Baseball fans need to brace for a hell of an awards season this fall. In the American League a reliever could win the Cy Young while the favorite for MVP is playing for a last place team. National League MVP voters will have to decide which Cub, if either, should win the award. Yet no award is more up for debate than the NL Cy Young. There are legitimately four or five guys you can argue for, regardless of whether you're an old school baseball mind or are into advanced analytics. There's no clarity when the numbers get broken down. Keep in mind that any of the names below could finish strong and win themselves the Cy.
The Favorite: Max Scherzer, Nationals
Awards debates these days typically involve arguments over the value of analytics compared to more traditional baseball statistics. The case for Scherzer as the favorite is that you can make the case for him using either. He leads the NL in wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, and WHIP, and is sixth in ERA for the traditionalists. He also ranks second in K/9, second in opponents batting average, third in soft contact induced, sixth in FIP, and eighth in BB/9 for the analytical minds.
Scherzer is sort of the jack of all trades in this race since he ranks top 3 in a lot of categories and top 6 in most all of them. The biggest blemish on his season resume is ranking sixth in ERA, which has been caused by allowing a pedestrian 26 homers. He has done well to limit the damage though, as evidenced by rankings first in WHIP and strikeouts. Ranking so high in so many different categories may push voters to give him their vote, but he is far from a lock as you will see.
The Underdog: Kyle Hendricks
Does everyone realize that Kyle Hendricks has a 2.07 ERA in the middle of September? The 26-year-old has been serviceable for the Cubs each of the past two years but it is hard to say that anyone saw this coming. His ERA is 0.41 points lower than the next best in all of baseball. In addition to leading the ERA race Hendricks ranks 10th in innings pitched, third in batting average against, second in OBP, third in slugging, and second in OPS. The idea that he is leading in ERA but not doing much else is false.
Yet people are still hesitant to call Hendricks a Cy Young contender. This is because he is grossly outperforming his 3.37 FIP, which only factors in walks, strikeouts, and homers allowed. His FIP could just be a result of not striking out many batters, as he has whiffed just 145 in 165 innings this year. Then there's the thought that he is outperforming his FIP because the Cubs have such a great defense. There is a legitimate argument to be made for this since all the Cubs starters have great ERA's compared to their FIPs. None have an ERA as low as Hendricks, however, and if that number dips below 2 by the end of the season it may be too much to ignore.
The Question Mark: Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw could have made this easy on everyone if he had not gotten hurt. He was running away with the award in midseason, which would have been his fourth in six seasons. In just 16 starts in 2016 Kershaw went 11-2 with a 1.79 ERA and 145 strikeouts in just 121 innings pitched. He had a K/BB ratio of 16.11, which would have shattered the all time single season record of 11.63. In other words he was on his way to a historic season.
Now Kershaw would need to pitch 162 innings to qualify for the ERA title, which could be a factor in voters' minds. Even though he is coming back to pitch tomorrow night it seems unlikely he reaches this threshold. But according to Baseball Reference in Kershaw's 121 innings pitched he accumulated 4.7 WAR, which is the SECOND MOST in the NL. Does it matter if he has a low innings total if he is still amongst the league leaders in WAR? That would just mean his innings were of such high quality that they make up for the lower quantity. It's admittedly somewhat insane to include a guy in the conversation who has been hurt for two months, but that's good he was before going down. If he pitches the way he was for the rest of the season he's absolutely in the discussion.
The Field: Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard, Jake Arrieta, Johnny Cueto
Scherzer, Hendricks, and Kershaw aren't the only pitchers worth discussing. Let's start with Syndergaard. He leads Scherzer in ERA by 0.32, FIP by 0.86, xFIP by 0.67, and SIERA by .06. Didn't we already establish him as the favorite? Should he be if another guy has these advantages over him? Then there's Bumgarner who ranks fifth in wins, third in strikeouts, and third in ERA. But if strikeouts are so important shouldn't Scherzer win? And if ERA is so important shouldn't Hendricks win? Lastly there's Arrieta and Cueto, who in any other year would be leading candidates. The whole race is a mess. With literally all of these guys pitching for postseason implications it'll be a race worth monitoring down the stretch.