MLB Awards Watch: We explore Corey Kluber’s pursuit of Chris Sale in the AL Cy Young Award race, and if anyone can catch Max Scherzer in the NL.
At long last, the 2017 Cy Young Award races have tightened. Red Sox lefty Chris Sale and Nationals ace Max Scherzer have led the Cy Young races since Opening Day, practically. But recent results – especially the dominating performance Cleveland right-hander Corey Kluber has put together in the month of August – have added intrigue as we prepare for the final month of the regular season.
Chris Sale has been the most valuable pitcher in major leagues this season, and it isn’t particularly close. According to Fangraphs, Sale entered his start Tuesday with a big league best 7.4 Wins Above Replacement. The second closest pitcher, Corey Kluber, was worth 5.5 fWAR after his strong start Monday. When the leaderboard was updated after his start Tuesday night, Sale increased his fWAR to 7.9.
Sale was practically unhittable against the Blue Jays, allowing just three hits without a walk in seven-plus innings. Sale struck out 11; marking the 17th time in 27 starts he has reached double digits, which is the most in the majors this season. He also surpassed 15,000 career strikeouts, becoming the fastest pitcher in history to reach the milestone.
But, prior to his dominant start in Toronto, Sale had a 5.40 ERA in five August starts, which allowed Kluber to close the gap in the race, and even take a slight lead in some traditional statistics favored by voters. Did Sale salvage his chances, and is a huge lead in fWAR enough to earn Sale his first AL Cy Young Award? We rank the top three Cy Young Award candidates from both leagues.
3. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
The third spot in the NL Cy Young race is up for grabs. Clayton Kershaw put up dominant numbers earlier this season, but has been on the DL since July 23, which hurts his candidacy. Kershaw’s Dodgers teammate Kanley Jansen has been the most dominant closer in the league this year, and should also be considered. Jimmy Nelson has ranked towards the top of the leaderboard in fWAR all season, and currently sits second in the NL at 4.5 wins.
However, Gio Gonzalez, who ranks No. 18 in the majors and eighth among NL starters with 2.9 Wins Above Replacement, has put up tremendous traditional statistics likely to grab the attention of many voters. In 26 starts, Gonzalez is 13-5 with a 2.40 ERA. The 31-year-old lefty has allowed just 125 hits and 63 walks, and has struck out 152 hitters this season. His ERA would be a career low for the 10-year veteran, and Gonzalez’s 13 victories are his most in a season since the led the NL with 21 in 2012, when he finished third in the NL Cy Young vote.
Gonzalez has been far from dominant, and though his ERA might be a bit misleading (he has a 3.76 FIP), the turnaround from a 4.57 ERA last season (when his FIP was 3.76) is legit. As Devan Fink of Beyond the Box Score pointed out Tuesday, Gonzalez has been one of the best in baseball in soft contact allowed.
Fink’s research, which utilized Statcast data on Baseball Savant and Fangraphs’ batted ball data, showed Gonzalez ranked in the top 10 among MLB pitchers in batted ball percentage above 95 mph (27.2 percent), and among the top 15 in average exit velocity (84.7 mph) and soft contact allowed (21.4 percent). The soft contact Gonzalez has allowed helps to offset concern that his low BABIP (.242) points more to lucky results instead of skill.