Cy Young was a right-handed baseball pitcher who made his professional debut with the Cleveland Spiders in 1890. His career concluded with the Boston Rustlers in 1911. In that 21-year span, Young accumulated 815 starts (1st all-time), 7,355 innings pitched (1st), 511 wins (1st), 131.5 WAR (2nd) and 74 ERA- (19th). Safe to say he was pretty good.
Cy Young passed away in 1955 at the age of 88. In honor of Young’s death, then MLB commissioner Ford Frick established the Cy Young award in 1956. Originally awarded to best pitcher in the entire MLB, the award was split to include American and National league winners in 1967.
Rogers Clemens is the all-time leader in Cy Young awards with an astounding seven. Clemens won his first Cy Young award in 1986 at the age of 24 and his last in 2004 at 42. Randy Johnson is second in all-time Cy Young wins with a total of five. Johnson won the NL Cy Young award every season from 1999 to 2002.
Given that MLB season is roughly 50% complete, now is a good time to begin prognostication for end of season award winners. We’ll start with the AL Cy Young race, which features an interesting mix of established studs, up and coming youngsters and mediocre veterans who are outperforming expectations. The best place to start is to evaluate the AL ERA leaders thus far:
Jason Vargas and Ervin Santana are the most surprising names on the list. Both are pitching to career seasons after nearly a decade of solid, but unspectacular performance. While Vargas displayed real improvement in some underlying statistics, a 4.65 xFIP foretells some tough starts going forward. Likewise, Santana’s .208 BABIP is masking a 4.82 xFIP.
Yu Darvish is in the midst of a tremendous pre-free agency season. He’s pitching a lot of innings and churning out quality starts, however his peripheral indicators suggest an ERA higher than 3.11 going forward. Luis Severino, owner of the 5th best xFIP and the highest fastball velocity in the AL, is an intriguing candidate as well. However, his inability to work deep into games, evidenced by a mediocre 60% quality start percentage, will keep him out of real contention. Marcus Stroman is a very good pitcher, but his lack of top-end strikeout ability combined with an ERA in the mid-3.00’s puts a cap on his Cy Young potential.
Below is a ranking of the remaining five pitchers in the order of their probability of winning the AL Cy Young award:
05. Dallas Keuchel
Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young winner, suffered through a mediocre 2016. He returned to form through his first 11 starts in 2017, posting an MLB-leading 1.67 ERA supported by a 2.89 xFIP. Keuchel generates a decent amount of swings and misses, but his real calling card is an ability to induce weak groundball contact, with an MLB-leading 67.4% groundball rate. Unfortunately, Keuchel hasn’t pitched since June 2nd due to a neck injury. He expects to return immediately after the All-Star break, but those lost innings will cost him votes. Moreover, it will be difficult for Keuchel to sustain his .222 BABIP and 89% strand rate, indicating that the ERA is due to rise when he does return.
04. Michael Fulmer
Fulmer is definitely a bit of a throwback. The husky righty mainly relies on his fastball/changeup mix, challenging hitters with them over 80% of the time. His fastball velocity dials into the upper 90s, but he doesn’t induce strikeout rates one would expect. Yet Fulmer limits hard contact and home runs, enabling a 3.19 ERA in spite of a 3.96 xFIP. Fulmer gets extra points for working deep into games, amassing close to seven innings per start and owning the second best quality start percentage in the AL. While Fulmer’s 6.9 K/9 rate will turn off some Cy Young voters and leave him exposed to some ERA regression going forward, his fastball velocity and ability to generate swinging strikes indicates that more Ks are in his future.
03. Lance McCullers
Arguably the most exciting pitchers to watch in baseball, McCullers brings intensity, a devastating pitch repertoire and elite production to the mound each time out. He ranks 3rd in the AL in ERA, 2nd in xFIP, 3rd in strikeout rate, 3rd in strikeout minus walk rate and 2nd in groundball rate. He also does it while throwing his curveball 46% of the time, compared to just 40% for his fastball. While McCullers is just as good as Sale and Kluber, he struggles to work deep into games at times and runs the risk of Houston managing his innings later in the season.
02. Corey Kluber
Kluber’s start to the season couldn’t have gone much worse. Owner of a 5.06 ERA through his first six starts, Kluber then missed nearly all of May with a back injury. However, he’s been lights out since his June 1st return, posting a 1.26 ERA, 1.67 xFIP and 64 strikeouts in 43 innings across six starts. His 3.02 ERA is now sixth in the AL, with his stuff looking nearly untouchable. Kluber will be docked some points due to his injury, which will limit his total innings this season to ~180 and put a cap on his potential win count. But if he keeps pitching to the tune of a 1.67 xFIP, the results will become too good to ignore.
01. Chris Sale
Sale is 4th in the AL in ERA, 1st in quality starts, 1st in quality start percentage, 1st in strikeouts, 2nd in WHIP and 1st in xFIP. His 2017 performance is everything Sox fans could have hoped for when they traded top 10 prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech for Sale over the offseason. Sale’s FIP- of 47, which means that his Fielder Independent ERA is 53% better than average the season, is currently the 4th best all-time. In terms of more traditional statistics, Sale seems likely to hit the 20 win plateau and his 2.77 ERA is supported by the peripherals. Barring a major injury or complete meltdown, the award is his to lose.