Chris Sale’s Abridged Cy Young Case

When Chris Sale started for the American League in the 2018 All-Star Game, he was in the midst not only of a fabulous season that was worthy of the honor, but quite probably the best stretch produced by any starter this year. A year after he became the first AL pitcher to notch 300 strikeouts in a season since the turn of the millennium, it appeared that the 29-year-old lefty, an All-Star and Cy Young vote recipient every year since 2012, might finally take home the hardware that had eluded him in the previous six seasons. Alas, shoulder inflammation sent Sale to the disabled list on July 31 and has limited him to just one start since. While he still leads the league in a host of key categories, it seems entirely possible that his missed time could cost him the award he deserves.

Sale missed two starts in his first stint on the DL. Upon returning, he threw five innings of one-hit shutout ball against the Orioles, striking out 12 — his 11th double-digit game of the year — despite throwing just 68 pitches, 19 fewer than any of his other outings this season. Though he has since said that his shoulder feels “like Paul Bunyan’s ox” and recently declared, “There was never any major issue with my shoulder… This wasn’t something that happened on a single pitch or a mechanical issue or anything,” he returned to the DL after that start. He has been throwing bullpen sessions lately, and while the Red Sox have not announced when he will make his next start, manager Alex Cora said this past weekend that “he might become an ‘opener’ for one or two starts” during the team’s September 7-16 homestand. “We’re not worried, he’s in good spirits, he should be fine,” added Cora.

Sale has been more than fine this year, he has been flat out, ass-kicking dominant. In 23 starts totaling 146 innings, he owns the league’s lowest ERA (1.97) and FIP (1.95) among qualifiers, and his numbers look even better when you consider that he calls Fenway Park home. Though he’s made just nine of his 23 starts there this year, his 0.05 edge in ERA over second-ranked Blake Snell becomes a five-point edge via ERA- (44 to 49); meanwhile, his 0.42 edge in FIP over second-ranked Trevor Bauer is a nine-point edge via FIP- (47 to 56). Sale additionally owns the league’s highest pitching WAR, “whether you prefer the FIP-driven variety (6.1), our version based on runs allowed (6.7), or Baseball-Reference’s own metric (6.5). He has the majors’ highest strikeout rate (38.7%) and K-BB% (32.9 points) among starters despite toiling in the DH league.

Beyond the overall numbers, Sale has authored the season’s most impressive stretch of pitching. Beginning with his June 8 start — an eight-inning, one-run loss to the White Sox — and lasting through the All-Star break and his first trip to the DL, he has allowed two runs or fewer in each of his last 10 starts. In that span, he has allowed just five runs in 65 innings, without a homer allowed, and with an insane 109:12 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Only once within that stretch (on June 19 against the Twins) did he actually allow two runs in a game; since then, he has allowed one run in 44 innings while holding batters to a .145/.193/.191 line.

Neither Sale’s streak of seven games allowing one run or fewer nor his 10 games allowing two runs or fewer are the longest in the majors this season. Setting aside the work of Rays opener Ryne Stanek, Mets ace Jacob deGrom went eight games on the one-run-or-fewer front from April 21 through June 2, but his streak included abbreviated back-to-back starts from which he was removed for precautionary reasons, a four-inning appearance against the Braves on May 2 during which he hyperextended his right elbow while swinging and then a one-inning one against the Phillies in his return from the 10-day DL on May 13, during which he threw 45 pitches. Comparing the two streaks:

Streaks of Starts Allowing One Run or Fewer, 2018
deGrom 8 47.1 33 15 68 1 0.57 1.63
Sale 7 44.0 22 6 79 0 0.20 0.17

Both impressive, but I think we can agree that Sale has the upper hand in that one; if his FIP were spare change, you wouldn’t even bother to fish it out of the couch cushions. As for the two-runs-or-fewer streak, Stanek again notwithstanding, Justin Verlander had a longer one (11 games from April 9 to June 2) and Michael Wacha one of the same length (April 20 to June 9), but Sale carries the day with his rate stats:

Streaks of Starts Allowing Two Runs or Fewer, 2018
Verlander 11 75.2 36 14 90 3 1.07 1.96
Sale 10 65.0 33 12 109 0 0.69 0.58
Wacha 10 62.0 41 20 55 3 1.74 2.97

Within that longer stretch, Sale reached double-digits in strikeouts eight times, including an MLB season-high five in a row from June 19 through July 11.

