Chris Sale hasn’t pitched in a game since August 12th against the Orioles. The league has had about month to catch up to his remarkable dominance and guess what? For the most part they haven’t and in many cases no one has even come close. As Fangraphs’s own Jay Jaffe recently wrote, Sale has a hell of case for the Cy Young in spite of him missing so much time. In order to diagnose his chances I compiled the key stats of all the American League Cy Young contenders.
*Some of the numbers below have not been updated to reflect Monday’s games. Specifically, bWAR, DRA and WARP will be updated when Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus update their numbers.
AL Cy Young Favorites
Over 146 IP during this fever dream of a 2018 season Sale leads the group in ERA, WHIP, K-BB rate, DRA, fWAR, and bWAR. For those of you keeping track at home that’s six category wins for Sale out of the ten listed. As superlative as his 2017 campaign was Sale was actually on pace to improve upon it this year. The good news here for Sale is that, as Jaffe points out in his chart of the past 12 years of Cy Young winners, bWAR, and fWAR were won by 16 of the 24 winners. Unfortunately for Sale 16 of the past 24 also won the very dumb stat of Wins—he has no chance here sitting at just 12 on September 11th.
The area I think will kill Sale the most in his quest for his first Cy is the innings pitched category. Sale is dead last in this group sitting 11 innings behind the closest pitcher to him and fifty plus away from the group leader. As Jaffe points out only one pitcher in the history of the award has won it with fewer than 200 IP was Clayton Kershaw in 2014. That season Kershaw finished with 198.1 IP which for all intents and purposes may as well be 200. Sale will not even sniff that mark this year in a best case scenario.
The pitcher with the best combination of rate stats and innings pitched is Justin Verlander. Verlander is tied with Corey Kluber for the lead in innings pitched while trailing Sale for the second best K-BB rate among the group. While he only has 15 wins, Verlander also leads the group in WARP at 6.1. Baseball Prospectus’s WARP doesn’t appreciate Sale as much as the other WAR stats having him fifth out of the six pitchers. He wraps up his strong case by being third in DRA, first in strikeouts, and perhaps first in narrative.
Sox fans know very well that Verlander was far from a gracious loser to Rick Porcello when he lost the vote two seasons ago. Since then Porcello has been, um well, like Porcello is. Verlander meanwhile has compiled three straight elite seasons and I do agree with him, he should have won it in 2016. The voters might want to award JV’s remarkable return to greatness with his second Cy Young. It sure would be a great capper to his hall of fame career.
The other pitcher I think that has a legitimate shot at winning the award is Corey Kluber who has been quietly pitching incredibly yet again. As a two-time and defending Cy Young champ Kluber isn’t dominating quite like he did in his best seasons yet his is racking up the innings and the wins. Kluber is tied for the league lead in the voter’s favorite stat with 18 wins. Kluber, like both Sale and Verlander pitches for a division leading club destined for the post season which never hurts. The one thing that his lagged behind his usual pace this year is strikeouts where he only has 194 on the year. Luckily for him voters haven’t minded too much with just 9 of the last 24 winners leading the league in the stat.
With all this said could Sale still win the award? Yeah, he could. If he did win the award it would represent a monumental shift in the thinking of the voters. The shift would be away from traditional metrics like wins and innings pitched and towards thinks like WAR and K-BB rate. I would put Sale’s chances at the award at about 10% nonetheless. The Red Sox have the sexiest narrative of all as they are on pace to crush their franchise win record with well over 100 victories. Sale has also been unquestionably better than all of the other contenders on a rate stat basis and since he’s in Boston it has been well documented. Sale has also never won the award despite finishing top six in voting dating back to 2012. I think voters are ready for him to win it.
I remain old school in my belief that being there and making the starts for your club is the most important thing you can do as a pitcher and because of this I personally wouldn’t give him my vote. In August when the Red Sox were going through some rough times with their starting pitching Kluber and Verlander were helping their respective ball clubs. Do I blame Sale for that? Absolutely not. Would I rather have him healthy in September and October rather than have him take home this award? You bet your ass I would. The team did the right thing, but someone else deserves the hardware. Give it to Verlander.