blooming groundballers did in their team’s respective wild-card games. Keuchel, pitching on three days’ rest, threw six scoreless innings against the Yankees, allowing just three singles and a walk and striking out seven in a 3–0 Astros win. Arrieta, meanwhile, shut out the 98-win Pirates on five hits and no walks and struck out 11, resulting in a game score of 90, the highest ever in a single-elimination game in postseason history. He also was hit by a pitch and stole a base in the game.