2015 NL Cy Young Award Candidates

There are a lot of solid pitchers in the National League this year, but these five top our list in terms of candidacy for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. (Huy Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

There are a lot of solid pitchers in the National League this year, but these five top our list in terms of candidacy for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. (Huy Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

It’s been a while since we posted our 2015 World Series predictions. Now, as the 2015 MLB regular season is drawing to a close, we’d like to discuss the Cy Young Awards. For ease of reading, we will be splitting the National League and American League into separate articles so that we may discuss more candidates. With that said, here are our top five candidates for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award.

5. Clayton Kershaw

If Clayton Kershaw wins the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, it will be the fourth one on his résumé. (Paul Buck/EPA/New York Post)

If Clayton Kershaw wins the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, it will be the fourth one on his résumé. (Paul Buck/EPA/New York Post)

One of the first candidates we must mention for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award is Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has already won three of them—one in 2011, and the others in the last two consecutive years. Last year’s win was by far his best. He won by a unanimous vote, with a 1.77 ERA and 239 strikeouts. He was also MVP last year, which seems more than fitting. There’s a good chance that Kershaw will become a Hall of Fame candidate someday after he retires, probably not long after he achieves eligibility.

A 2013 Grantland profile on Kershaw compares his talents to those of legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax, and not just because they’re both left-handers. It’s difficult to compare their stats due to a myriad of differences between the way the game was played in the 1950s-1960s and the way it’s played today, but Kershaw is still one of the more impressive pitchers of those currently active. It is also believed that Kershaw has yet to reach his peak. If this is true, then his numbers are going to be better by today’s standards than the numbers Koufax put up by the standards of yesteryear. Maybe Kershaw isn’t about to lead the league in ERA for five years straight like Koufax did. But his career ERA as of 2013 was 29% better than the league average. He’s not exactly off to a rocky start.

One of the interesting things about Kershaw is the method to his madness. He exercises extreme control over every pitch, which he believes is a manner of simplifying the game. He is a man with a routine, and that allows him to pitch with relative consistency. This is one of the things that makes him a forerunner for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. Not just his prowess, but the discipline with which he exercises it. And since the seven-year, $215 million contract he signed last year made him among the most well-paid players in the game, we’re confident that we’re not the only ones who appreciate this discipline.

Kershaw’s one of the best pitchers in the league (if not the best), even though most people voting for the 2015 All-Star Game didn’t seem to recognize it. He didn’t make the first round of voting, causing Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports to claim that the All-Star Game had “lost its way.” He actually lost the final vote; he only played as a sub for Max Scherzer, who would be on this list if not for the lackluster season he’s having.

Let’s elaborate. Scherzer has almost thrown two no-hitters this season, but his ERA could use improving. Furthermore, the Washington Nationals’ win-loss record is garbage when looking at possible 2015 NL Cy Young Award candidates (although ESPN’s David Schoenfield blames this largely on shoddy run support). But Kershaw? He hit 200 strikeouts in his 156th inning last month, reaching that milestone faster than anyone other than Hideo Nomo in 1995. Kershaw is also on the verge of breaking a Koufax record, since he now has six 200-strikeout seasons in a row. If he keeps this up, it’s easy to see him getting the votes he needs to put that fourth Cy Young under his belt.

4. Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner has been establishing himself as a pretty strong contender for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. He nearly threw a perfect game a couple of weeks ago, but he wasn’t too downtrodden when it slipped through his fingers in the eighth inning. In his eyes, his goal is just to win. “All the other stuff is really cool and I’ll take it,” he said in an interview with USA Today. “It would definitely be special, but winning is what I like most.”

This attitude is one of the things that makes Bumgarner so appealing. He recognizes that his job is to play for the team, not to boost his own ego. He may not have had a perfect game, but the San Francisco Giants still took an 8-0 victory. But while he may often be able to keep his ego in check, he doesn’t necessarily back down from a challenge. This is something we learned pretty recently, when he stared down umpire Joe West after West called a walk that really shouldn’t have been a walk. He then pretended in post-game interviews that he hadn’t even noticed West standing there, which was arguably more entertaining than the staring match itself. Moments like this might be why country singer Tim Hall’s anthem to Bumgarner is entitled “Outlaw Southpaw.”

Well, that would explain the “Outlaw” part. “Southpaw” is obviously a reference to the fact that Bumgarner pitches left-handed, much like Clayton Kershaw. And while Kershaw is the better pitcher in a number of ways, Bumgarner is doing better this season in at least a couple of respects. When you assess the players’ head-to-head performances, Bumgarner’s allowed only 10 runs to Kershaw’s 13, and 35 hits to Kershaw’s 37. This is less impressive, however, when you consider that Kershaw’s head-to-head stats against Bumgarner include at least two more innings. Kershaw’s head-to-head stats against Bumgarner also include only 5 walks, as opposed to Bumgarner’s 11, not to mention 47 strikeouts against the 40 served up by Bumgarner. While the Giants have beaten the Dodgers five out of six times that Kershaw and Bumgarner have faced each other, there are still many reasons to believe that Kershaw is the better candidate for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award.

