AL Cy Young watch: Gerrit Cole and Lance Lynn headline current field of contenders

The 2021 Major League Baseball season, thankfully a full 162 games, ends six weeks from this coming Sunday. That means we’re getting toward the end of the so-called “dog days of August” and moving more into homestretch territory. The most important races obviously involve teams shooting for playoff spots, but tracking individual races is fun as well. Last week, we broke down the NL Cy Young race. Here in this space, let’s look at the race for the AL Cy Young, which appears to be a possibility for a good number of hurlers.

As to avoid any hint of “you ranked these” accusations, we’ll list the candidates in alphabetical order. It’s also important to know these aren’t predictive and instead we’re looking at this as if the voting were held right now. 

Unfortunately, Bassitt’s season may be over after he was hit by a line drive to the head earlier this week. The ace of a playoff contender, Bassitt is seventh in AL pitcher bWAR ( version of WAR), fourth in ERA, leads in wins, is second in WHIP and leads in innings pitched. The A’s are 17-8 in his starts. He also has a long road back from his facial fractures and that likely takes him out of the running to win this award in 2021. 

As noted, however, we’re looking at who would win the award if the voting were held now and it’s possible Bassitt would take home the hardware. He deserves to get his due here. 

Due to a COVID outbreak on the Yankees, Cole didn’t pitch between July 29 and Aug. 16, but his workload still doesn’t lag far enough behind to drop him out of consideration. He’s tied for ninth in innings, but that’s only 15 behind Bassitt. Cole leads the league in strikeouts by 15. He has the best WHIP and strikeout-to-walk rate. He’s third in ERA, ERA+ and bWAR. He’s second in fWAR (Fangraphs’ version of WAR). He leads in FIP and trails only a reliever in win probability added. He’s tied for second in wins. Quite simply: Cole is all over the leaderboards, both rate and counting stats. Don’t discount the Yankees’ current hot streak with Cole leading the staff. I said these aren’t predictive, but if I were to offer up a prediction, I’d go with Cole. 

Fangraphs WAR is FIP-based (that’s fielding independent pitching, which attempts to take out the help provided by the defense and focus on what the pitchers can most control: strikeouts, walks and home runs). Eovaldi is second in FIP to Cole and number one in the AL in fWAR. That’s why he’s here because that will carry some weight with a portion of the new-school voters. He’s eighth in bWAR, has 10 wins and is seventh in innings pitched. He’s also sixth in ERA+, suggesting he’s been hurt by ballpark conditions. A feather in his cap? Eovaldi has been the best in the AL at preventing home runs. 

I can throw you a trivia question here. Who went the most seasons between winning Cy Young awards? It actually happened very recently and it was on this very team. Justin Verlander won the award with the Tigers in 2011 and didn’t again until 2019 with the Astros. Before that it was Roy Halladay (2003, 2010) and Tom Glavine (1991, 1998). Now, Roger Clemens spread his awards over 18 years, but he never went more than five seasons without winning one. 

I bring this up here because Greinke won the Cy Young in 2009 and would shatter this record if he found a way to take the hardware in 2021. 

He isn’t a frontrunner, but he is fifth in ERA, tied for second in wins, second is innings, sixth in WHIP and fifth in ERA+. A hot finish while some of the pitchers in front of him get hurt and/or falter and we’re looking at history. Consider Greinke the trivia hound favorite. 

Lynn has a huge lead in ERA. Among qualifiers, he’s got a 0.62 lead over Robbie Ray. Same story in ERA+, as his 190 is head and shoulders above Ray’s 153. The 6.69 hits allowed per nine innings? Also the best in the AL. He’s fourth in WHIP, third in FIP and fourth in win probability added. Simply, no one in the league is stingier with opposing hitters and that seems like good criteria in deciding the best pitcher, no? This is not, however, a runaway, because Lynn is 22nd in the AL in innings. He has three teammates with a higher workload. I’ll let you decide is that’s an indictment, but it certainly is worth a discussion. Still, he’s second in bWAR and third in fWAR. 

Now let’s be clear, this isn’t the MVP. The Cy Young is for the best pitcher, which means that Ohtani’s hitting — for the purposes of this award — is irrelevant. We’re only looking at his pitching exploits, as hard as it might be to throw those blinders on. Workload hurts him here for sure, as the 100 innings pales in comparison to the other pitchers listed here, even Lynn. On a rate basis, though, Ohtani is stellar. How about him being 8-1 and the Angels being 12-6 in his starts while only being 62-61 overall? Does that count for something? He’s fifth in bWAR (for pitching only) behind Ray, Lynn, Cole and Carlos Rodón. He would be second in ERA, but he isn’t qualified. Again, the workload concern. I can’t see him getting into the mix to actually win this thing, but he deserves inclusion just to point out how ridiculous his season continues to be.

And for those curious, Ohtani is running laps around the field when we open up WAR to everyone. He’s at 8.0 with Marcus Semien of the Blue Jays in second place … at 5.5.

Ray was horrible in seven starts for Arizona last year (7.84 ERA) and the Blue Jays took a flier on him at the trade deadline. They then rolled the proverbial dice and decided to keep him on a one-year, $8 million deal. Boy, has that ever worked out for both Ray and the Jays. Ray trails only Lynn in ERA and ERA+. He’s third in WHIP and strikeouts while sitting eighth in innings. He’s fourth in strikeout-to-walk rate. The FIP version of WAR doesn’t love him as much, as Ray sits 12th in the AL. I think the ERA, WHIP and strikeouts are going to matter a lot more, though. Ray has a real shot to win this thing. 

Carlos Rodón, White Sox

Carlos Rodon

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Unfortunately, left shoulder fatigue has slowed Rodón and he hasn’t pitched since Aug. 7. It’s unfortunate because this could have been one hell of a story. The White Sox non-tendered Rodón last winter. They brought him back on a minor-league deal and he made himself into an All-Star. He would be second in ERA, tied for first in fWAR and first in WHIP, but he’s fallen behind the innings qualification. And yet he’s still fifth in strikeouts and fourth in bWAR. There’s still time for him to come back and finish strong, but now he’d be relegated to down-ballot love. Regardless, he deserves his own subhead here because it’s been an incredible year for Rodón. 

Others to watch: Dylan Cease, White Sox; José Berríos, Blue Jays; Hyun-jin Ryu, Blue Jays; Lucas Giolito, White Sox

For those curious, I think Bassitt, Cole and Lynn are a cut above here. With Bassitt’s very serious injury, it looks like it could be a two-horse race. With six weeks left, though, there’s plenty of time for these other guys to make a strong push. 

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