Sizing Up an NL Cy Young Race Without Jacob deGrom

New York's ace suffered an injury scare this week. What would the Cy Young race look like without its perennial favorite?
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Jacob deGrom has earned the privilege to be considered the preseason favorite for the National League Cy Young Award every year, much like Mike Trout has with the American League MVP. The Mets ace has done nothing to lose that status this season, leading the majors in ERA (0.68), FIP (1.02), WHIP (0.60), H/9 (3.8), K/9 (14.6), and pacing all starters in K% (46.1). Even given the contact-averse settings, those are video game numbers, most of which would set records if sustained over a full season.

Every Mets fan may have felt their heart skip a beat after seeing the news that deGrom left his most recent start early and was placed on the injured list with right side tightness. Thankfully, all signs since seem to indicate they’re being especially cautious with their ace, and that deGrom may only miss a start given New York’s abundance of off days coming up.

But even if he’s healthy for the rest of the year, Thursday’s matchup between the Cardinals and Brewers showed the two-time Cy Young winner will have some stiff competition for the award in 2021. Corbin Burnes and Jack Flaherty battled in one of the best pitchers duels of the season, which ended in a 2–0 St. Louis victory.

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Burnes, of course, set an MLB record by striking out his 58th hitter of the season before finally issuing his first walk—to Tommy Edman, in the fifth inning. Even coming off a two-week layoff due to a positive COVID-19 test, the 26-year-old was electric, allowing one run over five innings while striking out nine to go with the lone free pass. But he was once again let down by the Brewers offense, which has saddled him with a 2–3 record despite his sparkling 1.57 ERA.

Milwaukee just couldn’t get going anything against Flaherty, who went six scoreless with six punchouts to become the first pitcher with seven wins this season and, per MLB.com’s Zachary Silver, the first Cardinals pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA and seven wins in his first eight games since Bob Gibson in 1965. Flaherty hasn’t been as dominant as Burnes thus far, and he’s been lucky to receive the best run support in MLB—the Cardinals have averaged 9.43 runs in his starts. But he showed that potential in 2019, when he finished fourth in Cy Young voting on the back of a second half during which he recorded a 0.91 ERA over 15 starts, with 124 strikeouts in 99.1 innings.

They’re far from the only guys waiting in the wings to take advantage of any extended absence or sudden decline by deGrom. With roughly one quarter of the season in the books, here are the three top non-deGrom candidates in an NL Cy Young field that’s so stacked, the reigning winner (Trevor Bauer) doesn’t make this ranking despite just barely falling off from his winning campaign:

1. Brandon Woodruff, Brewers

For now, Woodruff gets the nod over his rotation mate Burnes, who hasn’t pitched enough innings to qualify for the statistical leaderboards due to his COVID-induced absence. Among NL pitchers, Woodruff ranks first in bWAR (2.5) and win probability added (1.9) and second behind deGrom in ERA (1.64), WHIP (0.73) and FIP (2.26). Burnes is the Brewer who’s gotten most of the press so far, but the 2018 All-Star Woodruff has a longer track record of success and would probably start Game 1 of a playoff series for Milwaukee tomorrow.

2. Corbin Burnes, Brewers

Burnes has been too unhittable to put any lower than this, even with several fewer starts than his competitors. After recording a 2.11 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 59.2 innings last season to quietly finish sixth in Cy Young voting, he’s elevated his already overpowering whiff rates while maintaining control over the strike zone to a historic degree. The scraggly-haired Bakersfield, Calif. native seems poised to give deGrom a run for his money even if the latter is at the peak of his powers.

3. Trevor Rogers, Marlins

Bauer certainly has an argument here as the NL leader in strikeouts, but I’ll give this spot to the rookie southpaw who has already outdueled deGrom, Burnes and 2020 breakout youngster Ian Anderson. The 23-year-old ranks third in the NL in ERA (1.84) and ranks fourth in FIP (2.49) behind 57 strikeouts in 44 innings and a microscopic rate of 0.41 HR/9 IP. Miami may possess the most promising collection of young arms in the sport, and Rogers may end up vying for Rookie of the Year with teammate Jazz Chisholm Jr.

Honorable mention: Bauer, Kevin Gausman, Yu Darvish, Zack Wheeler, Joe Musgrove, Max Scherzer

Quick hits

  • The Mariners debuted a pair of top prospects in Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert, both of whom were first-round picks in the 2018 draft, against Cleveland Thursday night. But Zach Plesac stole the show by no-hitting Seattle through seven innings before allowing a single up the middle to J.P. Crawford and a home run to Dylan Moore in Cleveland's 4–2 win. Kelenic, a consensus top-five prospect in baseball who’s only 21 years old, went 0-for-4 with a strikeout. Gilbert, ranked as the game’s 28th-best prospect by MLB.com, gave up four runs in four innings, allowing homers to Franmil Reyes and Jose Ramirez. He topped out at 97 mph, didn’t walk anybody and struck out the last three hitters he faced. Not bad for a debut, but he was no match for yet another reliable cog in Cleveland’s pitching machine.
  • In Kelenic’s first plate appearance, Cleveland outfielder Josh Naylor—who’s not known for his glove—tumbled into the stands to retire the rookie on the first pitch he saw as a Mariner. Welcome to the bigs, kid.
  • Toronto scored four runs off Atlanta closer Will Smith in the ninth to win, 8-4, and clinch their second three-game sweep of the Braves this season. It’s the first time Atlanta has gone winless in a season series of at least six games since they went 0-6 against the Cubs in 2008. The Braves have climbed back to .500 three times this season, only to immediately endure losing streaks of at least three games, including their current skid. Their playoff odds on FanGraphs have shrunk more since Opening Day than any other NL squad, down from 63.8% to 29.6%.
  • The only team to see their playoff odds decrease more than the Braves is the Twins, whose postseason odds have declined a whopping 51%, down from 63.3% on Opening Day to 12.3%. Minnesota also lost to complete a sweep Thursday, and its defeats were even more damning, as it came to the division-leading White Sox, who now lead fourth-place Minnesota by 10 games in the AL Central. The 2006 Twins roared back from 12.5 games back in the division on May 27 to capture the division crown on the final day of the season. Johan Santana isn’t walking through that door to win the Cy Young like he did back then, but it would help if Kenta Maeda (5.08 ERA in seven starts) began to resemble the Cy Young runner-up he was last year.

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