Get ready for fresh debate about whether a closer should win the Cy Young. (Eric Gagne in 2003 was the most recent reliever to do so.) In many ways, this is the perfect year for a closer to win it. There isn’t an overwhelming favorite, the way Clayton Kershaw was last year, and Chapman is posting some otherworldly numbers (radar readings and otherwise) for a team that should win its division.
Heirs to the throne
After rare talents Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw claimed their first Cy Young awards last year, it seemed possible that each would win again in 2012. Sure enough, Verlander and Kershaw are among the leading contenders once more. Neither appears to be a slam-dunk winner, as was the case last year, but that only makes the races more interesting. Here’s a look at the top AL and NL candidates as of mid-August. — Jon Paul Morosi
AL: David Price, Rays
Here’s a scary thought for the rest of the American League: Price is having an even better season, statistically speaking, than when he finished second to Felix Hernandez in the 2010 Cy Young balloting. He ranks third in the AL in ERA, behind only Jered Weaver and Justin Verlander. Will he keep it up, with so many AL East opponents during the last two months?
AL: Chris Sale, White Sox
Just think what might have happened — to Sale, to the White Sox, to the AL Central race — if the lefty hadn’t insisted on returning to the rotation after one relief appearance in early May. Clearly, he (and manager Robin Ventura) made the right choice. Sale ranks among the AL leaders in wins and ERA, although there are questions about how effective he will be down the stretch. The 23-year-old has far surpassed his previous career high for innings.
AL: Felix Hernandez, Mariners
Hernandez’s award-winning 2010 season proved that the BBWAA electorate has evolved in its thinking about how many wins a Cy Young pitcher ought to have. So, why can’t he win it again? While not as dominant overall as he was two years ago, Hernandez is tied for the major-league lead with three shutouts. He’s a tick behind Verlander and Weaver across the board; both would have to falter late in the season for Hernandez to have a realistic chance to win.
AL: Jake Peavy, White Sox
Peavy might be an even more surprising Cy Young candidate than his teammate Chris Sale. After three injury-shortened seasons in a row, what were the odds that Peavy would be among the league leaders in innings pitched and make the All-Star team? He ranks highly in several key metrics — ERA, WHIP, pitching WAR — and has a good chance to finish among the top five in balloting.
AL: Jered Weaver, Angels
At this point, Weaver is the greatest threat to Verlander’s repeat bid. Despite missing several weeks with a strained lower back, Weaver leads the AL in wins and ERA. If Weaver keeps his ERA below Verlander’s, the question may be whether voters are willing to look beyond the fact that he will have fewer innings and strikeouts by a substantial margin.
AL: Justin Verlander, Tigers
Verlander is every bit the thoroughbred he was in 2011, as he’s again leading the AL in strikeouts and innings. He has the highest WAR of any pitcher in the major leagues, according to FanGraphs.com. His ERA and WHIP are off last year’s pace — but only barely. Let’s put it this way: He’s done nothing to lose the title of best pitcher in baseball.
NL: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Right now, he’s a candidate. But if the Nationals shut him down in September — and it certainly appears they will — is there any way for him to have a place on the crowded five-man ballot? Voters who are strict about innings pitched won’t give him much consideration, but the fact that he’s striking out more than 11 hitters per nine innings is enough to make us all take notice.
NL: Ryan Vogelsong, Giants
Vogelsong was a breakout star for the Giants in 2011 but has been even better this season. He may have entered the year as the third or fourth starter on the Giants’ staff, but he’s poised to win the ERA title. He doesn’t strike out a ton of hitters, so it’s possible his numbers could regress down the stretch, but the 35-year-old has developed an advanced feel for pitching at this stage of his career.
NL: R.A. Dickey, Mets
The Mets’ run as a charmed story has come to an end. Dickey’s hasn’t. Sure, he hasn’t been as good in the second half as he was during his 11-1 start (with a 2.00 ERA). But he’s still having one of the best seasons of any pitcher in baseball, as evidenced by the Aug. 9 complete-game, 10-strikeout victory over the Marlins. Dickey has the lowest WHIP in the NL, the sort of thing that we figured would be unattainable for a knuckleballer.
NL: Johnny Cueto, Reds
Famously snubbed by Tony La Russa when it came time to pick the NL All-Star team, Cueto should receive the proper recognition for his season with a top-five finish in the Cy Young voting. Cueto ranks among the top five NL pitchers in wins, ERA and innings — giving him the makings of a strong overall candidacy. His microscopic home run rate might be the most impressive number of all, considering the ballpark where he pitches half the time.
NL: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
This looks like a sensational season for Kershaw in just about every sense … except when it’s compared with what he accomplished last year. He will need a big push down the stretch to win the strikeout title for a second straight season. He is, however, in a virtual tie with R.A. Dickey for the NL lead in innings and WHIP. Not that it matters in the voting, but the Dodgers have given him such poor run support that he might finish the season with only 13 or 14 wins.