Breaking Down the 2017 AL Cy Young Race
Corey Kluber edged out Chris Sale as the AL’s best starter. But Craig Kimbrel had a historically great season as a reliever. Who will win the AL Cy Young Award?
Chris Sale was sailing along. After five straight top-six finishes in the American League Cy Young Award voting, Sale appeared to be headed for his first win.
At the All-Star break, he was 11-4 with a 2.75 ERA. His 0.90 WHIP was the envy of all, except for the top relief specialists. It was rare indeed for a starter to post a mark that low.
But then Corey Kluber went on a tear. He posted a sparkling 11-1 record in the second half, with the Indians winning 12 of his final 15 starts.
Corey Kluber Overtakes Chris Sale
Overall, Kluber finished first in the league among starters in nearly every single rate stat category. He was first in ERA (2.25), WHIP (0.87), batting average against (.193), on-base percentage, (.235), slugging average (.321), OPS (.556), strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.36), and walks per nine (1.59).
The only column he failed to best Sale was strikeouts per nine. Sale topped him, 12.93 to 11.71.
Sale finished with excellent numbers. His 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and .603 OPS against were second only to Kluber. Acquired via trade in the offseason, Sale was Boston’s ace from Opening Day onward. He was a big reason the Red Sox were able to catch the Yankees for first place by mid-season and hold on to win the AL East.
Kluber, meanwhile, was the stalwart that Cleveland had come to depend on since his breakout campaign in 2013. His numbers this year were even better than his Cy Young Award winning 2014 season.
The last time an AL Cy Young winner posted an ERA and WHIP as low as Kluber’s was back in 2000 when Pedro Martinez pitched to 1.74 ERA and 0.77 WHIP.
Craig Kimbrel’s Historically Great Season
In any other year, Kluber might be the runaway pick to win the award. But Craig Kimbrel had a historically great season as a reliever.
Kimbrel set a pair of records and finished high in other categories among pitchers hurling a minimum of 65 innings in a season since the live-ball era began in 1920.
The Red Sox closer struck out 49.6% of the batters he faced, besting the 44.8% mark set by Eric Gagne during his 2003 Cy Young Award winning campaign. Gagne was the last reliever to win the award.
Kimbrel’s 16.43 strikeouts per nine also set a new mark. His 0.68 WHIP and .140 batting average against are fifth, 1.42 FIP is sixth, and .200 on-base percentage ranks ninth. That’s in nearly 100 years of baseball.
With four top-ten Cy Young Award finishes under his belt, Kimbrel had long-established himself as one of baseball’s elite closers. This could be the year that he finally takes home the hardware.
Yankees’ Pair Make Their Case
Yankees starter Luis Severino had a breakout year. His 2.98 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and .603 OPS, placed him third among starters behind Kluber and Sale.
Severino had showed flashes of brilliance over the previous two seasons, but struggled to find consistency as a starter. He was demoted to the bullpen and to the minors. But he worked with Pedro Martinez in the offseason and reported to camp with a revamped changeup, which proved to be the key to his success. The right-hander emerged as the staff ace and earned the honor of starting the Wild Card Game for New York.
Second-year Yankee Chad Green competed for the fifth spot in the rotation in spring training. After losing out to lefty Jordan Montgomery, Green joined the bullpen and quickly rose up the depth chart. By mid-season, he had become one of the team’s most potent weapons. Pitching primarily in the fireman role in the middle innings, Green came through time and time again in high leverage situations.
Green ended up pitching himself onto the same historical leader boards as Kimbrel. The right-hander’s 0.72 WHIP and .440 OPS rank ninth, his 1.53 FIP is eighth, and .143 bating average against in seventh in the live-ball era among pitchers meeting that same 65 innings threshold.
The AL Cy Young Winner Is…
They made their mark, but neither of the Yankee pitchers will win. They both will have strong down-ballot showings in the voting, however. Despite a fantastic, Cy Young worthy year, Sale is headed for his sixth straight near-miss.
From where I sit, the race this year comes down to Kimbrel and Kluber. Who do you favor, the pitcher who’s had the best season by a starter in nearly 20 years? Or the closer whose numbers are among the best by a reliever in the last 100 years?
I don’t have a vote. But if I did, these would be my picks:
1. Corey Kluber
2. Craig Kimbrel
3. Chris Sale
4. Luis Severino
5. Chad Green