AL Cy Young Race: Who is Corey Kluber’s Competition to Take Home the Award?

Sep 6, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber (28) delivers in the first inning against the Houston Astros at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The race for the American League Cy Young award is on and it’s a crowded field. Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians has to be considered a frontrunner, but who else is standing shoulder to shoulder with him?

With fewer than 20 games remaining in the regular season, the American League Cy Young award race is still wide open. There is a crowded field of deserving candidates, yet seemingly no one has really pushed to the front of the pack.

Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber is among the collection of arms having quality seasons on the mound, and certainly must be considered one of the favorites to win the award. Kluber’s performance this year, particularly since the all-star break, has been consistently dominant, and is reminiscent of the show he put on when he won the Cy Young in 2014.

According to Baseball Reference, the 30-year old right-hander is at or near the top of nearly every significant statistical category for pitchers not only in the AL, but in all of Major League Baseball. Thus far in 2016, Kluber is 16-9 with a 3.05 earned run average in 29 games started covering 197.2 innings, which generally tends to carry weight with Cy voters in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and on its face looks impressive.

But to understand his true dominance, we must look beyond the shiny won-loss record and relatively tiny ERA. Kluber leads American League pitchers in bWAR, ERA+, FIP, adjusted pitching runs, adjusted pitching wins, base-out runs saved, and situational wins saved, all advanced metrics that attempt to paint a more accurate portrait of a pitcher’s performance independent from the defense behind him and the offense going to bat for him.

In that sense, a strong argument could be made that Kluber has been the best, most valuable pitcher in the AL. He also places in the top ten in the league in more mainstream numbers such as wins, ERA, WHIP, innings pitched, strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings, strikeout-to-walk ratio, shutouts, and complete games, which should help his cause with the BBWAA.

Kluber, however, is not the only one putting together a strong Cy Young resume in 2016, and while he may be one of the favorites, putting money down on him walking away with the award doesn’t seem a prudent bet.

Let’s take a look at the competition around the American League, and see who may be the biggest obstacle to a second #CyKluber in three years.

Masahiro Tanaka – New York Yankees

Sep 10, 2016; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka (19) pitches in the 2nd inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Yankees dealt the likes of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran, and sent Alex Rodriguez riding off into the sunset a couple of months ago, the entirety of the baseball world wrote the team off for 2016. At the time of the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, the Yankees were 52-52 and sitting seven games back in the AL East.

What has happened since has been one of the more interesting stories of this MLB season, as the club called up a gaggle of youngsters, began to see veterans perform again, and surged back into the pennant and wild card races.  Since August 1st, the “Baby Bombers” are 25-15, have climbed back to within four games in the division, and sit just two games out of the second wild card spot.

A big reason why New York wasn’t further back at the deadline and why they’ve been so hot since the deadline, has been the performance of Tanaka. The 27-year old from Japan has been among the most consistently solid pitchers in the AL since Opening Day, and especially in the past month and a half, when the team is 7-1 in games with him on the mound.

Tanaka is 13-4 with a 3.04 ERA in 186.2 innings over 29 starts, and like Kluber, his name is all over the top ten lists of statistical leaders among pitchers in the AL. Heading into play on Wednesday, Tanaka is in the top four in the advanced metrics of bWAR, ERA+, FIP, adjusted pitching runs, adjusted pitching wins, base-out runs saved, base-out wins saved, and situational wins saved.

Also like Kluber, the more traditional numbers are kind to Tanaka, as he places among the leaders in wins, ERA, innings pitched, WHIP, and strikeout-to-walk rate. Despite all of this success, though, and despite his playing for the heavily-covered Yankees, it feels as though he has managed to fly under the radar.

But under the radar or not, Tanaka is having one of the best seasons by a pitcher in the Bronx in quite some time, and will certainly garner consideration in the Cy Young race. If New York is somehow able to pull off the incredible feat of making the playoffs, his candidacy will only be bolstered.

Chris Sale & Jose Quintana – Chicago White Sox

Aug 3, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale (49) pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago White Sox started the season off red-hot, sprinting out to a 23-10 record and six game lead in the AL Central by May 9th. But everything has been downhill since then, as the club started racking up losses, making questionable roster moves, and dealing with a little controversy surrounding scissors and a throwback uniform.

That the Sox season has been a disappointment after the hot start is an understatement, but little of the blame (on the field, anyways) can be laid at the feet of the team’s starting pitching. Chicago starters have been roughly league average, allowing opponents an OPS+ of exactly 100, but even that number can be deceiving. Sale and Quintana, the left-handed 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation have both been among the AL’s best this season, and will both likely receive consideration for the Cy Young, and deservedly so.

Sale has been a Cy Young frontrunner since Opening Day, as he won his first nine starts, put up a 14-2 record in the first half, and started for the American League in the all-star game. Just as is the case with Kluber and Tanaka, the wiry southpaw is at or near the top of nearly every statistical category in the league, including leading in ERA, WHIP, and complete games as of this writing.

Where Sale differs from his fellow contenders for the award, though, is that he has appeared to struggle in the second half of the season, though that’s not exactly true. Since the all-star break, he is just 1-5, and the White Sox are just 2-9 in games he starts, but he has actually been significantly better in terms of ERA, WHIP, strikeouts per nine innings, and opposition OPS+.

