Not long ago, Chris Sale seemed to be running away with the American League Cy Young award. As July ended, the Red Sox lefty sported a league-leading 2.37 ERA and a 300-strikeout pace, with no other AL hurler even within shouting distance of his stat line.
But Sale has fallen off a bit over the past six weeks (3.99 ERA in that time) and a formidable challenger has emerged. Since the calendar turned to August, Indians ace Corey Kluber has been practically unhittable, posting a 1.67 ERA while averaging nearly eight innings an outing. Over his nine starts during that span, he has completed the seventh inning all but once and allowed two or fewer runs all but once. Meanwhile, his team has won 20 consecutive games, tying an AL record.
So has Kluber closed the gap on Sale? Is the veteran righty now the Cy Young front-runner? Let’s break it down.
The case for Kluber
Kluber leads Sale in many rate stats, both traditional and new-age. He’s got the edge in ERA (2.44 to 2.76), WHIP (0.87 to 0.95), runs allowed per nine innings (2.58 to 2.94), ERA+ (189 to 164) and ERA- (54 to 61, in which the lower number is better). Baseball Prospectus’ highly sophisticated DRA formula favors Kluber as well, 2.03 to 2.10. On a per-inning basis, Kluber has done a better job preventing runs.
And yes, Kluber spent some time on the disabled list back in May, but he has thrown only 11 fewer innings than Sale on the season. According to Baseball-Reference’s WAR formula, Kluber has been decidedly more valuable than his Red Sox counterpart, with a 7.3 to 5.8 advantage in that category.
Kluber also has the narrative working for him. He came back from injury in time to spark a lagging team, then carried Cleveland on a historic winning streak that is breaking all kinds of records. An awards voter who values old-school stats will see that Kluber tops the league in ERA and is tied for the lead in wins, then consider his role in the Indians’ streak and cast his vote for Kluber. A voter somewhat versed in advanced stats will look at ERA+ and WAR will support the righty as well. The case for Kluber is not a hard one to make.
The case for Sale
Part of being a valuable baseball player is being healthy, so we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Sale leads the American League in innings pitched, 11 frames ahead of Kluber. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big advantage, but 11 innings pitched is more than a start and a half, and that’s certainly not nothing.
Sale also tops the American League with 278 strikeouts and could soon become the first AL pitcher this century to fan 300 men in a season. That’s not only some fun trivia, it’s also an indication of a truly dominant pitcher. It’s because of those strikeouts that Sale boasts a sizable lead in FIP (2.20 to 2.55), which approximates a pitcher’s ERA based on factors most in his control, as well as the corresponding FanGraphs WAR formula (7.8 to 6.5). Additionally, Baseball Prospectus’ WARP formula affords Sale a slight lead, 7.61 to 7.35. If Indians fielders do a better job converting batted balls into outs than Red Sox fielders do, is that really Sale’s fault?
If you believe in stripping away defense and isolating pitcher performance and value a workhorse who has avoided the disabled list, Sale is your guy.
If the season ended today, the Cy Young award would probably go to Kluber, whose case is more intuitive. And frankly, the Indians righty probably deserves it. Though fielding-independent stats are valuable for predicting a pitcher’s future performance, awards voting is about what happened, not what should have happened, and should accordingly reward the pitchers who do the best job preventing runs. This year, that means Kluber.
Back when Sale had a 30-inning edge on Kluber, it was sensible to argue that Kluber’s disabled-list stint damaged his candidacy. But now the two have thrown a fairly comparable number of frames, so we can’t dock Kluber too harshly for his brief absence. Kluber, unlike Sale, has a Cy Young already under his belt, having captured the award in 2014, and he appears poised to take home a second.
Of course, there are still several weeks left in the season, and a stinker or two from Kluber or a couple big outings from Sale could easily swing this race. The Sale vs. Kluber duel will be one to watch over the rest of September.
Let's put this to a poll. Who would deserve the American League Cy Young if the season ended today?
— Alex Putterman (@AlexPutterman) September 13, 2017