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Handicapping the AL Cy Young race

Because someone has to win it, let's handicap the AL Cy Young Award race.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most fascinating Cy Young races in recent memory is currently taking place in the American League. The NL Cy Young race last season was also fascinating because we had, by some measures, three of the most historic seasons this game has seen, all in the same year. However, the 2016 AL race is fascinating because, well, there aren't any obvious candidates. I mean, someone has to win the award, right...right?

To put in perspective just how weak the field is this season, the current ERA leaders are Jose "I basically didn't make the All-Star team" Quintana and Aaron "I'm moving to the bullpen" Sanchez at 2.85. The AL ERA leader hasn't had an ERA as high as 2.85 since 2007.


First, let's go over some basic parameters so we can narrow down the field of candidates.

1) ERA

No matter whether or not you like ERA as an evaluative measure (hint: you shouldn't), I'm handicapping the race, so I'm more concerned with what will actually happen in the voting rather than who the sabermetric community believes to be the best choice. It's great and all that we're finally #killingthewin, but ERA is still at the forefront of what many of the voters use to base their vote. You hooligans can run around with your xFIPs and SIERAs and DRAs all day, but ERA seems to be the most pertinent, relevant stat in this particular examination.

2) Innings

Everyone uses rate stats to compare pitchers, and with good reason, but volume matters too. Part of the job of an ace is to also go deep into games start after start and save the bullpen.

3) Strikeouts

You can quibble with this one, but history bears it out. Of the last 10 AL Cy Young winners, only Cliff Lee in 2008 didn't reach 200 strikeouts. The strikeout is the largest intersection between old-school stats and new-school, and it's the most utter form of dominance among all the possible outcomes in a plate appearance.


Now, if we sort by qualifiers, and take the top 10 in ERA, RA/9 WAR, and fWAR (which admittedly uses FIP), add them together, and remove the duplicates, we come up with 15 names: Aaron Sanchez, Cole Hamels, Jose Quintana, Marco Estrada,  Danny Duffy, Steven Wright, JA Happ, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Masahiro Tanaka, Justin Verlander, David Price, Matt Shoemaker, Chris Tillman and Rick Porcello. I'm going to arbitrarily add Michael Fulmer to the list, who ranks first in the AL in bWAR and is just three innings shy of qualifying, but has a monstrous lead in the ERA department on Sanchez..

Now, using parameter #1, ERA, let's remove anyone with an ERA of 3.50 or above. I know it's somewhat arbitrary, but we have to place a cutoff somewhere. Now let's do some basic math, keeping in mind the fact that it'd be extremely unique to see a Cy Young winner with an ERA above 3.00 in this offensively-depressed era. If a pitcher with a 3.50 ERA over 150 innings finishes the year with 75 innings of 2.00 ERA-ball, their ERA will still be at 3.00. Any pitcher with an ERA currently above 3.50 would have to pitch like 2015 second-half Jake Arrieta to even jump into the conversation, and while anything is possible, I guess, we're trying to logically handicap the race here. I mean, Martin Perez could end the year on a 82 inning scoreless streak while striking out four per inning (averaging one reached-on-dropped-strike-three per inning), and he'd win the Cy Young Award. OK, fine, that's unrealistic. Jonathan Lucroy probably wouldn't drop that many strike threes.

Using this first qualifier eliminates three names -- Tillman, Price, and Shoemaker. So now we're down to 13. My next parameter for elimination is called "if you're getting sent to the bullpen and/or being shut down", and this eliminates one name -- Aaron Sanchez. I know the Blue Jays originally said that they were definitely going to send him to the bullpen, and now they're wavering a little bit on that by going to a six-man rotation. However, I see no scenario in which Sanchez gets anywhere close to the innings requisite for a Cy Young winner.

By this logic, I'm also going to eliminate Danny Duffy, who only has thrown 115.1 innings on the season. I know it's not really his fault, but it takes extenuating circumstances for there to be a Cy Young winner with fewer than 200 innings, and while Duffy definitely deserves to be considered one of the top 2016 AL performers, his season hasn't been special enough to supersede the innings deficit.

My third parameter is strikeouts, but I don't have as strict of a qualifier for this. After all, if a pitcher only strikes out 150 in a season but leads in ERA by half a run, then they're probably going to win. So I've decided to do this in a tiered methodology. Anyone with an ERA of at least 3.20 who isn't on pace for at least 200 strikeouts will be removed, because even if the 3.20+ ERA guys finish strong and inch their ERA closer to the other leaders, the strikeouts will definitely be a major separator.

That leaves us with nine legitimate contenders left, and here is a brief rundown on each one, along with a reason why they should or shouldn't win the award.

Marco Estrada -- He's the only one here that can say they're in the top 5 in ERA and WHIP, and he also comes with a healthy dose of strikeouts (121 in 128.1 innings). However, he also has benefited from some of the best batted ball luck this game has ever seen, (.217 BABIP, although to be fair, this is the second straight year it's been this low), and he's not on pace to reach 200 innings. I think the batted ball luck could turn for the worse in the last couple months, but the innings will almost definitely kill his chances anyways.

Cole Hamels -- If you like narratives, win totals, and ERA, Hamels is just what you're looking for! Oh...what? You're telling me that the voters love all three of those? Wow, then give the award to this man right now! He's 12-3 with a 2.89 ERA, and he's been the best pitcher on the team with the best record in the league. However, in all seriousness, plenty of the voters are starting to get more sabermetric, and the advanced stats do not favor Hamels. He's the only one on this list with a FIP above 4.00. He's sporting a career-high BB/9 of 3.44, while his HR/9 is a six-year high. He could garner some votes from the old-school crowd of voters, but I find it unlikely that he wins.

