It's Cy Young Award Weekend in the AL

Brian Kersey

With some rough starts, the Cy Young Award is slipping through Max Scherzer's fingers. Can Chris Sale overcome a bad team and weak W-L record to capitalize?

There's a moment in every presidential election season, about halfway through, when many of the key primaries have taken place but there's still no clear front-runner, that people start wondering aloud about the possibilities of a brokered convention. That is, they're looking back to the old days when the primary system wasn't as firmly entrenched and you went into your party's convention with one set of candidates and, after a few days of horse-trading in the iconic smoke-filled rooms, came out with someone completely different:

"Guys, we've gone through 19 ballots now. I haven't slept in three days. This party needs a president now, I don't care who."

"If only Theodore were here."

"The Colonel is dead. Get over it."

"How about Leonard Wood?"

"Too reminiscent of the Colonel. We want someone we can control, not a cowboy."

"Hiram Johnson?"

"Too liberal."

"We could try Taft again..."

"Ha ha ha-no."

"Well, what about... What about Warren?"

"Warren? Warren-who-brings-sandwiches Warren?"

"Yeah, him. He's affable, appealing to the average man. He has no particular ideology. He's not going to go busting trusts or trying to get us involved in foreign affairs. He'll just... be."

"You know, you might have something there. Warren! Hey, Warren! Come over here a sec."

"Sure. We out of sandwiches again?"

For some reason people get nostalgic about that kind of scenario, maybe because of the suspense of it. The outcome won't be decided in a cloud of cigar smoke, but we may be heading for a similarly snarled vote in the American League's Cy Young Award balloting this fall. Despite a lot of hot air being traded around by the #killthewin, #savethewin, and #thewinisanillusioninthelongrunwe'realldeadanyway crowds, until recently the Tigers' Max Scherzer had both the league's best record and was close enough to the top in all the statistical categories that actually matter that there was no point in even having the argument. Sure, some people would misinterpret 19-1, or whatever 20something-1 record you could project Scherzer out to, to mean that he had been extra-super-good instead of just really good, but in life you have to pick your battles: In every situation that requires judgments there are clear teaching moments as well as chances to be a pedantic, pushy know-it-all. Scherzer's Cy Young campaign was definitely a case of the latter -- whether you #lovethewin or want to #killthewin, Scherzer was a candidate you could get behind.

Since then, things have changed a bit. Scherzer has had three starts since win no. 19 and has only pitched well in one of them, going 0-2 with a 6.19 ERA in 16 innings. Chris Sale, who had a slight statistical edge on Scherzer in most of the places that matter, rebounded from giving up eight runs to the Rangers in seven innings on August 23 to record three strong starts, striking out 26 batters in 23.1 innings while allowing just four runs. His record is now 11-12, a reflection of the 3.3 runs of support per game the White Sox have given him. Yu Davish, the league strikeout leader, has had two quality starts and one horrible clinker against the division-rival A's. He lost all three games. Felix Hernandez, who was 12-5 with a 2.44 ERA back in early August, posted a 7.84 ERA in four starts and was shut down with a bad back.

Now that Scherzer's winning percentage is a little less special, we can properly push that aside and look at the actual performance statistics.



Tm

IP

H

R

HR

BB

SO

RS

RA9

WAR

1

Chris Sale

CHW

195.2

162

71

20

41

207

3.3

3.27

7.2

2

Anibal Sanchez

DET

165.2

140

50

8

50

178

6.4

2.72

5.7

3

Hisashi Iwakuma

SEA

196.2

168

69

25

37

169

4.6

3.16

5.6

4

Max Scherzer

DET

194.1

139

69

16

48

215

6.3

3.20

5.5

5

Felix Hernandez

SEA

194.1

179

70

14

41

200

4.5

3.24

5.2

6

Jose Quintana

CHW

179.2

169

76

20

51

149

3.3

3.81

5.2

7

Yu Darvish

TEX

186.2

128

61

24

67

246

4.8

2.94

5.1

8

Hiroki Kuroda

NYY

183.2

170

66

18

35

136

3.2

3.23

4.4

9

Clay Buchholz

BOS

89.1

60

16

2

30

87

4.8

1.61

4.1

10

Bartolo Colon

OAK

170.1

178

58

12

26

94

5.8

3.06

4.0


The last column, Wins Above Replacement (WAR), is slowly becoming common currency among baseball fans, but for the odd latecomer the basic explanation is that it attempts to depict the pitcher's value by comparing his performance to that of a hypothetical pitcher who is just barely good enough to pitch in the major leagues; every 10 runs saved equals another win. I've used runs allowed per nine rather than ERA, because we'd rather see what happened on the pitcher's watch without the official scorer getting in the way -- when I hear that the Orioles have made only 43 errors this year, I don't know if they're really that efficient or if the guy making those calls has simply decided they're not going to make errors this year unless someone falls down on the play. Finally, RS is the offensive support the pitcher has received while in the game.

Note that Sale has opened up a pretty good lead on the rest of the pack in total value. Should he continue in the same vein -- he probably has two starts left -- he could sneak into the top 20 or even the bottom of the top 10 in terms of single-season performance in this century (the top 10, as per Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, ranges from Pedro Martinez's 11.7 in 2000 to Randy Johnson's 8.5 in 2004). Yes, he's compiled his record far from the madding pennant race, but he's also had to overcome a team that was pretty much out of it from the get-go, one with a miserable offense, a weak defense (it must be depressing to be a left-hander knowing that opposing hitters are going to pull your pitches in the direction of Dayan Viciedo, who plays left field like he's looking for an address), and a bullpen whose best elements have belonged to other teams since July. Some will say the pressure hasn't been on Sale, but pitching for a bad team arguably increases the pressure, not lessens it, because the pitcher has less margin for error. Call it the Red Ruffing Rule: A pitcher is pulled down by a bad team in inverse proportion to how much he is buoyed by a good one.

For many more stories that almost certainly discuss Chris Sale, visit South Side Sox! Whereas if Max Scherzer is more your speed, check out Bless You Boys!

Sale pitches in a good home-run park. He has, nevertheless pitched well there, although he hasn't always been able to keep the ball in the park. His home-run rate is lower on the road (allowing one every 48 at-bats vs. one every 30 at home), but his batting average on balls in play is somehow 100 points higher on the road -- that's almost certainly not his doing, but simply an odd example of luck taking a hand. If he had better breaks in such situations and all else were even, he'd have put together one of the best pitching seasons ever, not just of 2013 or the 2000s.

If Sale wins his last two starts, he'll finish with a record of 13-12, identical to that of Felix Hernandez when he won the Cy Young Award in 2010 -- except he'll likely have stronger statistics. Hernandez, working in the pitcher's paradise that is Safeco, was 7.1 WAR that year.

Forgive the Sale upsell; it's too early to anoint Sale the winner, but enough has changed that the discussion about Scherzer's record vs. his performance that was not relevant before now is. Sale has put enough distance between himself and the rest of the pack that his performance demands it. Now, a lot may change before the end of the season. This is Cy Young Award Weekend in the American League: Kuroda and Iwakuma pitch on Friday night, Colon and Darvish (against each other) on Saturday, and Scherzer and Sale on Sunday. Regardless of how everyone else pitches, all Sale needs to do to make things uncomfortable for the #lovethewininunnaturalways crowd is to keep pitching well. If he has another bad start while Scherzer rebounds, that might be enough to erode any support that might have been moving his way.

Regardless of what happens, we now have a real basis for argument where before we had fake, ginned-up controversy, and argument is what awards are all about.

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