All of the above, the league leads and the spectacular stretches, are enough to convince me that Sale would be worthy of a Cy Young vote (if I had one) if the season ended today, despite the fact that 29 other AL starters have higher innings totals, including plausible candidates Corey Kluber (193.1), Verlander (188.0), Gerrit Cole (176.1), Luis Severino (173.2), and even Bauer (168.0), who has been sidelined by a stress fracture in his right leg since mid-August. Sale’s got the best rate stats of the bunch, hands down, and his sweep on both WAR fronts confirms that even when his less-than-perfect attendance is taken into consideration, he’s tops:

Top AL Starters by Combined fWAR and bWAR
Rk Pitcher Team IP fWAR bWAR Avg
1 Chris Sale Red Sox 146.0 6.1 6.5 6.3
2 Trevor Bauer Indians 166.0 6.0 5.7 5.9
3 Corey Kluber Indians 193.1 4.9 5.8 5.4
4 Justin Verlander Astros 188.0 5.3 4.7 5.0
5 Gerrit Cole Astros 176.1 5.6 4.2 4.9
6 Blake Snell Rays 151.2 3.0 5.8 4.4
7 Luis Severino Yankees 173.2 4.8 4.0 4.4
8 Mike Clevinger Indians 176.1 3.9 4.5 4.2

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll win. Given an AL East lead that expanded from five games to 9.5 games over the course of Sale’s last two starts, and still sits at the latter, the Red Sox have had the luxury of taking their time for him to return. Assuming that the team stays in a five-man rotation and doesn’t skip a fifth starter due to off-days, a look at the Red Sox’ schedule suggests that he could squeeze five starts into the rest of the month by pitching on September 7, 13, 19, 24 and 30 — the last day of the season, with the Division Series opener not until Friday, October 5 — but it seems highly unlikely that Sox will tax him to that extent. So figure it’s four starts; in our depth charts, we’ve estimated 21 remaining innings, which comes out to a bit more than five per turn. Seems reasonable.

That would bring Sale’s innings total to 167, which is enough to qualify for the ERA title, but historically, not enough to win a Cy Young. Since the award was introduced in 1956, only once in a non-strike season has a starter won with fewer than 200 innings: Clayton Kershaw with 198.1 in 2014, a year where he nonetheless led the NL in ERA, FIP, strikeouts, and both flavors of WAR. Granted, the industry-wide trend towards fewer innings from starting pitchers has been felt even at the award-winning level. You can see the trend via this chart (data courtesy of Baseball-Reference’s Dan Hirsch), which illustrates the average number of innings by the two winners or, in cases where only one award was given (1956-66 and in the seven years from 1977 to 2003 where a reliever won), the lone winner among starters. Of course I’ve omitted the 1981 and 1994 strike seasons:

Last year saw a sharp drop-off, as both Kluber (203.2) and Max Scherzer (200.2) barely nosed over the 200-inning threshold. Kershaw aside, no other previous full-season winner had thrown fewer than 2012 AL winner David Price’s 211 innings, and only five other times had a pitcher thrown fewer than 220, two of them in the slightly shortened 1995 season that produced the visible dip above.

We’ve already seen a recent precedent that works against Sale in the form of Kershaw’s 2016 and 2017 seasons, both shortened by back injuries. In the former, he posted a remarkable 1.69 ERA and 1.80 FIP, both of which would have led the league if he weren’t 13 innings short of qualifying. Kershaw led the majors with 6.5 fWAR that year, 0.8 more than Scherzer, but Mad Max led the NL in wins (20), strikeouts (284), and bWAR (6.3 to Kershaw’s runner-up 5.8). The voting wasn’t even close, as Scherzer garnered 25 out of 30 first-place votes; Kershaw, with two first-place votes, finished fifth. The Dodgers ace did throw enough innings in 2017 (175) to qualify for the ERA title, and he led the league with a 2.31 mark as well as with 18 wins. Scherzer had 16 wins, a 2.51 ERA, and the better FIP of the two (2.90 to 3.07) as well as sizable advantages in both fWAR (6.2 to 4.6) and bWAR (7.1 to 4.9). He received 27 first-place votes and won, Kershaw received the other three and finished second.

