2015 AL Cy Young Award Candidates

We recently posted our 2015 NL Cy Young Award candidates. In keeping with that theme, we would now like to discuss our candidates for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. While the American League’s pitchers are not putting up stats to rival the National League’s pitchers by a long shot, it’s still a pretty close bid between at least a couple of the following five players.

5. Corey Kluber

Could Corey Kluber win the AL Cy Young Award two years in a row? Possibly, but it definitely isn’t in the bag as of now. (Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)

Could Corey Kluber win the AL Cy Young Award two years in a row? Possibly, but it definitely isn’t in the bag as of now. (Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)

Corey Kluber won the Cy Young Award last year, with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts. But he isn’t really doing quite so well this year. While he has one of the lowest WHIP rates in the American League (1.07), his ERA is only 3.62 and he’s managed only 236 strikeouts. This is actually a fair number, but it’s not as many strikeouts as he managed last year. In fact, there are a few pitchers in the American League with worse overall stats yet several more strikeouts. And while Felix Hernandez proved in 2010 that you can win a Cy Young Award with a relatively shoddy win-loss record, the Cleveland Indians are doing terribly with Kluber at the helm. Hernandez didn’t have a great record in 2010, but it was better than 8-16.

That said, Kluber’s season hasn’t been all bad. He’s had a couple of positive marks on his record, even if they might not be enough to get him the votes he needs for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. For instance, he and teammate Carlos Carrasco are the first pair of Cleveland pitchers since 1968 to both have more than 200 season strikeouts at the same time. But Kluber still isn’t going to win a Cy Young Award for a record he set with someone else, even if he’s the stronger of the two (Carrasco only has 216 strikeouts). It might be a nice mark on Kluber’s season, but it simply won’t be enough to sway the Baseball Writers Association of America to vote him in as the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner.

That said, there’s another pretty solid mark on Kluber’s career this season. And unlike the last one, this is one that he doesn’t have to share with one of his current teammates. Earlier this week, Kluber pitched his 700th career strikeout. But that particular milestone was just gravy on top of the other record that Kluber set for himself. Apparently, no other right-handed Indians pitcher has managed to get more than 500 strikeouts over the course of two consecutive seasons since Bob Feller in 1940 and 1941. In other words, Kluber did something that no other pitcher in Cleveland has done for about three-quarters of a century.

One of the main obstacles standing in the way of Kluber’s candidacy for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award is going to be his most recent performance. With the season drawing to a close, he should be giving it all he’s got. But ever since he returned from a hamstring injury in mid-September, he’s been letting his opponents get the best of him. In his past three starts, he’s pitched 13.2 innings while allowing 11 runs. Over the past seven days, he’s got a 6.00 ERA. And since each of his last three starts has been a loss, the chances of Cleveland becoming one of this season’s wild cards have been all but eviscerated. But it doesn’t seem to be his semi-recent injury that’s been holding Kluber back. “I’m healthy enough to go out there and take the ball,” he told the press. “I don’t think that’s an excuse to make.”

Well, at least Kluber’s honest. After all, he really couldn’t blame his hammy if he wanted to. Manager Terry Francona made kind of a big deal about refusing to rush him back onto the mound before he was ready. So the fact that Kluber hasn’t exactly been max on the tracks is something that should really just be blamed on poor performance. It is possible that his hamstring’s bothering him more than he’s letting on. It’s also possible that his head simply isn’t in the right place at the moment. Or, maybe the other teams have just been astoundingly good. It really doesn’t matter. Whatever the cause, his recent performances are going to be enough to put the final nail in the coffin. Even if he looked like a potential candidate at one time, Kluber is definitely not going to be the 2015 AL Cy Young Award recipient. Maybe next year.

4. Chris Sale

There’s some decent buzz about Chris Sale, but we’re not without our doubts. (Paul Sancya/Bleacher Report)

There’s some decent buzz about Chris Sale, but we’re not without our doubts. (Paul Sancya/Bleacher Report)

Chris Sale is similar to Corey Kluber in the sense that he’s a decent pitcher who seems to be completely off his game lately. Of his last six starts, guess how many of them were losses. If you guessed anything less than all six, then you were way off. In two of those losses, the Chicago White Sox were shut out completely. In another, the Cleveland Indians creamed them 12-1. Between all six games, Sale pitched 27.1 innings and gave up 23 runs. While he actually gave up absolutely no runs in the game that began his losing streak, those numbers still aren’t too good. Manager Robin Ventura seems to understand just how disappointing this season has been for White Sox fans, especially fans of Sale’s. “We realize expectations are high, and he has that for himself as well,” Ventura told the press in mid-September. “Any time he doesn’t get close to a no-hitter people are disappointed, but he’s human.”

