Following the 2016 American League Cy Young Award race was like following the presidential election: nobody deserved to win, but somebody had to, and the controversy surrounding the results was the big story. Rick Porcello of the Boston Red Sox won the award over Justin Verlander, then of the Detroit Tigers, by 5 points. However it was revealed afterwards that two Tampa Bay writers completely left Verlander off of their ballots, omissions that, quite frankly, are inexcusable given the strong showing Verlander put forth. Not that Porcello wasn’t deserving of the award (compared to the rest of the American League, that is), but Verlander simply had a better season by most standard and advanced metrics. This year, however, the AL Cy Young Award race has been made far more intriguing by a teammate of Porcello’s and the guy who finished in third place for this very award last season.
Chris Sale of the Red Sox and Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians have been in a battle the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Jurassic World ending. I gathered together a bunch of statistics to try and get a glimpse at who has truly been the best pitcher in the AL. I kid you not, Sale and Kluber are number 1 and number 2 in the AL in the following categories: ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, K/9, BB/9, K%, Opponent Batting Average, FIP, and WAR (all stats acquired are according to FanGraphs). Both guys are the aces of strong pitching staffs on division leaders (in Cleveland’s case, champs) and have two of the filthiest sliders in the game. Here’s an example of Sale’s and Kluber’s. To have to face either of these guys at any point in the year makes every Major Leaguer worthy of their 8-figure salaries.
The Case for Sale:
Chris Sale came to the Red Sox in a trade with the Chicago White Sox during the 2016-17 offseason for prized prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, among others. To say that the trade has been an early success for the Red Sox is about as big an understatement as saying The Godfather is a good movie. Right out of the gate, Sale tied a Major League record with 8 consecutive starts with double-digit strikeouts and he hasn’t let up since. Because, seriously, how does anyone expect to hit this? During Wednesday night’s start against the Orioles, he became the second pitcher in Red Sox history to reach 300 strikeouts and is 13 away from tying Pedro Martinez’s franchise record set during his historic 1999 season. Sale has the kind of stuff to achieve that in his next start. With one or two starts remaining in the regular season, Sale has a line of 17-7 with a 2.75 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 300 K, 12.90 K/9, and 8.2 WAR. In fact, Sale’s WAR not only tops all pitchers in Major League Baseball, it tops all players. But the stat that really amazes me about Sale is his FIP. For those who aren’t familiar with sabermetrics, FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching is a stat that takes out all plays that are outside of a pitcher’s control, such as singles, doubles, triples, and fielding outs and only takes into account plays that are within the pitcher’s control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. It is meant to try and predict what a pitcher’s ERA would be if he were given a neutral defense, one that doesn’t really help him, nor hurt him. The difference in ERA and FIP can often be used to measure exactly how much a pitcher is helped or hurt by his defense. Sale’s FIP is 2.22, half a run lower than his 2.75 ERA, meaning that the Red Sox defense behind him is actually hurting his production. And considering how dominant he has been this year, that’s a scary thought for the rest of the AL. And for those who were wondering, Sale’s FIP is the best in the majors (Kluber happens to be number 2 at 2.49, but I’ll get into that later). Not to mention, the guy is completely psychotic. I don’t have video evidence of this and I don’t even remember who the opponent was, but earlier this season I was watching a Red Sox game when Chris Sale walked the leadoff batter in the 7th inning. Sale never allowed that runner to reach second base, yet when he recorded the final out of the inning, he was screaming at himself into his glove for walking that leadoff batter. I remind you that the baserunner did no damage and he had no issue with the next three batters, yet he was screaming at himself like he just gave up an 0-2 grand slam. And when Sale gives you “that look,” you bend your will to him. Seriously. Look him in the eye and tell me you aren’t freaked out by this dude.
I do not envy Red Sox Manager John Farrell having to tell this guy his night is done. Lucky for him, he hasn’t had to do that too often: Sale leads the Major Leagues in innings pitched at 209.1.
The Case for Kluber
Corey Kluber’s last start of the 2016 season came in Game 7 of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs. He had dominated all postseason and had continued his run against the Cubbies in each of his first 2 starts in the Fall Classic. However, he didn’t make it out of the 5th inning, surrendering 4 runs and 2 home runs and the Indians lost the World Series to the Cubs, a franchise that hadn’t won in 108 years. It seemed that he hadn’t gotten over that defeat to start 2017, as his ERA after the first month was 5.06. That was when he hit the Disabled List and missed all but one start in the month of May due to a lower back strain. That DL stint seemed to fix him, however, as he has been absolutely lights out ever since. He has gone 17-2 since coming off the DL with a minuscule ERA of 1.69, including 0.87 in the month of September. Despite missing almost an entire month, Kluber still ranks 6th in the AL in innings pitched. He ranks 2nd in WAR at 6.9 (nice), trailing only Sale and he leads the AL in ERA (2.35), WHIP (0.85), BB/9 (1.60), and opponent batting average (.187). The one real knock I can think of against Kluber is his FIP, which is 2.49, which when compared to his 2.35 ERA, suggests that the Indians’ defense has actually aided Kluber’s numbers. Regardless, that FIP still ranks second in the AL and would still lead the league if it were his actual ERA. Kluber’s performance also helped spark the Indians’ 22-game winning streak, the longest in AL history (longest ever if you don’t count the 1916 New York Giants 26-game winning streak, which had a tie mixed in). During that historic run, Kluber won all 4 of his starts and had an ERA of 1.41, striking out 45 batters in the process. Where Kluber goes, the Indians seem to go as well. When Kluber hit the DL, the Indians were 15-12 and appeared to be having a World Series hangover. They went 13-13 in his absence and were struggling to fend off the pesky Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals. Since his return, though, the Tribe have gone 68-32, clinching their division and stealing the top record in the AL from the Houston Astros, who held that honor from the beginning of the season, up until midway through the Indians’ streak a couple weeks ago. It’s hard to argue there’s a pitcher more important to his team than Kluber.
Conclusion: It’s insanely difficult to pick one of these guys to win the Cy Young Award over the other, yet come November, one of these two guys will be taking home the hardware. I’m just thankful that I don’t have a vote, because writing this article and trying to take a side was damn near impossible. Though, if you were to force me into a Ramsay Bolton-
Theon Greyjoy Reek-type situation, I’d have to say I would give the Cy Young Award to Chris Sale, but I’d rather have Corey Kluber in a must-win playoff game, as Sale has never appeared in the postseason, having pitched for the White Sox the first 7 years of his career. See? No cop outs here.