Making the case for the 3 AL Cy Young finalists

USA Today

It won’t be the most contentious award in the American League this season — or it shouldn’t, at least — but unlike with the AL Rookie of the Year Award, there is actually a race involved in figuring out who should take home the Cy Young. And the guy with the best case for the award might be left on the outside looking in…but probably won’t be.

  • Luis Severino (New York Yankees, SP)

Severino being in the final three instead of Detroit/Houston workhorse Justin Verlander is something of a minor upset; both were excellent pitchers in 2017, but Verlander had a more memorable stretch run (34 innings of 1.06 ERA baseball for the Astros after being traded in the seconds before the waiver trade deadline at the end of August) than Severino, who was still excellent in September (30 innings of 2.10 ERA baseball) as the Yankees tried and failed to catch the Red Sox for the division.

Of course, with all the oxygen in the Yankees Universe taken up by two other almost non-stories — Aaron Judge’s horrible second half, which was really just a bad August, and Gary Sanchez’s defensive woes, which would continue to get wildly overblown into the postseason and are the subject of much columnist wallowing even to this day — it was a bit difficult for Severino to get much of a word in narratively.

Severino shouldn’t really have a chance at the award this year; he has the fewest strikeouts and innings pitched of the three finalists, along with the highest raw and adjusted ERA. Still, he’s an excellent choice for a third-place finish, recognizing his breakout as one of the top aces in the American League and setting him up for more recognition next year if he can go a little bit deeper in games while keeping the walks down and strikeouts up, his big steps forward from his last two up-and-down seasons.

  • Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox, SP)

Sale has a fairly good shot of winning this thing, though he’s pretty arguably not the best choice for the award. He plays in Boston, which gives him both a national footprint and narrative reach along with a fairly devoted group of local BBWAA writers to stand behind him in the voting, some of whom will almost certainly be in the group that selects the Cy Young Award winner. Being the best pitcher on one of the top two or three most recognizable teams in baseball will give you a heck of a leg up, especially when you deserve the boost.

Sale led the league in innings pitched (214.1) and strikeouts (308), and it should come as little to no surprise he managed to lead it in the Fielding Independent Pitching statistic as well — an ERA-scaled attempt to measure how good a pitcher is independent of the defense behind him. I’ve never really quite put my trust in the stat because it overrates strikeouts and underrates inducing bad contact (though it is nowhere near as bad as the xFIP variant which normalizes home run rates under the assumption that whether or not a ball in play is a home run is entirely luck-based).

This is where you’ll see a pretty severe split between which pitcher — Sale or the third finalist, Corey Kluber — led the American League in pitching WAR. Fangraphs, which uses FIP as the base component for its WAR value metric, says Sale; Baseball Reference, which uses ERA, says Kluber. I tend to side with Baseball Reference’s metrics in pretty much all cases, and this is no exception. FIP measures what the pitcher “deserved” to have happen; ERA measures what did happen. Awards aren’t in the business of hypotheticals, or prognosticating future success. Kluber was a more valuable pitcher in 2017.

  • Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians, SP)

Who knows if that’ll be enough to get him the award, though. Kluber had a terrible beginning to the year and a DL stint that cost him his May, but still managed to throw over 200 innings on the season, lead baseball in ERA (2.25), adjusted ERA (202 ERA+), complete games (5), and complete game shutouts (3). Sale was healthy the whole season, but only threw 11 more innings — it seems difficult to ding Kluber for the missed time when in aggregate he provided the amount of work required of a workhorse starting pitcher by doing more with the starts he had left.

Still, Kluber’s always been a bit of an enigma when it comes to how national awards voting will go. The Cy Young Award he did win, in 2014, might have deserved to have gone to Felix Hernandez instead; 2014 remains the least impressive of his three best seasons. He arguably could’ve taken home the AL Cy Young Award last year, but lost it to another Boston starter — Rick Porcello, that time. Kluber’s 2017 was better than his 2016 in every way, but Sale’s 2017 outdoes Porcello’s campaign from last year just as decisively.

Whichever way it goes probably comes down to how many of the voters love wins and ERA against how many voters love strikeouts and innings pitched, and various permutations thereof — with the Boston factor not being completely negligible. Still, for the second straight year it’ll be difficult to say that whoever wins, Kluber or the Boston guy, didn’t deserve it.

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