Bumgarner may not be having the best season possible, but he isn’t exactly having the worst. At the top of this month, he managed to set a record while playing a losing game for the Giants. He only managed 8 strikeouts that night, but it was his 200th this year. What made this particularly impressive is that no other left-handed pitcher in the live-ball era has managed this many strikeouts during a season in which they also hit five homers. This latter number might sound unimpressive, but it’s not like pitchers are known for their skill at bat (something which will likely never change). Those home runs might not mean a lot in terms of the 2015 NL Cy Young Award (although they mean more than they do in the AL Cy Young Award since the National League has no designated hitters), but they still set Bumgarner apart as a unique footnote in an era of baseball known largely for offensive style.

The good news for Bumgarner is that pitcher wins don’t really play the role they used to play in determining the Cy Young Award. While he was previously on the right track to become the first Giants pitcher to reach 20 wins since 1993, it’s looking like that boat has sailed. The best he can do at this point is 19 wins, which will leave the Giants in their current drought for one more year. Even if this doesn’t ruin his chances at the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, we’re thinking that he isn’t the most qualified on this list. If Kershaw’s chances are even remotely questionable, then there’s no way it could go to Bumgarner. He’s a great pitcher with a unique style, but that won’t be enough to get him the votes he needs.

3. Jacob deGrom

Jacob deGrom is a relatively decent Cy Young Award candidate, even if he’s not the likeliest to win. (Anthony Causi/New York Post)

Jacob deGrom is a relatively decent Cy Young Award candidate, even if he’s not the likeliest to win. (Anthony Causi/New York Post)

Much like Madison Bumgarner, Jacob deGrom isn’t necessarily one of the top candidates on this list. Still, he’s had a season that is somewhat worthy of discussion. While it doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) count for much, he had a pretty good run in the 2015 All-Star Game when he became the first All-Star pitcher to strike out three batters in ten pitches since pitch counts were recorded about two decades ago. As the only player from the New York Mets to participate, he certainly did them proud.

One of the things we talked about with Clayton Kershaw was consistency, and it’s the lack of this very asset that forces us to repeat our assertion that deGrom is not exactly the strongest of the candidates on this list. He just had his penultimate start of the regular season, and his performance was fantastic. He had 9 strikeouts in 6 innings, allowing only one run and five hits during his entire time on the mound. But it should be noted that he was skipped in the rotation and allowed to rest up for this particular start. The last five starts he had before this rest period were a different story, with deGrom recording a 6.41 ERA. This alone could be enough to keep him from making any sort of positive impression on the voters for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. It’ll certainly have a negative impact on his stats for the season.

Then again, he might still get a few votes. For a good chunk of the season, he was actually doing quite well for himself. Before his slump began, The New York Times noted deGrom’s 1.98 ERA at the time as being the second-lowest in the sport between qualified pitchers. At the time, it looked like he would be able to record below a 2.00 ERA for the season, becoming only the third Mets pitcher to do so. His recent disappointing performances have now raised him to a 2.60 ERA, and he doesn’t really have a lot of time to drive it down. It’s more or less an impossible feat at this point.

By the way, that New York Times article wasn’t primarily about his ERA. While it certainly got a mention, their main topic of discussion was actually deGrom’s hair. In a way, deGrom’s hair actually suits him as a baseball player, serving to exemplify the extent of his devil-may-care attitude. Not so much the way he wears it, but the way he talks about it. “My hair bothers me because it’s too long,” he told the New York Post. “There is no reason I keep it or don’t cut it.” And yet he’s been keeping it that same length since college, with the exception of the one time he shaved it completely.

He has considered cutting it, but this isn’t the season to do so. It’s one of his most identifiable features, and he’s going to need to set himself apart as a pitcher before he makes any big changes. He’s already done that to a sizable extent, but a Cy Young Award would certainly drive it home. While it isn’t likely that he’ll win the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, he should cut his hair immediately if he does. Because at that point, his name will be marketable enough without any marketable physical traits. And while he’ll probably donate it to cancer, we can’t help but think there are some crazy fans out there who would pay good money for a lock.

2. Zack Greinke

At this point, it’s probably sounding like Clayton Kershaw is the likeliest candidate on this list to receive the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. But our next two candidates have most certainly earned their spots at the top of the list. We’ll start with Kershaw’s fellow Dodger, Zack Greinke. He’s doing extraordinarily well this season, with a 1.68 ERA so far (better than Kershaw’s ERA when he won the Cy Young Award last year). His WHIP is currently calculated at 0.85, which is most certainly better than average. While Greinke’s a bit more consistent than Kershaw (whose ERA was 4.32 in his first 9 starts but 1.42 in his last 23), the two together are close to unstoppable. They helped the Dodgers win the NL West this week, and it’s expected that they’ll both do great things in the postseason.

While Kershaw and Greinke are comparable in many ways, they are anything but identical. In fact, there are some ways in which Kershaw actually looks up to Greinke. In an interview between Kershaw and Fox Sports, Kershaw noted that Greinke is especially talented when it comes to keeping his emotions out of the game. “I think being emotionless might be the best thing to do on the mound, but it’s hard for me to contain it at times,” said Kershaw. “Zack does a really good job of that, too, not being affected by really anything, good or bad, which is definitely a quality I admire in him.”

