Awards Watch: Corey Kluber Overtakes Chris Sale In Razor-Thin AL Cy Young Race
With a little over the month remaining in the season, the Cy Young Award race has taken on a new life in the American League. After Chris Sale raced to 200 strikeouts in his debut season in Boston, it appeared that the power lefty would finally win after five straight top-six finishes. Now, Sale is struggling and Indians righty Corey Kluber is making a push to win for the second time in four years. While the National League race remains static, the neck injury suffered by leader Max Scherzer and the expected return of Clayton Kershaw could alter the race down the stretch. Here is this edition of Cy Young Award Watch, and note that all stats in bold mean that player is leading the league in the respective category.
1. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
Season stats: 12–4, 2.65 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 12.3 K/9 (208 K), 6.5 K/BB, 175 ERA+, 5.8 WAR
It seemed unthinkable that anybody besides Chris Sale would win the AL Cy Young Award at the end of July, but Kluber has surpassed the struggling Red Sox ace in August. After a shaky start against the Tiger on May 2, Kluber is 9–2 with a 1.87 ERA, a .171 batting average against and an astounding 8.78 K/BB ratio. During that same span, he’s logged 12 of his 13 double-digit strikeout games. Add four complete games to his totals and he’s currently the man to beat in a taut race.
2. Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
Season Stats: 14–6, 2.88 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 12.8 K/9 (253 K), 7.23 K/BB, 159 ERA+, 5.1 WAR
Sale may still be the most feared pitcher in the American League, but getting roughed up in his past two starts—during which time he's given up 11 runs and 14 hits in 10 innings—has been enough to drop him behind Kluber. In fact, his August has been the worst month of his career up to this point; he's 1–2 with a 5.40 ERA and a 1.2 WHIP in five starts. Some of that has been bad luck—his .329 BABIP is awfully high—but his two starts against the Indians, a team Boston could face in a playoff series, are cause for worry. In eight total innings, Sale has surrendered 13 earned runs on 15 hits and logged just eight strikeouts. Panicking about Sale’s effectiveness is silly—he still logged an eight-inning, two-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts against the Rays earlier this month—but he currently looks as hittable as he has all season.
3. Luis Severino, New York Yankees
Season Stats: 11–5, 3.10 ERA, 1.104 WHIP, 10.5 K/9 (183 K), 4.36 K/BB, 149 ERA+, 4.3 WAR
Severino remains one of the brightest spots of the Yankees’ 2017 season. The 23-year-old righty leads New York in every major pitching category and has offset Masahiro Tanaka’s season-long inconsistency. Excluding a shelling by the Red Sox on Aug. 12th, Severino has allowed just one or zero earned runs in his last seven starts. While Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez have dominated headlines in the Big Apple this season, Severino has established himself as one of the most trustworthy starters in the American League in just his first full major league season.
4. James Paxton, Seattle Mariners
Season Stats: 12–3, 2.78 ERA, 1.078 WHIP, 10.4 K/9 (138 K), 4.18 K/BB, 153 ERA+, 3.8 WAR
Paxton is currently on the disabled list with a pectoral strain, but surged into the race with a spectacular eight-start stretch from the beginning of July until his injury on Aug. 10th. Since July 2nd, Paxton is 7–0 with a 1.92 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP. He didn’t allow a home run until the final game of that stretch and surrendered five or fewer hits in seven of the eight outings (he gave up six in the other). Long one of the Mariners’ top prospects, “The Big Maple” is becoming the ace that Seattle envisioned. With the Mariners still alive in the crowded AL wild card race, he would be a formidable starter in the winner-take-all game should Seattle clinch the second spot.
5. Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
Season Stats: 11–6, 3.17 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 7.4 K/9 (135 K), 2.65 K/BB, 144 ERA+, 5.0 WAR
It’s a lost season in Toronto, but the 26-year-old Stroman capitalized on his superb performance in the World Baseball Classic to further establish himself as one of baseball’s top young starters. While his walk rate is a bit high (2.8 BB/9), Stroman has hovered around a 3.00 ERA all season and been the lone bright spot of a tired and injured staff.
1. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Season Stats: 12–5, 2.25 ERA, 0.848 WHIP, 12.3 K/9 (220 K), 5.64 K/BB, 196 ERA+, 6.7 WAR
Scherzer is currently on the 10-day DL with neck inflammation, but he’ll still win the award unless he misses the rest of the regular season or flames out in September. Washington's ace has had one bad outing since the end of April: a five-inning, five-run effort against the Diamondbacks on July 21. Otherwise, he's been the most effective starter in baseball besides a healthy Kershaw. Since May 2, Scherzer has a 6.00 K/BB rate, a 2.06 ERA and an opponents' batting average against of .164.
2. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
Season Stats: 12–5, 2.39 ERA, 1.117 WHIP, 8.3 K/9 (150 K), 2.42 K/BB, 184 ERA+. 6.3 WAR
Scherzer's foremost challenge for the award is coming from his own teammate. Gonzalez has been spectacular in his last five starts, logging a 0.78 ERA, a 0.818 WHIP and a 4–0 record. It's unlikely he'll surpass Scherzer for Cy Young honors, but Gonzalez has fixed pretty much everything from his weak 2016 campaign. His ERA is down two full points (4.57 in '16 to 2.39 this year), his ERA+ is up almost 100 points (92 in '16, 184 this season), and his hits per nine innings are down (9.1 in '16, 6.6 in '17) thanks to a heavier reliance on his curveball. His walk rate is still a little high, but if the Nationals enter the playoffs with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg fully healthy, Gonzalez is an excellent third option for a team desperately seeking a postseason series win.
3. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Season Stats: 15–2, 2.04 ERA, 0.884 WHIP, 10.7 K/9 (168 K), 7.0 K/BB, 208 ERA+, 4.7 WAR
Kershaw is the odds-on favorite every year, but injuries the past two seasons have derailed his hopes for a fourth Cy Young Award. He's been on the disabled list since July 23rd with a back strain but will make a rehab start at Triple A Oklahoma City on Saturday and should return to the rotation next week if all goes well. His dominance is in the numbers, but he probably won't accrue enough starts to outlast Scherzer for the award. Outside of strikeouts per nine innings, Kershaw is better than Scherzer in every notable category. In his six starts before being relegated to the disabled list, he recorded a 0.47 ERA, a 0.763 WHIP and a 7.5 K/BB rate.
4. Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks
Season Stats: 14–6, 3.16 ERA, 1.077 WHIP, 10.0 K/9 (178 K), 4.81 K/BB, 151 ERA+, 5.3 WAR
Pity the Colorado Rockies, who will likely have to face a resurgent Greinke in the NL wild-card game on Oct. 4. Either Greinke or Gonzalez will win the NL Comeback Player of the Year award, and both are deserving candidates. While Greinke has scuffled in August (a 5.01 ERA over four starts), he still silenced baseball's most fearsome offense in a 2–0 win over the Astros on Aug. 14. He's on track to eclipse 200 strikeouts for the fifth time in his career and could set a new career high (he recorded 242 for the Royals in 2009, when he won that league's Cy Young Award). The best indicator of his turnaround? His FIP has reduced from 4.12 to 3.22, indicating that he's striking out more hitters and leaving less to chance in the field. His dreadful 2016 season now a mere memory, Greinke is again one of the National League's most feared hurlers.
5. Alex Wood, Los Angeles Dodgers
Season Stats: 14–1, 2.41 ERA, 1.005 WHIP, 9.3 K/9 (127 K), 4.23 K/BB, 176 ERA+, 2.9 WAR
Wood is on the disabled list with an inflammation of a chest joint, his second DL stint this season, but his remarkable campaign should earn some kind of recognition. After starting the season in the bullpen, Wood joined the rotation for good in late April and started the year by winning his first 11 decisions while posting a 1.56 ERA. His effectiveness has slightly diminished since then; a nine-hit, seven-run outing against the Braves on July 21 ended his perfect record and kicked off an ongoing stretch in which he has put up a 4.42 ERA in his last six outings. Still, Wood remains one of the steadying forces in L.A.'s rotation.