The Cy Young is where baseball’s year-end awards really start to get fun. The Rookies of the Year were no-brainers. Manager of the Year doesn’t hold the same weight. And in the Cy Young vote this year, we have six great finalists in both leagues and no sure-thing winners.
In both the AL and NL, we have very close races between the top two pitchers, with different stats favoriting different hurlers — so it’s no sure thing which way the vote could swing.
In the AL, with apologies of Luis Severino, it’s a tight race between Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, who were both great in different ways. In the NL, all three finalists were excellent, but Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer seem to have an edge on Stephen Strasburg. Kershaw vs. Scherzer will be tight too, with one of them adding to their already ample trophy case.
As always, we should remind you that voting for these awards happened at the end of the regular season, so postseason performance isn’t included. Save your Kershaw jokes there, because excluding the postseason actually helped a few of these guys.
And now, here’s our rundown of the six finalists. The awards will be handed at 6 p.m. Wednesday on MLB Network, as the Baseball Writers Association of America reveals the results.
Chris Sale – Boston Red Sox
In brief: Sale came to the Red Sox after a winter trade from the White Sox and fulfilled every bit of hype that surrounded the deal. Sale immediately became the Red Sox’s ace — and it’s a good thing he was there with Rick Porcello taking a step back and David Price being injured. Sale was 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA, a similar version of what we’d seen from him in Chicago — which is to say dominant and great — just with a better team behind him.
Case for: A vote for Sale is a vote for two things — strikeouts and Wins Above Replacement. His 308 strikeouts led all of MLB, likewise his 12.93 K/9 ratio was the best in baseball. According to Fangraphs’ WAR, Sale was the most valuable pitcher in MLB this season. His 7.7 WAR was second to only Aaron Judge in all of MLB. Both sound like great points on a Cy Young résumé.
Case against: Sale looked like a sure-thing Cy Young for most of the season, but as he got closer to the finish line, things got a little less sure. His final two months of the season were rough by Sale’s standards. He still finished with a sub-three ERA, but it went from 2.37 at the end of July to 2.90 at the end of the season. He had a 4.38 ERA in August and was only slightly better in September, 3.72. He was 4-4 in his final 11 games.
Corey Kluber – Cleveland Indians
In brief: Kluber is looking for his second Cy Young, having won it in 2014. The Indians ace — 18-4 with a 2.25 ERA — was every bit as good in 2017 as he was then, making for a tight Cy Young race between him and Sale. Their stories are a little different. Kluber was good but not great early, but really turned it on at the end of the season, while Sale trailed off.
Case for: Kluber’s 2.25 ERA was the best among MLB starters in 2017 and that alone makes him a strong choice here. But it was really Kluber’s work in the second half, as the Indians accelerated past the rest of the AL Central that makes his case. He was 11-1 after the All-Star break with a 1.79 ERA, which was a full run lower than his first-half ERA, a still-very-good 2.80. He was also tied for the AL lead in wins (18) and complete games (5).
Case against: If we’re simply looking at this as Sale vs. Kluber, which is the right way to look at it, then the stats that hurt Kluber’s case are strikeouts (he had 265, so Sale bested him by 43), innings pitched (203.2 vs. Sale’s 214.1) and WAR (7.3 compared to Sale’s 7.7). It’s really a matter of what stats a voter values more.
Luis Severino – New York Yankees
In brief: Severino is the young gun of this pack and deserves credit for turning a disappointing 2016 season into a much-needed breakout season in 2017 for the Yankees. He assumed the role of staff ace at just 23, going 14-6 with with a 2.98 ERA.
Case for: A first-place Cy Young vote for Severino is, well, pretty tough to justify statistically. He might be the best story of the bunch, going from 3-8 with a 5.83 ERA in 2016 to a front-line starter in 2017. But a vote for that would be a vote based on emotion, and that’s not how these awards are supposed to work.
Case against: Severino doesn’t rank with Sale and Kluber in very many categories. He’s fourth-best in the AL in strikeouts, third-best in ERA and didn’t crack 200 innings. It was a great season, no doubt, but didn’t quite measure up to the others in the top three.