Cy Young was human, too. But the 2015 AL Cy Young Award isn’t going to be awarded to the player who’s able to garner the most sympathy. Sale needs to pull off something amazing to come within a stone’s throw of qualifying for it. He’s pitched no shutouts this year, and his respectable 1.10 WHIP doesn’t do much to counterbalance his regrettable 3.48 ERA. Or does it? Bartolo Colon won the Cy Young Award in 2005 with the exact same ERA, not to mention only 157 strikeouts. And Roger Clemens won his sixth Cy Young Award in 2001 with a 3.51 ERA and 213 strikeouts. While they both had way better win-loss records than Sale’s current 12-11, we already mentioned that Hernandez proved the win-loss record to be relatively unimportant in some cases. And the case could be similar for Sale, who is on the verge of a major strikeout record. He’s currently at 267 strikeouts, just two away from the franchise record of 269, set by Ed Walsh in 1908. Nonetheless, Sale is pretty disappointed in himself for giving up a number of big innings recently.

Sale did knock out his 1,000th strikeout this season, which is certainly worthy of applause. But those big innings he’s worried about could really hurt him. Even if he does get the last two strikeouts he needs to tie Walsh’s record, his poor defensive performance won’t go unnoticed. A pitcher can only give up so many homers in a season and still expect to maintain their candidacy for a Cy Young Award. It isn’t just about hitting milestones, because there are a lot of talented pitchers who will reach similar career numbers if you give them enough time. If anything, we should be questioning why a pitcher as talented as Sale didn’t hit the 1,000 mark a few games earlier.

And that’s one of the major problems with Sale this season. His own talents are more or less standing in the way of winning the 2015 AL Cy Young Award, because the voters are well aware that he could have done much, much better this season. Considering that some are already expecting to see his name in Cooperstown one day, there are bound to be certain expectations. He’s only got one more start to get the last two strikeouts he needs, and there’s no reason to expect that he won’t do it. But again, some voters will likely be wondering why it took him so long. And even if he’d done it earlier, his direct involvement in six recent losses will make it pretty hard for the voters to justify handing him an award. This isn’t lack of run support, although that’s certainly a factor. Still, he’s been off his game recently, and every recent interview he’s given suggests that he knows it.

If this had been a better season, Sale could have clinched the award for sure. In fact, earlier in the season, it kind of seemed as if that were a possibility. One of his most entertaining sliders came late in June, when he managed to strike out a batter while hitting his back foot. He usually gets a decent whiff rate with his slider, breaking just late enough to let the hitters think they have a snowball’s chance of making contact. When he’s at his best, he’s one of the most exciting pitchers to watch. This season, however, he has not been at his best. He hasn’t even been at his most mediocre. Unless something remarkable happens to change the voters’ minds, the 2015 AL Cy Young Award is going to someone else. Period.

3. Sonny Gray

Before we get into the meat of the discussion with Sonny Gray, we should talk a bit more about Chris Sale. FanGraphs prefers Sale to Gray, noting that Sale has an excellent ratio of strikeouts to walks and a raw talent for contact management. They blame his poor performance on his team, even though the man himself has been accepting responsibility pretty often. And maybe they’re right. Maybe Sale just has too much humility to blame his team for the poor defense that’s been plaguing them all season. If the voters recognize that, then it could be the push they need to give him the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. But we think it might be hard for them to see through the fog created by pitchers with slightly better overall performances, and Gray is one of those pitchers.

Gray currently has a 2.73 ERA with 1.08 WHIP, a 14-7 win-loss record, and two shutouts to his name this season. The one area in which he fails to come even close to Sale is strikeouts, of which he only has 169. And he’s going to be stuck with those numbers, because hip soreness has put him out of commission for the season. That’s not too promising, and you might be doubting our assertion that Gray could be a better candidate than Sale for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. But bear with us, because we aren’t just talking out of our backsides on this one.

