Handicapping the Award Races: Cy Young

Having finished among the top five in voting every year since 2013, Chris Sale is this season’s favorite .
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Last week, I ran down the latest ZiPS projections for the MVP awards. The Cy Young tends to be a bit simpler to project than the MVP, for a number of reasons: there are no positional differences for which to adjust (outside of starter vs. reliever), no consideration of defense, fewer candidates (because hitters aren’t eligible for the award, where pitchers can win the MVP), and finally, fewer pitching stats from which to measure performance. One historical note of interest is that, while team quality plays a factor, it appears to be a less predictive factor than it is for MVP, also serving to make things a bit less difficult.

Before I begin, one clarification from the MVP post: the award percentages that appear here aren’t based on each player’s mean final projections, but from the whole array of possibilities, 1st to 99th percentile, for each player. So, for example, Giancarlo Stanton’s projected award chance of 2.8% isn’t predicated on him winning the award based on his predicted final line, but from the better scenarios in which he exceeded that current projected final line.

ZiPS 2018 AL Cy Young Projections, 8/13/18
Rank Player Win %
1 Chris Sale 29.9%
2 Trevor Bauer 26.0%
3 Luis Severino 11.5%
4 Corey Kluber 10.1%
5 Justin Verlander 8.5%
6 Gerrit Cole 5.6%
7 Carlos Carrasco 1.5%
8 Charlie Morton 1.3%
9 James Paxton 1.0%
10 Edwin Diaz 0.9%
NA The Field 3.8%

There’s a popular perception that Chris Sale wears out down the stretch. The perception is supported by his career splits: Sale has a career ERA below three for each of the first four months of the season with a 3.22 ERA for August and a 3.78 ERA in September. This data isn’t quite as robust as some suggest, but assuming for the sake of argument that it reflects something real, it’s also worth nothing that Sale’s been used more carefully than in past seasons. At this point in 2017, Sale had thrown at least 110 pitches in 16 starts after having crossed that threshold 10 times in both of the previous two seasons. This year, he’s at only four. The FanGraphs Depth Charts have Sale finishing at just 187 innings for the season, his lowest figure since 2014. ZiPS projects Sale to finish the year with the most strikeouts and best ERA in the AL while also tying for the highest WAR mark. The combination of his own performance plus the strength of the Red Sox make him a strong bet to go over the top.

A lot can happen in two months, but I have to agree with the projections that Trevor Bauer is the Cleveland starter to watch in the race. Bauer quite notably tinkered with his repertoire over the offseason, most obviously his slider, and it’s paid off in his start-to-start consistency. By Game Score, Bauer’s only had three below-average starts the entire 2018 season, and only two of those were true stinkers. ZiPS still feels Sale’s the better pitcher, but Bauer’s likely to end up with a 20-inning edge, so long as his line-drive-induced ankle soreness doesn’t become a nagging issue. Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco are close enough to make things interesting, but if everyone hits their projections, Bauer’s the favorite of the three.

Above and beyond the actual stats, I wonder how much, if any, extra credit Luis Severino will receive based on the state of the Yankee rotation. The Astros, Indians, and Red Sox all have deep rotations, but the Yankee starters drop off considerably after Severino and there’s a very real, justifiable perception that, as an anchor, he’s more important to the Yankees than the other top candidates have been to their teams. That may not be a huge voting factor — I would suggest it’s not — but Severino’s stats are in Cy Young territory already, with no additional storyline help.

Speaking of perception, Justin Verlander may be better off if you flipped the temporal order of his recent starts and early-season starts. Only 2-5 with a 4.38 ERA over his last nine starts, no doubt hurt by a .357 BABIP, Verlander’s relatively poor run has come at a time during which the team has been without Carlos Correa (now back) and Jose Altuve.

Only one reliever makes the final top 10, Edwin Diaz of the Mariners. With 15 strikeouts for every nine innings and at least 10 saves more than the next-best closer — yes, many voters still care about saves — Diaz has the strongest case of any closer for Cy Young consideration in the AL, likely in all of baseball with Kenley Jansen’s health. ZiPS and Steamer both have Diaz with a mean projection of 55 saves, which would tie him with Eric Gagne and John Smoltz for the third-most in a single season. Every closer with 55 saves in a season has gotten at least some Cy Young consideration.

ZiPS 2018 NL Cy Young Projections, 8/13/18
Rank Player Win %
1 Max Scherzer 54.8%
2 Aaron Nola 21.3%
3 Jacob deGrom 13.7%
4 Patrick Corbin 3.4%
5 Zack Greinke 2.1%
6 Miles Mikolas 1.8%
7 Clayton Kershaw 0.3%
8 Kyle Freeland 0.3%
9 Jake Arrieta 0.2%
10 Felipe Vazquez 0.2%
NA The Field 1.9%

ZiPS doesn’t see as close a race in the National League, with Scherzer already at 15 wins, second in WAR, and featuring a 33-strikeout lead over Jacob deGrom and Patrick Corbin. Like Luis Severino with the Yankees, there’s a very real perception that Scherzer’s largely been carrying Washington’s rotation. Scherzer’s 2.72 FIP is a caree -best, no mean feat for a pitcher who already has three Cy Young awards.