Clayton Kershaw – Los Angeles Dodgers
In brief: The Dodgers ace has three of these Cy Young awards already and making it four isn’t a sure thing. Kershaw had another stellar season, going 18-4 with a 2.31 ERA. Were Kershaw to win another, he’d enter hallowed ground as just the fifth pitcher to win four. Also on that list: Greg Maddux (4), Steve Carlton (4), Randy Johnson (5) and Roger Clemens (7).
Case for: Kershaw has two stats in his favor — wins, because his 18 led the NL, and ERA, because his 2.31 was also the best in the NL. Kershaw’s ERA is better than Scherzer’s by .20 and that’s two more wins than Scherzer (if you care about pitcher wins, that is).
Case against: The true case against Kershaw is the workload. He only made 27 starts, since he missed all of August because of injury. As such, he doesn’t measure up in innings (175) and strikeouts (202). If a Cy Young can be won on wins and ERA alone, then Kershaw might have a chance here.
Max Scherzer – Washington Nationals
In brief: Scherzer is the reigning Cy Young winner and seems to have the best odds to repeat. He had another stellar season at the front of the Nats’ rotation, going 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA. His two complete games were also tied for most in NL. A win here would be Scherzer’s third Cy Young, a feat only nine players have accomplished.
Case for: Scherzer was great across the board. His 268 strikeouts were the most in the NL. His 200.2 innings pitched were tops among the three finalists. His 2.51 ERA wasn’t as good as Kershaw’s, but it was the third-best in MLB, so still excellent. There’s no real knock on Scherzer’s season. The real separator between Scherzer and the others here is innings pitched. He topped the all-important 200-innings threshold while neither Kershaw nor Strasburg did.
Case against: While there’s no solid case against Scherzer, it’s all a matter of degrees. If a certain voter really values ERA or wins, then he or she might pick Kershaw over Scherzer.
Stephen Strasburg – Washington Nationals
In brief: In 2017, Strasburg finally produced like the ace that he’s been hyped as for years. He’s always been good, but in 2017, Strasburg had the best season of his big-league career. That wasn’t just about production in the right categories — he was 15-4 with a 2.52 ERA — but he also made 28 starts and logged 175.1 innings. Strasburg, 29, has been limited by injuries through much of his career. He was injured for a spell this year too, but he managed to put together his most complete and most effective season to date.
Case for: The best stat in Strasburg’s advantage here is how few homers he allowed compared to everyone else. His 0.67 homers-per-nine inning was the best in the majors and significantly better than both Scherzer (0.99) and Kershaw (1.18).
Case against: Homers-allowed is the most important thing in Strasburg’s favor, because in most every other meaningful stat he’s bested by Kershaw and Scherzer. Like Kershaw, Strasburg’s 175.1 innings don’t measure up to Scherzer. His ERA is only a tick behind Scherzer (2.52 to 2.51), but it’s still not as good. It was a great season for Strasburg, it just doesn’t look great enough.
AL: Kluber – The ERA difference was enough for me to go with Kluber despite Sale’s slight innings lead and strong strikeout total. Kluber’s ERA+ was 202. The league-average is 100.
NL: Scherzer – With all other stats being pretty even, Scherzer gets the nod for me based on his higher innings total.
AL: Kluber – Kluber’s strong finish is what makes him my pick. Sale isn’t a bad choice, but his team was playing meaningful games until the end and he struggled in some of them.
NL: Scherzer – The innings matter here. Scherzer giving his team a full season while Kershaw missed a month is a big deal even though the Dodgers were able to survive without Kershaw. Give me Max.
AL: Sale – It’s hard to believe that Sale hasn’t won a Cy Young yet. Hopefully this is the year that corrects this grievous error.
NL: Kershaw – Kershaw’s missed starts don’t matter to me. He’s too good for that to matter.
AL: Kluber – If you look close enough you’ll realize Kluber bettered his Cy Young season from 2014. I didn’t think that was possible, but Klubot proved me wrong.
NL: Kershaw – This one is pretty much a coin flip with Max Scherzer. I give Kershaw the edge because he’s MLB’s best even when he’s not entirely healthy.
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