The first two days of baseball’s award season were somewhat predictable, with fairly obvious choices getting their due for Rookies of the Year and Managers of the Year. As we move to the Cy Young awards on Wednesday, though, things are a lot more unpredictable.
The voting in the AL, for instance, is wide open. The NL has a clear favorite, but the other two finalists aren’t too far behind that you should wager too much. In the NL, Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer is most likely to get the nod, but two Chicago Cubs pitchers — Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks — have great cases too.
In the AL, Zach Britton — who some might have called the favorite during the regular season — didn’t even make the top 3, leaving a field of Corey Kluber, Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander, each of whom has a slightly different case for the award.
The winner will be determined by a panel of 30 voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America, who cast their ballots before the postseason started. Remember that, because it’s important.
Find out who wins during a live MLB Network special at 6 p.m. ET or roll by Big League Stew afterward for complete coverage. Now, we’re going to break down all six of the finalists and offer picks from our four writers:
Corey Kluber – SP, Cleveland Indians
In brief: Kluber has one Cy Young award on his shelf already and he made a strong case for another in 2016. No matter which stats you’re looking at — advanced or traditional — the Indians ace plays well. One thing to especially keep in mind with Kluber and it’s actually probably front of mind for many fans: His stellar postseason performance doesn’t count here.
Key stats: Kluber won 18 regular-season games with a 3.14 ERA in 215 innings, all very pleasing to traditional-stat-minded folks. He also had the best FIP (fielding independent pitching, which measures only the things the pitcher controls) mark in the league.
Case for: You want across-the-board good? Kluber is your man. He was top 5 in ERA, innings pitched, strikeouts and wins.
Case against: He didn’t dominate any one category, so there’s not one stat you can point to that proves Kluber was head-and-shoulders above anyone else.
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Rick Porcello — SP, Boston Red Sox
In brief: Porcello might be the most tried-and-true candidate in the AL, if you forget about the fact that he’s Rick Porcello. But pedigree matters not here, nor does his icky 2015 campaign. What matters is Porcello put forth a great season on the mound.
Key stats: He led the American League in wins, going 22-4 in a very workhorse-like 223 innings. His 5.2 Wins Above Replacement, according to Fangraphs, was also tied for the best mark in the AL with Verlander and Chris Sale. So it’s kinda the best of both worlds.
Case for: If you’re one of those Cy Young voters who looks for a 20-game winner (yeah, yeah, we know, but many people still care about pitcher wins) on a team that won its division, then Porcello is your guy.
Case against: His strikeouts weren’t magnificent — 189 total for the season and 7.63 per nine innings, which is fine, but not elite. The total ranks 19th in the AL and pails to Verlander (10.04) and Kluber (9.50). However, Porcello’s K/BB ratio was the best in the league at 5.91.
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Justin Verlander – SP, Detroit Tigers
In brief: After a couple disappointing seasons, Verlander returned to award-show form in 2016, reasserting himself as both the Detroit Tigers’ ace and one of the best pitchers in the AL.
Key stats: Verlander’s stat line for the year looks like this: 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA in 227 2/3 innings and 254 strikeouts. That’s good.
Case for: Verlander was the top strikeout artist in the AL, leading in overall Ks. He was also third overall (and best among these three finalists) in strikeouts per nine innings. That helped contribute to an fWAR that was tied for the best in the AL.
Case against: Some people still view the Cy Young as primarily a wins-losses contest and Verlander doesn’t look great there. His 16-9 record is only so-so. But the other numbers — particularly strikeouts — put his performance in a better context.
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Kyle Hendricks – SP, Chicago Cubs
In brief: If you were predicting these finalists at the start of the year, nobody would have picked Hendricks, the 26-year-old Cubs starter in his second full season. He was decent in 2015 but had a true breakout season in 2016, giving the Cubs another top-flight arm to create the best rotation in baseball.
Key stats: Hendricks was the NL ERA leader at 2.13. He also won 16 games against eight losses. He threw 190 innings with 170 strikeouts.
Case for: It’s all ERA. Hendricks won the title comfortably. Teammate and fellow finalist Jon Lester was next with a 2.44 ERA.
Case against: If you think ERA doesn’t tell the whole story, you might not be as high as Hendricks. Consider that his FIP — which, again, factors in things such as defense and luck — was a lot higher than his ERA — 3.20 vs. 2.13. His strikeout total isn’t all that impressive either.
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Jon Lester – SP, Cubs
In brief: The ever-reliable Lester found his best form again in 2016, becoming the dependable arm atop the Cubs rotation. While Hendricks had his breakthrough season and Jake Arrieta was dominant in stretches too, Lester was the Cubs’ lead horse.
Key stats: Lester was 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA, working 202 innings and striking out 197 batters.
Case for: One noticeable difference between Lester and Scherzer — the favorite here — is runs allowed. Lester allowed 55 to Scherzer’s 75. To help illustrate that: After the All-Star break, Lester allowed two or fewer runs in 12 or 14 starts, including 11 straight.
Case against: Like Hendricks, some of the more advanced-stat-minded folks might argue that Lester benefited from the Cubs’ defense. His FIP (3.41) was noticeably higher than his ERA (2.44).
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Max Scherzer – SP, Washington Nationals
In brief: Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young, has the best across-the-board case in the NL after leading the league in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts.
Key stats: The numbers are impressive, no doubt: 20-7 with 284 strikeouts in 228 1/3 innings. His ERA isn’t as fantastic as either Lester or Hendricks, but at 2.96 it was still quite good.
Case for: Even if you don’t concern yourself with his 20 wins, Scherzer has two strong notches in his belt: Those 228 innings, which might be the stat that most separates him from a lot of great NL pitchers this season. His 284 Ks are also important, as they were 31 more than No. 2 on the list, Jose Fernandez.
Case against: As mentioned above, the Cubs pitchers get the better of Scherzer when we’re talking strictly about runs allowed. Lester gave up 20 fewer runs than Scherzer (in 26 fewer innings) and Hendricks allowed 30 fewer than Scherzer (in 40 fewer innings).
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AL: Justin Verlander — You’re splitting hairs picking between the three, but I prefer dominance, and Verlander averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings.
NL: Max Scherzer — He has the highest ERA of the bunch, but his advantage in innings pitched and strikeouts gives him the edge.
AL: Rick Porcello — Look, I don’t like it any more than you do, but Porcello’s case is pretty strong.
NL: Max Scherzer — Even if the Cubs weren’t going to split some votes, Scherzer is still the choice here. Can’t deny that workload and those Ks.
AL: Corey Kluber – Kluber anchored a young rotation and never faltered. A calm boat amidst rough seas.
NL: Jon Lester – You can’t beat the Cubs’ narrative. And also, Lester was insanely good
AL: Rick Porcello — This probably should be Zach Britton’s award, but among the finalists Porcello’s remarkable turnaround and stellar all-around season stand out.
NL: Max Scherzer — No disrespect to the Cubs finalists, but Scherzer’s consistent dominance should not be taken for granted.
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