When your team is headed toward a losing season, it's nice to have something to watch besides other clubs' playoff chases. Fortunately, the Oakland A's have just such an attraction to distract them from their squad's plight -- the American League Cy Young race, in which Sonny Gray is a serious contender.
At this point, in early August, teams have around 50 games left to play. That means 10 more times through the rotation, which means that full-time starters are about two-thirds of the way through their campaigns. There is still plenty of time for the landscape to shift, but at this point we can identify the handful of pitchers who have any chance of competing for the award. Here are some top-6 lists, to get a diverse picture ("CyP" is the Cy Young Predictor available on ESPN):
|1||Sonny (6.4)||Kluber (4.7)||Sonny (2.06)||Keuchel (164.2)||Keuchel (139.4)|
|2||Keuchel (5.2)||Sale (4.6)||Kazmir (2.08)||Kluber (162.2)||Sonny (130.2)|
|3||Kazmir (4.1)||Keuchel (4.4)||Keuchel (2.40)||Sonny (161.2)||Felix (109.5)|
|4||Price (4.0)||Archer (4.2)||Price (2.45)*||Price (154)||Volquez (103.7)|
|5||Felix (3.8)||Sonny (4.0)||Archer (2.54)||Shark (153)||McHugh (100.2)|
|6||Archer (3.7)||Price (3.8)||Odorizzi (2.77)||Dickey (151)||Archer (99.6)|
* Note: Price threw 7 shutout innings on Saturday to pass Keuchel in ERA. He also jumps into 3rd in CyP at 119.4, if I calculated it properly, and possibly inches up the WAR leaderboards.
Between the two types of WAR, I think that bWAR is more relevant to this discussion. While fWAR has its uses, it is more likely to be measuring things that are secondary to Cy voters (like strikeouts and walks) and ignoring things that voters care about (like ERA, driven by fielding-dependent things like hit totals). That's good news for us, because Sonny ranks far better in the version of WAR that we're going to focus on.
Using bWAR as a measure, the race isn't even close right now. It's Sonny on top, Keuchel in a firm second place, and then everyone else in a jumble after that. The reason for that, in short, is that Sonny leads the league in ERA (by a wide margin over everyone but former teammate Scott Kazmir), while also ranking in an effective tie for the league lead in innings. If you pitch as much as anybody and allow earned runs at a lower rate than anyone, then you're probably going to lead the league in bWAR.
Furthermore, Sonny's peripherals (high Ks, low BB, low HRs) are strong enough in support of his real-world success that he still sits in the general scrum of league leaders in fWAR. To me, that says that he has the leading credentials as well as the FIP cred to deflect any serious argument against him. Based on everything in the above table, I think it's currently a two-horse race between Sonny Gray and Dallas Keuchel.
Of course, the season isn't over yet. With 10 starts remaining, there is still time for Sonny to put up a couple stinkers and raise his ERA into the 2.50-3.00 range, or time for one of the other second-tier contenders to get hot and jump forward. Who else is close enough that he could become a factor?
- Scott Kazmir is one obvious possibility, since he has the shiny ERA, but his injury history, his 2014 second-half dropoff. and his new home park (which is particularly friendly to right-handed hitters) make me wary of trusting him to stay this good, even if he remains strong enough to help the Astros to a division crown.
- David Price is lurking just a tiny notch below Sonny and Keuchel, and he's starting to catch fire for his new contending team. He's good enough to pitch his way into the picture and he has enough name power that he won't be overlooked. He is easily the most serious third candidate.
- Felix Hernandez is always a factor. Always. He's not having his best year, but never count him out until it's over.
- Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Hector Santiago, and Edinson Volquez are the only other guys I haven't mentioned with ERAs below 3.25, and only Archer has even 140 innings. They would have to go on epic hot streaks to climb into the race, though Archer in particular could end up with some down-ballot votes if he keeps doing what he's doing (low ERA, lots of Ks, decent workload).
- A high strikeout total isn't enough to get serious attention on its own, unless combined with something else like an excellent ERA and/or a monster workload, which is bad news for Chris Sale and basically the entire Indians rotation.
