In this week's Awards Watch, we take one last full look at this season’s Cy Young races—we move to a lightning-round format in September—and find two unsurprising leaders: the Dodgers' Zack Greinke in the National League and the Athletics' Sonny Gray in the American League. But despite the season-long excellence of both pitchers, neither is a runaway winner. In both cases, a late surge by a veteran ace and former Cy Young award winner is keeping things interesting, so much so that it would not be surprising to see both Greinke and Gray surpassed before season's end.
Note: All stats are through Wed., Aug. 12. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
1. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 12–2, 1.65 ERA, 0.865 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 5.07 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 CG, 222 ERA+
Twenty-three starts into a remarkable season, Greinke has yet to exit a game before completing the sixth inning, and he has allowed more than two runs in a game just four times and more than three runs just twice. He has pitched six or more innings without allowing more than one run 16 times, or four more than the next-highest total in the majors (Jake Arrieta’s 12). If he can finish the season with an ERA+ of 220 or better, he’d be the first qualified pitcher to do so in 10 years—Roger Clemens posted a 226 mark in 2005—and just the ninth to do so in the Live Ball Era. The other eight are Clemens in 1997 and 2005 and six of the greatest pitching seasons in baseball history: Bob Gibson in 1968, Dwight Gooden in '85, Greg Maddux in '94 and ’95 and Pedro Martinez in '99 and 2000. Greinke’s season isn’t on par with those six (his current ERA+ is the lowest of that bunch), but that his performance can be mentioned in their company is remarkable.
For much of this season, I have favored Scherzer’s dominant peripherals over Greinke’s microscopic ERA on this list, but there’s no longer any question who has been the best pitcher in the league. Scherzer hasn’t had more than two quality starts in a row since July arrived, and he has a 4.15 ERA over his last seven starts. His full season work to date keeps him in this spot for now, but unless Scherzer improves quickly, he won’t be in this spot the next time I check in on this race.
3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 10–6, 2.39 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 6.83 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 153 ERA+
The last time we did a Cy Young-only Awards Watch on July 2, Kershaw ranked fifth in the NL, which because of his slower than expected start was his first appearance on that list this season. At this point, though, it’s Kershaw—not Scherzer—who poses the biggest threat to rotation-mate Greinke in this race. Kershaw is now the major league leader in FIP (2.18) and strikeouts (205) and the NL leader in innings pitched (162, tied with Scherzer) and strikeout-per-nine rate. Here’s how he and Greinke match up since their final start in May:
Kershaw, who also had a 37-inning scoreless streak to rival Greinke’s 45 2/3-inning run, has out-pitched Greinke in every category over that stretch. He’s gaining, but the biggest question is if there’s enough season left for Kershaw to catch Greinke and win his third straight Cy Young and fourth in the past five seasons.
You know who else has out-pitched Greinke in nearly every category over his last 14 starts? deGrom. Observe:
The surprising deGrom isn’t gaining on Greinke quite as quickly as Kershaw, however, and has a significant innings deficit (15 1/3 fewer than Kershaw on the season) due to some short early-season outings and the Mets’ decision to place him fifth in their rotation coming out of the All-Star break to give him extra rest in his sophomore season. Indeed, deGrom has already thrown 6 1/3 more innings this year than he did in the majors last year and is 32 innings, or roughly five starts, from matching his 2014 total between the majors and minors combined, which casts doubt on his ability to keep up his current level of dominance through September. That innings deficit is part of the reason deGrom is fourth on this list, though as the above illustrates, the middle three men here all tightly bunched.
5. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs
Season Stats: 13–6, 2.38 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.05 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 159 ERA+
Arrieta doesn’t quite match up to Kershaw, deGrom and Greinke over his last 14 starts, but he comes close thanks to his performance in his last 10, in which he has gone 7–1 with a 1.23 ERA and averaged 7 1/3 innings per start. That showing has come with some luck on balls in play (.221 BABIP), but Arrieta’s season bears such a strong resemblance to his 2014 performance that it seems safe to assume that this is the pitcher he is: a genuine ace. Consider these season totals from this year and last:
Arrieta has posted a 2.45 ERA over those two seasons. His FIP over the same span: 2.45.
