DETROIT - JULY 31: Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the first inning during the game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Comerica Park on July 31, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
This post was a request by e-mail last week. If you have any story ideas, feel free to let us know by e-mail or Twtiter.
Now that the season has reached August, the Cy Young contenders have all placed themselves on the radar. Three players have separated themselves from the pack, but half a dozen or so pitchers have all done well enough this year to earn consideration at this time.
The voters have been doing a much better job in recent years, as well. So some of the time-honored stats that you could easily look at to predict the Cy Young winner are not the be-all, end-all stats any more. Non-East Coast, non-20-game winner, non-playoff pitchers have won the AL's Cy Young Award the past two seasons. In 2008, a non-Yankee, non-playoff pitcher also won. However, Cliff Lee won 22 games that season.
But this year appears to me a battle among pitchers in pretty big markets who play for winning teams that all have division-winning hopes. More interesting in this "year of the pitcher" is that across the board their stats are nice. Do you go with the ERA-leading 20-game winner? The strikeout-leading 20-game winner? The big-market, mid-2s 20-game winner?
Right now, the award is anyone's to win. So here are the top three contenders for first-place voters, coupled with a trio of players who might siphon off some important points a bit lower in the standings.
*Note: I am using Fangraphs' WAR.
Cy Young Leading Contenders
No homer pick here. Justin Verlander is the American League leader in wins, strikeouts,WHIP, and innings pitched right now. He's tied for first in quality starts and is a closer second in quality start percentage. He's third (but in a tight battle for second) in ERA. If you prefer to go the sabermetric route, he's second in WAR. Verlander has also thrown a no hitter and he's recognized by players and media as being one of the best pitchers in the game. All the ingredients are there for his first career Cy Young. It's no surprise to see he also sits atop ESPN.com's Cy Young Predictor, which is based on a formula by Bill James and Rob Neyer. Verlander just has to keep plugging away the final two months, and it would help (though it is not required) if his teammates got him into the playoffs.
Sabathia has a few things going for him. Like Verlander, he's likely to cross 20 wins, he's an innings-eating workhorse, his ERA is in the mid-2s. However, that ERA ranks fourth with a definite gap behind Verlander's. A few tie-breakers? Sabathia is certain to make the playoffs, which could be a deciding factor if voters are unable to separate the top pitchers by other means. And those voters who fall back to WAR -- wins above replacement -- as a decider would have to pick Sabathia as their man today. He leads all of baseball in WAR at 5.8, though he's just 0.2 ahead of Verlander. One notable problem for Sabathia is consistency. He ranks just 13th in quality start percentage, about 20% behind the other leading candidates.
At this point, I feel like most voters will be dividing their first place voters among those two. My next candidate will definitey pick up a few himself.
Weaver's big thing right now is that his ERA is less than 2. Today it's 1.88. If he can keep it under 2, he would be the first qualified American League pitcher to do so since Pedro Martinez finished the 2000 season with 1.74. That would certainly put pressure on people to give him the honor. He is tied for first in quality starts (though leading Verlander in % due to having one less start). He's also in the top five in strikeouts, WHIP and innings pitched. He lags a bit in wins. Like I wrote, during the past few years that hasn't made much of a difference. It might this year when everything else is close. Weaver ranks third in the AL in WAR at 5. Diving deeper in sabermetrics than the average voter will, Weaver leads the AL in adjusted pitching wins and win probability added (B-Ref). One question people have is whether his tête-à-tête with Alex Avila's, er, tête , will turn off some voters. I'm not sure if they'll put a lot of weight on that, but if they can't make up their mind between two players it could certainly play a deciding factor. It would have benefited Weaver to keep a cooler head there.
So there's the top three in my field. Who actually wins might not be decided by how many first-place ballots they receive, but instead how many second- or third-place votes they get as it seems like a tight race. So following are three "spoilers" so to speak.
Cy Young Award Spoilers
Dan Haren (Angels)
Haren is a guy who is pretty good across the board but not really great at anything. I do not think he'll net first-place votes but I do think he'll finish pretty high in the final standings. Haren's biggest problems that I can see, are that he will almost certainly fall short of 20 wins, his ERA is closer to 3 than 2, and his strikeouts total today does not even make the top 10. Haren ranks fourth in WAR. Plus he's not even the best pitcher on his own staff.
Becket appeared to be leading the Cy Young push earlier in the season. However, a minor injury coupled with a couple of mediocre starts is probably all it takes to knock him out of true contention this year. Beckett is second in ERA but trails in strikeouts and innings pitched due to a bothersome knee. He is seventh in quality start percentage, and eighth in WAR. Hes having a good year and a strong push to finish out the season might still get him bumped up from spoiler to contender.
Going for Masterson is The Storyline. That is, most predictions saw the Indians in a battle for the AL Central cellar for another season before starting to play ball with the big boys in 2012 or 2013. Cleveland rejected that notion and stands just 2 games out of first place. The Indians' ace pitcher for the season has been a young Justin Masterson. That alone ought to keep his name near the top of people's minds. If Cleveland surprised baseball with a division title, that would really give him a boost I think. Should you receive an individual award based on the 120-something games you didn't start? Probably not. But that's how it works some times. Masterson's ERA of 2.57 certainly helps make a case. Still, he has some things to overcome. He's definitely not going to be near the top of the leaderboard in strikeouts. He's also trailing noticeably in innings despite having just one or two starts fewer than most of the Cy Young candidates. Masterson is fifth in quality start percentage and fifth in WAR. Unlike the other five candidates, he does not even crack ESPN.com's Cy Young Predictor top ten.