Part of the reason for Greinke’s success this season is that he has been using more changeups. This is something that he actually learned from watching Felix Hernandez. According to Zack Greinke’s interview with FanGraphs, “Felix was the first person to actually make it a standout pitch.” But watching Hernandez taught Greinke about more than just the changeup’s value. It also taught him how to use it. “Mine was good last year against lefties,” said Greinke, “but I watched him a lot how he uses it against righties, and I was always nervous to use it against righties because I thought it was a home run pitch.”

The thing about Hernandez that makes his changeup one of the best pitches in baseball is that he’s able to get more than 60% grounders while generating whiffs close to 40% of the time. Greinke isn’t there quite yet, but he’s working out some kinks that could get him there. His changeups are getting lower and lower, to the extent that it’s hard to differentiate them from sinkers. Hernandez has a similar quality in his own changeup, in that many aren’t actually sure what to call it. The major problem that Greinke still faces is that his whiff rate for changeups thrown in the zone is about 29% worse than the league average. But as he throws them more and more, his execution should improve.

“You just have to get as good a pitch as possible and use that pitch,” says Greinke. Amen. That’s the sort of philosophy that’s made him a frontrunner for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. The Cheat Sheet notes a few reasons Greinke deserves the award, but only one of them is especially important. Namely, the fact that he stands to achieve the lowest ERA of the past 20 years. It was a touch lower when they said this (1.65 as opposed to the current 1.68), but it’s still an impressive achievement. He’s currently only allowed 40 earned runs out of 214.2 innings pitched. Add this to his generally impressive stats (including a tight win-loss record and very few baserunners), plus the fact that he’s one of the better batters and fielders in the National League, and it’s hard to imagine many people getting in the way of Greinke taking home that 2015 NL Cy Young Award.

1. Jake Arrieta

Jake Arrieta is easily the top candidate for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

Jake Arrieta is easily the top candidate for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

If there’s one man who could give both Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke a run for their money, it has to be Jake Arrieta. In fact, he might be the all-around best candidate for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award on this list. To be fair, some of his current season stats aren’t as great as Greinke’s. His 1.82 ERA is not as good as Greinke’s 1.68 ERA, and Greinke’s 0.85 WHIP is marginally better than Arrieta’s 0.88 WHIP. Arrieta has allowed five more earned runs despite playing only less than ten more innings, and his three wins over Greinke are also accompanied by three extra losses. In that light, it’s easy to wonder why Forbes contributor Evan Massey thinks that Arrieta can lead the Chicago Cubs to the 2015 World Series and end the team’s 70-year drought.

To answer this question, let’s take a closer look at Arrieta’s performance with a little help from FanGraphs. They note that, in the second half of the season alone, Arrieta has averaged less than a run per outing. And while Greinke is a more consistent hitter, Arrieta nearly hit two homers in a single game. He also nearly pitched a perfect game in that same outing. While the voters for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award won’t necessarily be looking at what Arrieta almost did, it still counts for something when assessing him as one of the better National League pitchers around. Looking at all pitchers who started at least ten games within the same season half, Arrieta has the third-best all-time ERA (0.80) for a single season half. When factoring in unearned runs, he actually has the best all-time RA (1.07) for a single season half. He’s also pitched three shutouts this season, which is equal to Kershaw and three better than Greinke.

Aside from Arrieta’s stats, there’s a pretty good reason to think that he might have a solid chance at winning the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. To those who might not have known, the voters for the Cy Young Award are members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. After the Cubs nailed a shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates this past Saturday, ESPN polled five baseball writers to discover that three would vote for Arrieta if the votes were cast right now. One was on the fence, but leaning toward Arrieta as a favorite. The fifth writer was completely undecided.

The Chicago Cubs are in a pretty good place with Arrieta, and we aren’t the only ones who think he should be winning the 2015 NL Cy Young Award. The Washington Post praises his career record of over 200 innings pitched this season, which certainly makes it more impressive that his stats are anywhere even close to Greinke’s. While he may not have many more innings pitched, the fact that he’s more than 23 innings over his career high would lead some to believe that he was in danger of slowing down. All evidence points to the contrary.

Manager Joe Maddon also has a great deal of praise for Arrieta’s pitching abilities. “The finish on the pitches from the side is incredible,” says Maddon, “meaning the carry into the catcher’s glove, the carry on the fastball, the break on the cutter-slider—whatever he wants to call it—it’s just the finish on the pitch and you can see the hitter’s reaction, it’s incredible to watch.” This is certainly true. But whether or not Arrieta wins the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, he’s confident that his career is headed in the right direction. Chris Emma of CBS details Arrieta’s path to stardom, including one very telling quote by the man himself. “It’s not shocking to me or surprising,” says Arrieta. “It’s almost like this is where I’m meant to be.”

It sure is, Jake. And as far as we’re concerned, when voting for the 2015 NL Cy Young Award, the Baseball Writers Association of America should be inclined to agree.