The issue for Sale has been the horrid offensive production of the Sox lineup, which has averaged just over three runs per game in his starts in the second half, an issue that Quintana is well-acquainted with.

Quintana receives the fifth-lowest amount of run support in the American League, so his rather pedestrian-looking 12-10 record isn’t indicative of his performance on the mound. In bWAR, ERA, WHIP, and all of the advanced metrics, he is among a handful of elite pitchers in the league, but few outside of Chicago and hard core observers of the game seem to know who he is.

Having two such starters in one rotation should be a boon to a franchise, but for whatever reason, Chicago can’t seem to get much else right. Both Sale and Quintana deserve to be squarely in the upper echelon of the Cy Young debate this season despite their club’s woes, though, and a strong case could be made for either taking home the hardware.

Cole Hamels – Texas Rangers

Aug 19, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Cole Hamels (35) walks back to the dugout against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As of this writing, the Texas Rangers have the best record in the American League, the second-best record (by percentage points over the Washington Nationals) in MLB, and the largest divisional lead by any club not playing on the north side of Chicago. The team is in this position despite having outscored its opponents by a mere 23 runs on the season, just the 12th-best run differential in baseball.

The Rangers have a scary lineup and are among the league leaders in just about every offensive category, but a close look at their season leads to one explanation for their success above all others: they have Cole Hamels.

The Rangers are 21-8 thus far this season in Hamels’ starts, and 22 of those games have been decided by three runs or less. Quite simply, Hamels keeps his team in position to win about as well as any other pitcher in baseball, and it may just lead to his first career Cy Young award.

The left-hander has the attractive traditional stats, with a 14-5 record and 3.24 ERA in his 180.2 innings, and ranks among the league’s leaders in bWAR, ERA+, strikeouts per nine innings, and many of the sabermetric categories. But perhaps most in his favor is simply the record that Texas has.

The best pitcher on the best team in the league historically garners strong consideration for the Cy Young, and while Hamels is certainly worthy based purely on his performance, the extra boost sure won’t hurt his chances.

Rick Porcello – Boston Red Sox

Sep 9, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello (22) throws against the Toronto Blue Jays in the sixth inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox are among the most heavily-covered teams in all of MLB this season, and every season. In 2016, they hold a two-game lead for first place in an AL East that is shaping up to be a certifiable dogfight until the very last day of the season, they have David Ortiz putting up one of the greatest final seasons of a career that has ever been seen, there is a collection of exciting young players like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Andrew Benintendi coming into their own, and they signed David Price to one of the richest contracts a pitcher has ever received.

It’s a lot to take in, so it makes sense that lost among it all is the year Porcello is having on the mound. And Porcello should be used to that, having been incredibly solid throughout his eight MLB seasons despite consistently being overshadowed by teammates with bigger star power.

All the big, 27-year old righty has done this season is quietly put together a Cy Young-worthy campaign that is equal parts sexy traditional stats and deeper sabermetric value that puts him on a par with the best arms in the league.

Porcello was the first pitcher to reach the vaunted-if-relatively-meaningless 20-win plateau, and as of this writing his 20-3 mark gives him a gaudy .870 winning percentage that likely has many BBWAA members who are not as SABR-inclined salivating. But, he is also among the league’s best in all of the same categories and statistics that all of those mentioned before are, including bWAR, ERA, ERA+, and all of the advanced metrics.

The question for Porcello is not whether he is worthy of Cy Young consideration, but whether or not anyone will notice he is amidst the rest of the circus that is the Red Sox this season.

Zach Britton – Baltimore Orioles

Sep 11, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton (53) pitches in the ninth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. The Orioles won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There is a precedent for a relief pitcher not only contending for, but winning the Cy Young award, particularly in the American League. Dennis Eckersley, Willie Hernandez, Rollie Fingers, and Sparky Lyle are all closers who have taken home the honor, and it’s possible that not one of them could hold a candle to the season Britton is having in Baltimore.

The Orioles are, as much as any team in all of baseball, in the midst of a war for their postseason lives right now, trailing the first place Boston Red Sox by two games and holding a tenuous two-game lead for the second wild card spot. As late as June 29th, the O’s had a 5.5-game lead in the AL East, but have played under .500 ball since then at 32-35.

The collapsed lead is of no fault of Britton, though, who is putting up an historic performance in 2016. The 28-year old lefty is a perfect 42-for-42 in save situations, and has yielded a mind-boggling four earned runs in 58.1 innings of work out of the bullpen.

Britton of course doesn’t show up on statistical leaderboards due to the limited innings, but in every way he has been as dominant as anyone who has set foot on the mound this season, and possibly ever. In 61 appearances, he has a 0.62 ERA, an 0.84 WHIP, 10 strikeouts per nine innings, and an astronomical ERA+ of 728. League average for that last one is calculated at 100, so to say Britton’s been virtually unhittable is an understatement of comical proportions.

Should a closer gain consideration for the Cy Young, even one that has been as dominant as Britton has been this year? That can be debated, certainly, but there is no arguing that, statistically speaking, we’ve never seen a season like this before from a bullpen arm. One must wonder, in an award field as crowded as that in the American League in 2016, will it be enough for Britton to be the last man standing?

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