We obviously don’t know yet whether Sale will maintain his leads in the aforementioned rate stats — somebody going bananas with four great starts could narrow his ERA and FIP leads, and perhaps overtake him in WAR — but with just 12 wins, he isn’t going to catch Kluber (18), and likewise with respect to Verlander or Cole in strikeouts (248 and 243, respectively, to Sale’s 219). Here it’s worth considering the recent history of Cy Young winners and the categories in which they led the league:

Leads in Key Categories Among Cy Young Winners Since 2006
Pitcher Yr W ERA K K/9 IP FIP bWAR fWAR
Johan Santana 2006 AL 1 1 1 1 1
Brandon Webb 2006 NL 1 1 1 1 1
CC Sabathia 2007 AL 1 1
Jake Peavy 2007 NL 1 1 1 1 1
Cliff Lee 2008 AL 1 1 1
Tim Lincecum 2008 NL 1 1 1 1 1
Zack Greinke 2009 AL 1 1 1 1
Tim Lincecum 2009 NL 1 1 1 1 1
Felix Hernandez 2010 AL 1 1 1
Roy Halladay 2010 NL 1 1 1 1
Justin Verlander 2011 AL 1 1 1 1 1 1
Clayton Kershaw 2011 NL 1 1 1
David Price 2012 AL 1 1
R.A. Dickey 2012 NL 1 1
Max Scherzer 2013 AL 1 1
Clayton Kershaw 2013 NL 1 1 1 1
Corey Kluber 2014 AL 1 1 1 1
Clayton Kershaw 2014 NL 1 1 1 1 1 1
Dallas Keuchel 2015 AL 1 1 1
Jake Arrieta 2015 NL 1
Rick Porcello 2016 AL 1 1
Max Scherzer 2016 NL 1 1 1 1
Corey Kluber 2017 AL 1 1 1
Max Scherzer 2017 NL 1 1 1
Total 16 7 9 5 8 9 16 16
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

If a pitcher tied for the league lead with one or more other pitchers, I still gave him full credit in this context. I cut things off at 2006 in part because 2005 NL winner Chris Carpenter was the first pitcher working backwards who did not lead the league in one of these categories and, in part, because that was the earliest reference to FIP that I found in an admittedly hasty few minutes of research; WAR had not yet been introduced on either FanGraphs (2008) or B-Ref (2010). Including those here isn’t to say that voters were looking at advanced metrics, but knowing them does help our understanding of which awards were more justified than others. As you can see, over this stretch, the award-winners led their respective leagues in either flavor of WAR exactly as often as they did in wins, with ERA, FIP, strikeout totals, and strikeout rate apparently less influential. But for all of the attention that surrounded Greinke’s 2009 and Hernandez’s 2010 awards with relatively low win totals (16 and 13, respectively), it certainly doesn’t appear as though the W is becoming less influential in the voting, given that 13 of the last 16 award-winners have gone to the wins leaders.

Thus, if Sale goes on to win, it would rate as a significant event in the recent history of the voting. And for all of my hand-wringing, there is hope that he will carry the day. Last week, Richard Justice polled the BBWAA members within and revealed that 30 out of 31 gave their first-place “votes” to Sale. These are not necessarily the writers who will be voting for the award, but some will come from that pool. Donning my Nate Silver cap for a moment, electorally speaking, it might best be understood as a poll of registered (if not “likely”) voters within one sizable state, enough to offer some promise for the candidate but not enough to predict victory. Still, if that poll (which also put deGrom ahead of Scherzer despite the latter’s 16-to-8 advantage in wins) is representative, I think the result will satisfy many a stathead.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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5 years ago

There’s potential for the NL & AL Cy Young awards and the AL ROY to be historic in terms of the changing tide of player valuation.

5 years ago
Reply to  tb.25

What do you mean in reference to the AL ROY?

5 years ago
Reply to  johansantana17

Otani deserves to win it

5 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Ohtani hasn’t played enough.

5 years ago
Reply to  RWinUT

How do you figure? He’s second in batting WAR behind Joey Wendle and has had easily the best offensive performance of any rookie. Add in his 1.0 WAR from pitching and he is easily the leader in rookie WAR.

5 years ago
Reply to  dl80

255 ABs. It’s September. Where is your shame? If Trout is gonna get looked over, Ohtani should, pure and simple. End of debate.

5 years ago
Reply to  johansantana17

NL/AL Cy Youngs in terms of ditching Wins
AL ROY in terms of multi-positional phenom & aggregating contributions from both sides of the ball.

5 years ago
Reply to  tb.25

“Hello ?”

– Felix Hernandez