1. Sonny Gray, RHP, Athletics
Season Stats: 12–4, 2.06 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 3.40 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 189 ERA+
Gray’s three complete games have all come in the span of his last six starts, a stretch over which he has posted a 1.72 ERA and averaged 7.8 innings per game. In his last four starts, three of them coming against teams currently in first place (the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Astros), he has posted a 1.13 ERA and averaged exactly eight innings per start, completing two of them. If we look at his last three starts, those figures improve to a 0.72 ERA with two complete games in three turns, one a shutout.
No longer playing leapfrog with Dallas Keuchel, Gray has taken a strong lead in this race since returning from a bout of salmonella in early July. But he was scratched from his scheduled start on Thursday due to back spasms, which could leave the door open for a veteran challenger who is adding a new level of drama to this race.
2. David Price, LHP, Blue Jays
Season Stats: 11–4, 2.35 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.59 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 169 ERA+
All Price has done in his first two starts for Toronto is dominate the two teams the Blue Jays were pursuing for a playoff position. On Aug. 3, he held the Twins to one run on three hits over eight innings, striking out 11, to pull the Jays into a tie for second place in the AL wild-card race. Five days later he held the Yankees scoreless for seven innings on three hits, striking out seven, to shave a game off the Blue Jays’ shrinking deficit in the AL East, which they have since erased entirely. That’s one run allowed over 15 innings to go with 18 strikeouts and just 11 base runners (six hits, five walks) against the two teams Toronto most needed to beat.
Price’s excellence didn’t start with his trade to Toronto, however. Over his last 14 starts, 12 of them coming with the Tigers, he has posted a 1.78 ERA and averaged 7.2 innings per start, striking out 102 batters against 101 base runners in 101 1/3 innings and posting a 4.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
3. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros
Season Stats: 13–6, 2.40 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 3.67 K/BB, 7.16 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 165 ERA+
Keuchel continues to give the Astros depth and quality starts, but he’s fading in this race nonetheless, posting a 3.57 ERA over his last six turns with only one super-quality start (min. 7 IP, max. 2 R) over that span. That doesn’t mean that Keuchel isn’t continuing to mature as a pitcher, however. Over his last 13 starts, he has struck out 94 men in 92 innings, hitting double-digits in a game three times, and posted a 5.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. By way of comparison, in 39 starts prior to that stretch and dating back to the start of the 2014 season, he had struck out just 6.4 men per nine innings with a 2.83 K/BB. As long as Keuchel can combine that kind of command of the strike zone with his usual groundball rate, he’ll never be far from this list.
Archer is second in the AL in WHIP, strikeout-per-nine rate and FIP; fifth in ERA, ERA+ and Deserved Run Average (DRA); sixth in strikeout-to-walk ratio; and tied for seventh in innings. Despite that, he has never ranked higher than third in my Cy Young rankings this season. He seems destined to be an also-ran in this race, but we should still celebrate his performance this season as a breakout campaign by a talented 26-year-old who could prove to be perennial contender for this award.
There’s a legitimate argument to be had that Scott Kazmir (2.12 ERA, including a 1.04 mark in four starts since being traded from the A's to the Astros) deserves this final spot. I just can’t ignore Kluber’s performance, which finds him ranked third in the AL FIP (2.54), fifth in DRA (2.77 to Kazmir’s 2.92), fourth in strikeouts per nine and strikeout-to-walk ratio, tied with Kazmir in WHIP and leading the major leagues with 171 2/3 innings pitched, 36 more than Kazmir.
Kluber has been undermined at every turn by his teammates, who have not only played lousy defense behind him but have also given him less run support than all but one qualified pitcher in the majors this year (just 3.22 runs per game, better than only the White Sox’s Jose Quintana at 3.10). Cleveland has scored two or fewer runs in 14 of Kluber’s 24 starts this season, so you can just ignore those league-leading 12 losses if you weren’t already, and you should have been.
Kluber’s ERA is high relative to what you’d expect to see on this list, but both his ERA and ERA+ rank 15th in the league, and the latter is within eight points of sixth-place. Given that I won’t be looking beyond the top three in this race in September, I would be remiss not to give the defending AL Cy Young Award winner his due here.