Aaron Nola’s been my favorite underrated pitcher for at least a year now, and Philadelphia’s emergence this season may have moved him to the point at which he’s simply rated. How much has ZiPS liked Nola? Coming into 2016 ZiPS had Nola in the top 40 for WAR remaining among pitchers, moving up to 10th before 2017 and fifth before 2018. I’m skeptical he can really catch Scherzer — I think the Silver Hammer has it wrapped up — but Nola’s a legitimate ace and a large reason why the Phillies have taken a step forward now rather than in 2019 and 2020.

Jacob deGrom is an interesting case in that he represents a litmus test for how the voters of today value pitcher wins relative to those from 20 or 30 years ago. The fewest wins for a Cy Young pitcher in a full season (Fernando’s 13 was in strike-shortened 1981) was Felix Hernandez’s 13 wins in 2010. But King Felix also had 75 innings over the only pitcher anywhere near him in ERA (Clay Buchholz). Are voters ready to vote for a 10-game winner as the Cy Young? I absolutely would be willing to — I spent a whole day working on my Cy Young ballot in 2017 and looked at win totals for precisely zero minutes — but if you ranked the voters by their hatred of pitcher wins, I’d likely be at or near the top.

Patrick Corbin and Zack Greinke’s cases are strong enough — and the Diamondbacks relevant enough — that a hot six weeks could propel either to the Cy Young. Corbin, in particular, still ranks as the toughest pitcher against which to make contact in the National League in 2018, behind only Sale in the majors as a whole, so he’s certainly capable of some kind of 6-1, 1.50 run that proves to be the key to beating out the Dodgers in the NL West. He’d probably still need Max Scherzer to falter, which is easier said than done.

I think it would be a major upset if any pitcher outside of the top five presented here gets serious consideration. ZiPS projects no NL pitchers to beat 15 wins outside of Scherzer, Nola, and Greinke, which is why you see Miles Mikolas rank so highly. At 12-3, the Lizard King could end up at 18-3 or 17-4 and get votes in the same way J.A. Happ did in 2016, but I can’t see him actually winning the award, great story that he is.

Clayton Kershaw remains interesting in that he still managed to finish second in the voting last year with only 175 innings, but he’s not likely to get much farther than 150 innings this year and with less impressive rate stats. I think his Cy Young candidacy is dead in the water unless something truly crazy happens, such as an Orel Hershiser-esque scoreless streak to put the Dodgers over-the-top.

For those curious, here is how ZiPS saw the Top 5 for the Cy Young each of the last five years.

Projected Cy Young Order, 2013-2017
2017 AL 2016 AL 2015 AL 2014 AL 2013 AL 2017 NL 2016 NL 2015 NL 2014 NL 2013 NL
Corey Kluber Rick Porcello David Price Corey Kluber Max Scherzer Max Scherzer Max Scherzer Jake Arrieta Clayton Kershaw Clayton Kershaw
Chris Sale Justin Verlander Dallas Keuchel Felix Hernandez Anibal Sanchez Clayton Kershaw Johnny Cueto Clayton Kershaw Johnny Cueto Adam Wainwright
Carlos Carrasco Corey Kluber Chris Sale Max Scherzer Bartolo Colon Stephen Strasburg Jose Fernandez Zack Greinke Adam Wainwright Cliff Lee
Luis Severino Chris Sale Collin McHugh Jon Lester Felix Hernandez Zack Greinke Jon Lester Gerrit Cole Jordan Zimmermann Matt Harvey
Craig Kimbrel J.A. Happ Chris Archer David Price Yu Darvish Kenley Jansen Clayton Kershaw Max Scherzer Zack Greinke Mat Latos

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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5 years ago

Sale looked like his shoulder was really bothering him Sunday. 5 innings, 1 hit, 12 strikeouts.

5 years ago
Reply to  southie

Let’s see how he does when he gets back to facing big league competition.

Pretty amazing that Sale recorded 12 strikeouts on only 48 strikes. When you add the four balls in play, that is a minimum of 40 strikes, so the Orioles must not have even been fouling hardly any pitches off with 2 strikes.

5 years ago
Reply to  southie

To anybody who thinks Sale really had an arm injury I have a bridge I will sell to you real cheap. It was simply a ruse to get him a couple of weeks off.

5 years ago
Reply to  southie

Edit: please delete – accidentally double posted.

5 years ago
Reply to  southie

I think Alex Cora made the right decision being cautious, but I can’t help but wonder if Sale could have reached the immortal 20-K club in that game if he was given a longer leash.

5 years ago

Farrell let him go after 300 K last year which is one of the innumerable reasons for which he was fired.

5 years ago
Reply to  rounders

Only thing was last year the division was a much tighter race. So they couldn’t do much to rest him… This year they can. Huge difference there….