The baseball writers with NL Cy Young votes this year are in for a doozy. Entering play Friday, there are between five and 10 legitimate contenders for this year's award, one that will certainly come down to the final series of the regular season.
Will Max Scherzer win his fourth Cy Young to join exclusive company? Will his new teammate beat him out? How about Kevin Gausman? Or Zack Wheeler? Two Brewers aces are also worthy choices.
And then there's Adam Wainwright, who turned 40 last month and is having his best season since 2014. Old Uncle Charlie has finished second and third twice each for the award, and it's remarkable that he's back in the conversation. Alas, barring an improbable final stretch where all the other pitchers struggle, he'll likely fall short again.
Sports Illustrated's baseball staff weighed in on who they think should win the award with just more than three weeks to go in the regular season.
Picking an NL Cy Young winner now is like reviewing a movie before the climactic scene. But based on track record—and the way he has thrown for the past month—the edge goes to Max Scherzer. He leads the league in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts per nine innings. More tellingly, in his past eight starts he is 6–0 with a 1.10 ERA with eight walks and 68 strikeouts. Batters are hitting .118 against him with runners in scoring position. He is 11–1 when his team scores more than two runs. The biggest knock on Scherzer: innings. He is not in the top 10.
Max Scherzer—but this race is close enough that I can see valid arguments for several other pitchers, too. As of a few weeks ago, I was leaning toward Walker Buehler, and I still think he's a strong candidate. But Scherzer has now squeaked by him in ERA (2.28 to 2.31) and ERA+ (177 to 172), while keeping a lower WHIP and a higher K/BB, and that's enough for me to give him the edge. Corbin Burnes is in this mix, too. But the fact that he missed four starts in the spring while on the injured list means that he just doesn't have enough innings to justify putting him over Scherzer. Is it time for a 37-year-old Scherzer to win his fourth Cy Young of his career, and first since 2017? I think it just might be.
If the season ended today, there would be a few ways voters could look at this. If they prioritize eating innings at a rate rarely seen in this era, Philadelphia's Zack Wheeler may be the choice. He leads the NL with 188 2/3 innings, 217 strikeouts and 6.4 bWAR, to go along with his 6.4 fWAR (second-best), 2.61 FIP (second-best) and 2.91 ERA (eighth-best). If they prefer the utterly dominant ace who shattered records this season but missed a few starts, Milwaukee's Corbin Burnes would be a worthy selection. He leads all NL pitchers in FIP (1.58) by more than a full run thanks to a league-best strikeout-walk ratio (7.0) and home run rate (0.31 home runs per nine innings), and ranks in the top five in ERA (2.38) and WHIP (0.96). That's helped him lead NL pitchers in fWAR (6.5) while ranking seventh in bWAR (4.8). The 26-year-old also made headlines this season by setting the record for most strikeouts to begin a season without issuing a free pass and later struck out a record-tying 10 consecutive batters, all of whom went down swinging. But his 144 innings are indicative of the few starts he missed while on the COVID-19 reserve list and his tendency to be pulled earlier than some of his contemporaries, a trend that won't reverse itself while the Brewers are running away with the NL Central.
I'm going to land somewhere in between and go with the Dodgers' Walker Buehler. He ranks fourth with 179 innings pitched, just a complete game and change behind Wheeler. He's one of the closest statistical equals to Burnes, ranking first in adjusted pitching wins (3.8), second in ERA (2.31) and WHIP (0.94), third in bWAR (5.6) and win probability added (3.28) and fourth in fWAR (4.5). He's also pitched 35 more innings than Burnes and 25 more innings than fellow Dodger Max Scherzer, who matches him in most of the rate stats and has pitched better than his new teammate lately. This race will be decided in the season's final few weeks, but for now, I'm going with No. 21 to win the Cy Young in 2021.
Remember two months ago when Jacob deGrom was having the best pitching season ever and this race seemed over? Well, things have certainly changed. He still could receive some down-ballot Cy Young votes, considering he still ranks third in the league with 4.9 fWAR, despite making just 15 starts, pitching just 92 innings and not qualifying for the ERA title. But, without him, there are at least five worthy candidates for whom these next few weeks will be crucial.
With this emphasis on the final weeks of the season, Max Scherzer should win the award. He leads the league with a 2.28 ERA and a 0.857 WHIP, both of which are the best marks of his career. Perhaps more important is how well he's pitched down the stretch; he has a 1.61 ERA since the All-Star break and is 5–0 with a 1.05 ERA in his seven starts with the Dodgers. That's the type of late dominance that's made the difference in previous close Cy Young races (Jake Arrieta in 2015, Corey Kluber in '14, David Price in '12, among others). The one concern with Scherzer is he hasn't pitched as many innings as other leading candidates Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler and Kevin Gausman. But, with four starts left in the regular season, he's got a chance to keep building momentum before the voting.
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Also, the legacy narrative is working in Scherzer's favor. If he wins the Cy Young, he'll become only the fifth pitcher to ever receive the award four times in his career, joining Roger Clemens (7), Randy Johnson (5), Greg Maddux (4) and Steve Carlton (4).
I don't envy the baseball writers tasked with voting for this award. With so many worthy candidates, every decision can feel like the wrong one. By the slimmest of margins, I'll go with Philadelphia's Zack Wheeler. He's the major league leader in innings pitched (188 2/3), strikeouts (217), complete games (three) and shutouts (two). He struggled in August (3–3 with a 4.81 ERA in six starts) but bounced back with a dominant nine-strikeout, zero-walk outing in his last time out against the Brewers, outdueling fellow Cy Young candidate Brandon Woodruff. Wheeler has tossed seven innings or more in 16 of his 28 starts and has given up one or fewer runs in 12 of them. He ranks fourth in win probability added and has the lowest average exit velocity against in the National League. There are plenty of good cases to be made for the other strong arms in this league, and we could see a record number of different players receive first-place votes. My hypothetical vote goes to Wheeler due to his consistency and dependability.
Like the National League MVP race, the battle for the Cy Young appears wide open with just weeks remaining in the 2021 season. A pair of Brewers and a pair of Dodgers are serious contenders for the award, as are the aces in Philadelphia and San Francisco. The home stretch in September and early October could determine the award as much as the full season’s body of work.
The advanced stats favor Corbin Burnes as he turns in a delightful season in Milwaukee. Burnes leads all pitchers in fWAR, and his FIP is closer to Jacob deGrom (who's made only 15 starts this year due to injuries) than the likes of Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer or teammate Brandon Woodruff. But ultimately, Burnes’s total body of work may fall a bit short. He ranks No. 22 in the NL in innings, tossing more than 44 fewer frames than Wheeler and 35 fewer than Buehler. The sheer volume provided by other arms may hurt Burnes’s chances here.
I’ll ultimately side with Wheeler here. He’s right behind Burnes in fWAR, and he’s paired an MLB-best 188 2/3 innings with a sub-3.00 ERA and a healthy 10.4 K/9. Add in three complete games and a pair of shutouts, and Wheeler’s full résumé should give him the award.
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