This is the most exciting time of year in baseball, with playoff races coming to a head and the postseason about to start. Everything is good! Well, mostly. The one bad part of this time of year is award season. I truly, honestly despise award season. There is nothing less appealing to me than arguing intensely about who deserves an award, with the lone exception of this rule being the 2011 MVP race. I will fight people who think Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t deserve that award. Other than that very specific case, the idea of arguing against very good players in favor of another player who is possibly very slightly better is just exhausting to me. This all applies to Hall of Fame talk, too. With all of this being said, I don’t think I can avoid talking about the AL Cy Young race anymore. It is, simply put, the #content people crave. Who am I to deprive people of this content.
It wasn’t all that long ago that this race wasn’t really much of a race. Heading into the month of August, Chris Sale was easily the best pitcher in the American League and it seemed nearly impossible that anyone would be good enough to catch him and make this interesting. Then, it happened. Sale started taking a slight step back over the final two months, and Corey Kluber started to look like the best pitcher in baseball for the last couple of months. Now, with the season just about over, the race for the most prestigious pitcher award in baseball is neck and neck, and we must decide who deserves to take it home. It is of the utmost importance.
The case for Sale is fairly straight-forward. The lefty, while not quite himself over the last few weeks, has been consistently great for the entire season. There really hasn’t been a month of the year in which he didn’t show off his best stuff, and he’s been striking out opponents at a high rate for the entire season. As he showed on Wednesday night in Baltimore, that ability hasn’t gone away as the year has gone on. He’s also been healthy all year, and has the inning advantage over Kluber by a full 18. In a race this close, simply being on the mound this often is extremely important.
There’s also the matter of peripheral numbers. Now, I think people who rely solely on the peripherals are doing run prevention a disservice, and that you can’t tell a pitcher’s whole story by how often he’s striking batters out and how few batters he walks. That being said, it does tell a significant portion of the story, and Sale has Kluber beat here. After striking out his 300th batter last night he is up to just about 13 per nine innings while walking just under two. Kluber, meanwhile, is striking out more than one batter fewer per nine innings with only a slight advantage in walk rate. All of that combined with an equivalent home run rate gives Sale a 2.22 FIP compared to Kluber’s 2.49.
There’s also the MVP argument, which some people apply to the Cy Young and others don’t. If you are someone who thinks “value” comes into play here — and also thinks value is different than simply being good — then Sale gets a point. The Red Sox are a team that relies more on their pitching than Cleveland (not to say the Indians’ pitching isn’t great, but rather that they get more from their lineup) and are also in a much closer division. There’s no doubt in my mind that Sale has had more of an impact on Boston’s postseason chances than Kluber has for Cleveland.
While Sale has a significant number of points in his favor, Kluber has plenty of reasons that he deserves the award as well. The biggest point in his favor is that he’s been better at keeping runs off the board, which is obviously the pitcher’s main job. Of course, there’s more to preventing runs than just the pitcher doing his thing, but it’s hard to watch Kluber on a regular basis and not acknowledge that he’s played a huge role in getting to his 2.35 ERA. That mark, by the way, is markedly better than Sale’s 2.75 mark, though not by any crazy margin.
There’s also the argument that Kluber’s run of excellence has come in the most important stretch of the season. The Indians ace missed some time early in the year, but he has still made 27 starts on the year. He’s also been particularly excellent over the last few months right when the Indians got hot and took complete control of their division. When this run started, they were one of the more disappointing teams in baseball and it seemed the AL Central might be a race to the end. There’s been more to their run than Kluber’s excellence, but he’s been easily their best pitcher and arguably their best player. His run through the second half is certainly going to give him some votes.
In the end, I would probably give my vote to Sale provided I didn’t have an anxiety attack from the crippling fear of having to make a decision in this race. It’s an extremely close call and, as a tiebreaker, I think you have to give it to the guy who has pitched more and who has been better for the year on the whole. Of course, I’m also wildly biased. The objectively true answer is that both pitchers have a fine case, and one fanbase is going to be extremely and rightfully angry that their pitcher did not take home the award.