Awards Watch: No drama for NL Cy Young award, but AL race is tight

Clayton Kershaw will win the NL Cy Young award in a landslide vote, but the AL will be a far closer fight between Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber.
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We're halfway through awards week, but the two biggest honors are still waiting to be handed out. The Baseball Writers' Association of America has already named 2014's Rookies of the Year (White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu in the American League and Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom in the National League) and Managers of the Year (Baltimore's Buck Showalter in the AL and Washington's Matt Williams in the NL). On Wednesday, the BBWAA will unveil its choices for the AL and NL Cy Young awards, with the winners announced live on MLB Network at 6 p.m. ET. That leaves just one award this week: the Most Valuable Players, which will be revealed on Thursday.

Of the six player-award races that I've been following all season in Awards Watch, those for AL Cy Young and NL MVP are by far the most difficult to call. That won't stop me from trying, however, as I attempt to extend my perfect 24-for-24 record in predicting the winners since the start of Awards Watch in 2010. I will have full reactions to each night's results, but before that, a quick preview of each award and the finalists who are in the running. Today's entry: the AL and NL Cy Youngs.

Note: Finalists are listed in alphabetical order. League leading statistics are in bold, major league leading stats in bold and italics. Voting for each award was submitted at the conclusion of the regular season and before the start of the postseason.

American League Finalists

Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners

Season Stats: 34 GS, 236 IP, 15-6, 248 K, 2.14 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 5.39 K/BB, 0 CG, 170 ERA+

Corey Kluber, RHP, Cleveland

Season Stats: 34 GS, 235 2/3 IP, 18-9, 269 K, 2.44 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 5.27 K/BB, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 152 ERA+

Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox

Season Stats: 26 GS, 174 IP, 12-4, 208 K, 2.17 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 2 CG, 178 ERA+

Jose Abreu, Jacob deGrom deservingly win Rookie of the Year

Sale was outstanding, but he missed a month due to a strained flexor mass in his pitching elbow. As a result, this award is between Hernandez and Kluber, and it's an extremely compelling competition, with both having pitched nearly identical amounts. Hernandez led in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio and winning percentage (.714 to .667); Kluber had the advantage in wins, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts.

It gets even more compelling if you look at all runs allowed. There was a curious scoring change late in the season that turned four earned runs charged to Hernandez in his penultimate start to unearned runs by virtue of a would-be sacrifice bunt going from a hit to an error (on Hernandez, no less). I could argue that particular ruling both ways, but what that really proves is how arbitrary the earned-run distinction can be.

Give Hernandez those extra four earned runs and his ERA swells to 2.29, handing the ERA title to Sale, but still keeping Hernandez ahead of third-place Kluber. Use Run Average (essentially ERA, but counting all runs, earned and unearned) and Hernandez, who had 12 unearned runs on the season, has a 2.59 mark to Kluber's 2.75 (eight unearned runs). That cuts Hernandez's advantage over Kluber in half, from 30 points of ERA to just 16 points of RA, a difference that one could attribute largely to the difference between the pitcher's two home ballparks, with Safeco Field being very pitcher-friendly and Progressive Field being more neutral.

From there, we could note that Hernandez appeared to pitch in better luck, at least in terms of balls in play, with his opponents posting a .260 BABIP to Kluber's .318. That could be attributed in part to their respective ballparks, but also to the quality of their fielders, as the Mariners led the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs) in 2014, while Cleveland was a lousy 25th. Indeed, it was Kluber who led the AL in Fielding Independent Pitching in 2014, with a 2.35 mark to Hernandez's 2.56. Meanwhile, a low BABIP means a low hit rate and thus contributes to Hernandez's advantage in WHIP, as well.

Given all of that, this is about as close as a race could be. Kluber's supporters can point to the fact that he went 12-5 with a 1.81 ERA over his final 19 starts, 17 of them quality, including two of his three complete games, his lone shutout and eight double-digit strikeout games. Furthermore, with Cleveland trying to claw into the wild-card race in September, Kluber went 5-0 with a 1.12 ERA over his final five starts, and in his final three outings he struck out 39 men against just five walks.

Hernandez's supporters can point to Felix's midseason streak of 16 straight starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed, the longest such streak in major league history. On the season, Hernandez led all pitchers with 22 such starts. Kluber was fourth with 19. By comparison, Clayton Kershaw was fifth with 16 (the other two NL Cy Young finalists had 21).

Who will win: Hernandez
Who should win: Hernandez

Why Hernandez?

Orioles' Buck Showalter, Nats' Matt Williams named Managers of Year

​Kluber had more wins, but Hernandez had a higher winning percentage; Kluber had more strikeouts, but Hernandez had a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio; Kluber had more complete games, but Hernandez threw more innings in the same number of starts. Toss all that out, and you're left with the categories in which Hernandez leads: ERA, ERA+ and WHIP. Yes, if you dig deep, you can prove that Hernandez's leads in those categories are far tinier than they appear and may even be entirely due to the two pitchers' respective ballparks and team defense, but that only pulls Kluber up into a tie.

In the same number of starts, Hernandez had more quality starts (27 to 26) and more ultra-quality starts (the term used by the Mariners' announcers for the 7IP, 2 R standard), and he set a new major league record for the latter. Give the award to the guy going to the Hall of Fame.

National League Finalists

Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds

Season Stats: 34 GS, 243 2/3 IP, 20-9, 242 K, 2.25 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 3.72 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 160 ERA+

Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers

Season Stats: 27 GS, 198 1/3 IP, 21-3, 239 K, 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 7.71 K/BB, 6 CG, 2 SHO, 197 ERA+

Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals

Season Stats: 32 GS, 227 IP, 20-9, 179 K, 2.38 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.58 K/BB, 5 CG, 3 SHO, 154 ERA+

Here are Kershaw's ranks among all qualified major league pitchers:

First: ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/9, complete games, wins, winning percentage (.875), fielding independent pitching (1.81), Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference), Wins Above Replacement Player (Baseball Prospectus), quality start percentage (89 percent), mega-quality starts (min. 8 IP, max 1 R: 11)

Second: strikeout-to-walk ratio

Fourth: shutouts (tied with nine others)

Fifth: ultra-quality starts

Seventh: strikeouts

10th: quality starts (tied with six others)

Note that other than K/BB ratio, in which he finished second this year behind only Phil Hughes' modern major league record of 11.63, the other major stats in which he didn't lead the majors were all cumulative. That's because Kershaw missed all of April due to a teres major strain behind his pitching shoulder, yet he still led MLB in wins, complete games, WAR and mega-quality starts, all of which are also cumulative stats. Over his final 21 starts, he went 18-1 with a 1.38 ERA while the Dodgers went 20-1 over those 21 games.

Who will win: Kershaw
Who should win: Kershaw

Why would anyone not vote for him?

Because he missed a month due to injury and Cueto also had an outstanding, award-worthy season. That said, this will probably be unanimous.