First of all, Gray’s been consistent. He’s had some wins here and some losses there, but he has mostly avoided a Sale-style losing streak. He’s pitched three complete games, two of which were the shutouts we mentioned earlier. And the first of those shutouts was particularly impressive. It was Opening Day 2015, and he only allowed one hit during the entire game. Even more impressive was the fact that said hit was not made until the eighth inning. Had Gray managed to hold out just a bit longer, he would have pitched just the second Opening Day no-hitter in MLB history. We aren’t saying that he should win the 2015 AL Cy Young Award based solely on an achievement that he didn’t actually make, but the fact that he got as close as he did is still worth quite a lot in our book.

Now, let’s go back to the notion that Sale’s poor performance should be blamed on the White Sox. If the case were simply that Gray had better support than Sale (which he mostly does), then that would be a compelling argument. But the Oakland Athletics have not exactly been phenomenal this season. According the Brandon Keller of FanSided, the major problem for the A’s is that they’ve been woefully out of sync this season. But that isn’t the case when they’ve got Sonny on the mound, and we aren’t about to suggest that the whole team is just waiting for Gray to start so that they can miraculously pull themselves together. We can’t explain why he seems to inspire a better offense (that really might be coincidence), but the defensive prowess shown by the team on Gray’s starts is largely attributed to Gray himself. He only occasionally seems to allow more than 5 or 6 hits per game, and that’s usually when he’s having a bad day all around. On his good days—or even on his average days, for that matter—the rest of the field just doesn’t have to do too much. He could be out there with the most inept fielders in baseball, and he’d probably still be able to manage a win-loss record comparable to the one he’s got now.

One of the reasons Gray’s pitching stands out is that he keeps the batters on their toes. David Ortiz says Gray is one of the toughest pitchers he’s ever faced, largely because he does a good job of mixing up his pitching styles. Some guys have got one or two pitches we’ll discuss in detail because they absolutely define that pitcher’s style. As noted by Ortiz, you just can’t do that with Gray. Whatever he throws, it’s usually rock solid. In the common vernacular, there’s a stigma against the jack of all trades. But Gray isn’t exactly a master of none. He’s going to be rewarded for that at one point or another. Handing him the 2015 AL Cy Young Award just might be the way to go about it.

2. David Price

David Price is one of the top two candidates for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award, and he has a pretty decent chance of taking it home. (Cole Burston/Toronto Star)

David Price is one of the top two candidates for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award, and he has a pretty decent chance of taking it home. (Cole Burston/Toronto Star)

David Price currently has a 2.45 ERA, the best in the league. This alone has many thinking that he might be the top candidate for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. But as we’ve mentioned a couple of times now, there’s more that goes into it than that. Of course, his 1.08 WHIP and 18-5 win-loss record won’t hurt him. And much like Sonny Gray, he’s going to have to be comfortable with those numbers since he’s pretty much stuck with them until the postseason. The difference is that Price isn’t dealing with an injury. Instead, he’s resting so that he can be at the top of his game for the American League Division Series. And if it hurts his candidacy for the Cy Young Award, he’s okay with that. In his words: “They wanted me to throw just because of personal awards, and I could care less about those, so it’s that point of the season where if you could get an extra couple of days, you’ll take it.”

We kind of love that attitude, but we also love his 225 strikeouts. Combined with his other stats, Price is numerically a better candidate than Gray in at least a couple of ways. Of course, he also seems to have the benefit of a stronger team. He isn’t keeping the hits down quite as consistently as Gray, yet his last five starts were wins. Given the scores on some of those games, we’re thinking it’s largely offense that’s boosted the Toronto Blue Jays to the top of their division. Still, the fans are giving him quite a bit of credit. And while it doesn’t really have anything to do with his performance, one of the stranger fan creations as of late has got to be Ruhee Dewji’s “David Price Nickname Generator.” It’s an odd little creation, but even Price himself is pretty tickled by it.

Price is such a natural, he sometimes manages to make an amazing play without even trying. Not too long ago, he caught an out straight off the bat. It was certainly something to behold, and he was clearly as surprised as anyone else to see it happen. But here’s another thing he might not have seen coming—he has a solid chance of playing out a historic season. In 1984, Rick Sutcliffe became the first player to win a Cy Young Award in the same season he was traded. If Price wins the 2015 AL Cy Young Award, he’ll become the second. We’ve talked about a lot of American League pitchers who might win the Cy Young Award while tying records and breaking career milestones, but Price is one of the rarities who’ll set a record just by winning the award itself.