JA Happ -- Here we've come across the first candidate with more than a fleeting chance of winning, and that surprises me just as much as it would five months ago that JA Happ, of all people, is in the running for the Cy Young award. His 16-3 record will look good to some of the voters, while others will see his 2.96 ERA, which ranks in the top 5 in the AL. However, other than the record, what stands out about Happ that would compel voters to put him first on the ballot? His 143 innings so far are fine, but they're nothing special. His 7.80 K/9 and 2.71 BB/9 are rather blah compared to his peers, as is his 3.74 FIP. If the voting happened today, Happ would probably appear around the top 5, but he almost certainly wouldn't win.

Michael Fulmer -- Remember how I said that you need to be special to overcome falling short of the 200 inning plateau? Well, Fulmer's ERA is 2.43, which is light years ahead of the next-best at 2.85. He doesn't qualify yet, but he will as of his next start, and he should be comfortably above the qualifying mark if he pitches through the rotation to end the season. If his ERA legitimately is a half run better than the next closest competitor, then I could see Fulmer winning, even if he's only at 180 innings. He'd become the first AL rookie to ever win Cy Young, and the industry would love it. However, although I haven't directly heard of an innings limit for him, he only threw 124.2 innings last season, so the Tigers may be hesitant to jump him that much. Also, because of his lack of innings, any small slippage in his numbers will result in a much larger slippage in his Cy Young chances.

Corey Kluber -- Remember how I was saying how weak the field was this year? In every season since 2007, there have been at least two AL pitchers finishing with 6 WAR or more. This year, Kluber is the only one on pace. In fact, he's at 4.4, and the next closest guy is Quintana at 3.7. Kluber eats innings (151 IP), strikes hitters out (9.12 K/9), has the backing of the advanced stats (first in FIP, third in xFIP), and is the ace of a first-place team. There are only two real factors that might prevent him from winning it. The first is that his ERA is a little bit on the high side at 3.16, and that's even aided by his last five starts, which were phenomenal. Before those starts, Kluber had a 3.79 ERA on the season. The other factor against him is voter fatigue, if you believe in that kind of thing. It may not be fair, but it probably exists to a degree, and you can ask Mike Trout why he only has one MVP to his name. Kluber won the Cy Young award in 2014, something that no one else on this list besides Justin Verlander has done before.

Jose Quintana -- Quintana's phenomenal last start catapulted him into the league lead for ERA. He's also eaten a lot of innings this year, and the advanced stats back him up more than some of the other guys. He may not strike out a ton, but other than that, he has a good blend of run prevention, innings volume, and underlying stats that would make him a good candidate to win it this year. There aren't a ton of factors going against him, either. The three main ones are that he doesn't strike a lot of guys out, he pitches for a bad team, and he's not well-known by the national media. The last two are a pretty deadly combination, however. In terms of true talent, Chris Sale is probably still the ace of that team, and it's pretty hard to win the "best pitcher in the league" award when you're probably not recognized as even being the best pitcher on your team, one that is far out of the playoff race.

Chris Sale -- Sale strikes out batters and limits walks in a way that no one else in this race, except Danny Duffy, does. He's an excellent pitcher in the middle of another excellent season, and he's one of those pitchers that easily has the potential to turn it on and finish the year with a dazzling stretch. If the season ended today, he probably wouldn't win, but he's in the conversation, and he could easily top the list at the end of the year should he go on one of those runs that he's clearly capable of. The only true factor I could think of that might hinder him, and this might sound very silly, is the jersey-cutting incident. I know, it sounds stupid just saying it, but the voters tend to take silly things into account, and they may not like rewarding someone that, in their minds, exhibited immature behavior. We have seen things like this in the past, like with Albert Belle not winning MVPs, or countless players not being granted Hall-of-Fame induction because of off-the-field circumstances.

Justin Verlander -- Believe it or not, Verlander is back to being the horse that he used to be, or at least some facsimile of it. He leads the AL with both his 160.1 innings and 170 strikeouts, and that alone gives him a great shot at winning. Of course, he has a 3.42 ERA, which is way, way higher than anyone else's on this list. Between ERA and voter fatigue from his previous Cy Young award, Verlander might have to finish extremely strong to even crack the top 3.

Steven Wright -- For whatever reason, the media tends to love knuckleballers. Granted, there's probably an explanation for that, besides the fact that a knuckleball is fun to watch. I don't think there has ever been a knuckleballer that began pitching with the mindset that he was going to be a knuckleballer, so there's some element of narrative for the media that a knuckleballer has overcome a lot of adversity to adapt into the pitcher he is today. Wright's case probably has more to do with narrative than anything else, but a 3.01 ERA over 146.2 innings at least gets you into the door. However, no element of his statistical profile indicates he deserves the award, and he's also been on a two-month slide.


So after hearing me bash on the chances of every one of those candidates, who do you think deserves the AL Cy Young award? It's probably someone out of Fulmer, Kluber, Quintana, Sale, or Verlander. But if, at this moment, you have a strong inclination towards one of them, it probably has more to do with the fact that you don't like any of the others. If the season ended today, my vote would probably go to Kluber, but I could easily be swayed. At the end of the day, the winner will probably come from which one of these guys pitches well down the stretch, because at the moment, they all look undeserving to me.

. . .

Austin Yamada is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score.