It's difficult to recall a season where so many of baseball's major awards seemed so up in the air. Even with last Monday's announcement of the league’s top three finalists for the MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year awards, most of the elections carry a fair bit of suspense as to who will take home the trophy. Which players are the favorites in each league for each award? What follows here is a handy one-stop guide to the proceedings. On Monday, the first award was handed out with the announcement of the American and National League Rookies of the Year—the Tigers' Michael Fulmer and the Dodgers' Corey Seager, respectively. On Tuesday, the Indians' Terry Francona and the Dodgers' Dave Roberts were honored as the Managers of the Year. Today, we continue with the naming of each league's Cy Young.
With the thrilling seven-game World Series between the Cubs and Indians still in mind, it's important to remember that the balloting for all of these awards was completed by the end of the regular season, so candidates such as Corey Kluber, Kris Bryant, Jon Lester, Joe Maddon and Terry Francona won't receive extra credit for their October heroics. For each award, two BBWAA-affiliated writers from each city in the league cast their votes. The candidates are listed alphabetically, and unless otherwise indicated, all WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference.com version.
It would be an overstatement to say that the 2014 AL Cy Young bounced back from a subpar '15, for Kluber's 9–16 record was the product of just 3.2 runs per game of support and offset by otherwise strong numbers. Nonetheless, his 2016 was an improvement, featuring the league's lowest FIP and highest ERA+ as well as the third-lowest homer rate, fourth-best strikeout rate and fifth-highest strikeout total. Receiving 5.3 runs per game of offensive support didn't hurt, either.
Rick Porcello, Red Sox 22–4, 3.15 ERA, 145 ERA+. 3.40 FIP, 7.6 K/9, 5.0 WAR
After a lousy first season in Boston—his fifth out of seven with a park-adjusted ERA worse than league average—Porcello enjoyed a career year thanks to outstanding offensive and defensive support. The Red Sox pounded out an AL-best 6.8 runs per start for him, enabling the AL's highest win total in five years, and held opponents to a .269 batting average on balls in play (the AL's fifth-lowest mark), helping to offset a middling strikeout rate. Porcello helped his own cause thanks to impeccable control that produced the AL's second-lowest walk rate (1.2 per nine) and best strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.9).
After three uneven seasons and a 6.49 ERA through his first six starts, Verlander's days as an ace appeared to be behind him. But the 2011 AL Cy Young rebounded with a 2.42 ERA and 23 quality starts out of his final 28, delivering an exceptionally strong campaign that nearly carried the Tigers into the playoffs. Though his numbers were aided by the league's second-lowest BABIP (.256), he allowed less hard contact than all but three starters (28.9%) and lead the AL in strikeouts, WAR and quality starts (27), ranking second in ERA and innings (227 2/3) and fourth in FIP. He also finished with a gaudy won-loss record despite receiving a meager 4.0 runs per start, the 11th-lowest rate among qualifiers.
Hendricks came into the year as the Cubs' fifth starter but enjoyed a breakout season via an outstanding changeup and increased use of his modest four-seam fastball against lefties. Thanks to those pitches, he generated more soft contact (24.9% of all balls in play) than any other qualified NL starter, led the league in ERA, placed ninth in WAR and cracked the top 10 in walk and home-run rates (2.1 and 0.7 per nine, respectively) as well.
Jon Lester, Cubs 19–5, 2.44 ERA, 164 ERA+, 3.41 FIP, 8.7 K/9, 5.3 WAR
Though his FIP actually rose by half a run from 2015, Lester rode the Cubs' league-best defense to a career-low ERA—second in all of baseball only to Hendricks (who benefited from that same defense)—and the league's third-lowest WHIP (1.016). With 5.1 runs per game supporting him, he finished with 19 wins, the league's second-highest total, and placed sixth in WAR and innings (a team-high 202 2/3) and seventh in strikeouts (197), among several other leaderboard finishes.
Max Scherzer, Nationals 20–7, 2.96 ERA, 141 ERA+, 3.24 FIP, 11.2 K/9, 6.2 WAR
With Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw falling short in the voting because of a 2 1/2-month absence due to injury, Scherzer is the NL field's power pitching candidate. He whiffed 284 hitters in 228 1/3 innings (both league highs) and tied the major league record with a 20-strikeout game on May 11 against the Tigers. He also didn't walk anybody that night—par for the course for a season in which he finished with a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.968 WHIP, both best among qualifiers. Only a league-high 31 homers compromised his run prevention and dinged his candidacy, but it didn't keep him from league leads in both wins and WAR.
Both races are notable for having one talked-about candidate missing from the top three. In the AL, Orioles closer Zach Britton's 0.54 ERA, 47-for-47 save streak and AL-best 6.5 Win Probability Added made a case for his becoming the first reliever to win since Eric Gagne in 2003. In the NL, three-time winner Kershaw put up career bests in ERA (1.69), walk rate (0.7 per nine) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (15.6) and ranked second in WAR (5.6) despite his injury—dominance that would have netted him this scribe's vote.
As it is, my wild guess in the NL is that Scherzer's league leads will hold out as the two Cubs cut into each other's support. In the AL, the bet here is that Porcello's beefy win total carries the day, but I'd go for Verlander in a squeaker over Kluber after consulting Baseball Prospectus' Deserved Run Average, a next-generation ERA estimator that incorporates things FIP doesn't, such as catcher framing, ballpark and baserunning; there, Verlander owned a 2.75 to 2.97 edge on Kluber.