I would normally include W-L record for a discussion about awards, but the voters have shown that they are no longer beholden to this outdated and arbitrary metric -- Zack Greinke beat a 19-game winner with only 16 wins, Tim Lincecum beat a 19-gamer with only 15 of his own, and Felix Hernandez won with a 13-12 record. If you are great enough, a pedestrian record alone won't hold you back.
That said, Corey Kluber's 6-12 mark might be bad enough to eliminate the defending Cy winner, especially considering his 3.60 ERA has little chance of getting low enough to compete with the league leaders. In 2012, Cliff Lee had a 5-WAR season featuring 211 innings, a 128 ERA+, 207 Ks, and only 28 walks, but he went 6-9 so he didn't get a single vote. If your W-L record is that bad, no matter how inexplicable, you still get penalized by the voters.
Verdict: After Sonny and Keuchel, my second tier of candidates that have any chance of winning includes Price, Felix, Archer, and Kazmir, in that order. (Price is actually on the verge of jumping up to the top tier and making it a three-man competition.) I don't think anyone else is worth discussing at this point, and even these four guys are only factors if they make themselves factors down the stretch.
Sonny vs. Keuchel
So, how close are Sonny and Keuchel at the moment? This table shows the difference between the two hurlers in some key stats, with the number listed in the row of the one with the advantage:
They are virtually identical. Their workloads have been the same, and Keuchel has a few extra strikeouts to make up for allowing a few extra hits. They've even both thrown a pair of shutouts. Sonny's ERA is a bit lower after winning the heads-up matchup on Friday, but not so much lower that he's running away with anything just yet.
The Wise Oracle
How can we break this tie? That's the job of the Cy Young Predictor, which unfortunately favors Keuchel over Sonny so far. Disagree with the CyP as you will, but its record is nearly flawless.
Since its inception in 2002, it has only missed four times in 13 tries for the AL, twice because it overrated a closer and the other two times because it underrated a starter with a low win total (Greinke and Felix). The two times it picked a closer, it at least agreed that the real-life winner was the top starting pitcher. In the NL, it's 10-for-13, with one of the misses resulting from overrating a pair of closers and one more from underestimating a starter with a low win total (Lincecum).
The CyP is nearly infallible, especially if you know the two anachronistic weaknesses to account for, and it currently has Keuchel on top -- not because he's been better than Sonny, but because he gets a bonus for being on a first-place team. That bonus is worth 12 points, more than accounting for his 9.2-point lead. Remove that consideration, and Sonny would lead the nearly foolproof prediction system.
Perhaps the voters' recent willingness to ignore W-L record could suggest that they'll also evolve to take team success less seriously as a whole, especially considering that three of the last six winners pitched for non-playoff teams (R.A. Dickey, Price, Kluber). If so, then the so-called Victory Bonus may become the third outdated aspect of the Cy Predictor -- the only pitcher to beat it so far is Brandon Webb (2006), who finished less than 10 CyP points behind playoff-bound Billy Wagner and Chris Carpenter but ended up winning the award. (Webb also had only 16 wins that year, but that was somehow enough to tie for the league lead, so it didn't hurt him in the CyP relative to other starters.)
To be honest, I think the AL voters haven't seriously missed since 2005, when they foolishly picked Colon's 21 wins over Johan Santana's everything else, and it's been even longer since an egregious mistake in the NL. If Sonny truly still deserves it at year's end, then I think he's got a good chance of getting his due even if Keuchel's playoff bonus inches him ahead in the Cy Predictor. I'm not guaranteeing that he will still deserve it, I'm just confident that if he does then he won't get screwed by some team-based detail outside of his control.
Outlook is Sonny
Sonny Gray has a real chance to win the 2015 AL Cy Young award, and right now the only other pitcher who can stand in his way is Dallas Keuchel. There is still time for things to change, and there are a couple of superstars lurking in the shadows led by David Price, but as it stands right now Sonny is arguably the top dog. Given that he's also thrown three complete games (two shutouts) in his last six starts, with a 1.72 ERA in that span, it's easy to make an argument that he is the current favorite to have the best numbers after 162 games.