The fact that some are calling the 2015 AL Cy Young Award “David Price’s to lose” may sound encouraging, but it technically isn’t. Especially now that he’s resting up for the postseason, since it could potentially give other pitchers a chance to catch up with him. It works to his advantage that the season is so close to an end. But there are still some decent Cy Young candidates who have yet to start their last game, and a truly excellent performance could be enough to change the direction of the tides. There’s a good chance that the award is currently Price’s, but it definitely isn’t set in stone. We really have no way of telling what may influence the voters this late in the game.

Whether or not Price wins the 2015 AL Cy Young Award, he’s set to have a standout year. He’s also set to enter the postseason with a bit of a new strategy than he has previously used. One of his most notable pitches is his fastball, which he usually throws high in the zone at between 94 and 97 miles per hour. But since he got traded to the Blue Jays, he’s only been using it about 50% of the time (down from his previous rate of 57.4%). He’s been throwing more changeups (up from 21.6% to 24.5%), and he’s definitely been leaning more on his cutter (up from 11.4% to 19.7%). His curveball has also dropped from 9.5% to 5.6%, which isn’t too big a deal. It just means that he’s moving away from a pitch that he never really favored to begin with. Either way, those changes have been working for him. There are big things in Price’s future, even if another Cy Young Award isn’t one of them. Since his strikeouts and ERA are better than they were when he won the award in 2012, he should feel proud either way.

1. Dallas Keuchel

It’s still up in the air, but Dallas Keuchel just might be able to clinch the vote to win the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. (Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s still up in the air, but Dallas Keuchel just might be able to clinch the vote to win the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. (Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports)

While David Price may have the best ERA in the American League at 2.45, Dallas Keuchel isn’t far behind him. Keuchel has got a 2.47 ERA, not to mention the best WHIP (1.01) and win-loss record (19-8) in the AL as well. He’s not doing as well as Price in strikeouts, with only 213. Still, this is far from a bad number. He’s been especially handy over the past seven days, with a 1.29 ERA and 0.57 WHIP over 7 innings pitched. But his groundball percentage is what really makes him a killer on the mound. At 61.8%, this is the best groundball percentage in the American League and the second-best in the MLB. Some fuss has been made over the 16 homers he’s allowed, but this is largely overblown. Bear in mind that we’re talking about 16 homers out of 3,271 pitches. He’s not exactly letting them go left and right.

Keuchel and the Houston Astros were headed toward great things for a time. And that still might be the case, but their performance has dropped off a tiny bit. Keuchel’s been mostly on his game, but he let nine runs slip by in a recent loss that saw the Houston fall from first to second in their division. Regardless of Keuchel’s performance, the Astros have been pretty on and off. Between those nine runs given up by Keuchel and the general lack of quality support he’s received from his team, it’s possible that he’s in danger of losing his bid for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award.

The good news for Keuchel is that he seems to rebound pretty well. Not long after giving up all of those runs, he managed to turn things around and snag a major win that raised his win-loss record to 15-0 for home games. He may not be too hot on the road, but he’s nigh unstoppable in Houston. And that’s not just a personal record for him, either. That’s actually a record for the sport itself. He is officially the first pitcher in the history of the MLB to go undefeated at home for 15 games. He’s also got the most strikeouts by a Houston southpaw in a single season, which isn’t too shabby.

There is one possible indication that Keuchel might be up to win the 2015 AL Cy Young Award. And it doesn’t have anything to do with a specific game, statistic, or other performance-related factoid. In fact, it’s actually quite simple—Keuchel has been named American League Pitcher of the Month three times this season. The last time anyone was named Pitcher of the Month three times in a single season was 2007, when Jake Peavy won that distinction in the National League. If Keuchel’s performance has been consistently stellar enough to draw the MLB’s attention on three separate occasions, then it just might be good enough to draw the attention of the Baseball Writers Association of America when it’s time to vote for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award.

Sports Illustrated notes that Keuchel’s candidacy for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award should ultimately come down to his final start of the season, so we won’t have long before we know how well he fares. Our guess is that he should deliver a relatively strong game. Unless one of the other names on this list manages to pull a massive rabbit out of their hat, this is going to be a close one between Keuchel and Price. We’re leaning toward Keuchel, but it could ultimately go either way.