Injuries are eating pitchers alive this season, but the last few days have been particularly rough for stellar American League pitchers. Rehabbing Yankees starter Luis Severino suffered a groin strain, Shane Bieber hurt his shoulder, and Tyler Glasnow was diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow (and also a flexor strain).
Severino hasn’t pitched in the 2021 season, but Bieber and Glasnow have, and they have been elite. In fact, they are both Cy Young candidates, especially the latter. Or should we say were? Both hurlers will miss, at the very least, several weeks, hampering their chances of winning the award.
The fact that Bieber and Glasnow, two of the best pitchers in the junior circuit, will be out of action for the foreseeable future opens a door for Yankees ace Gerrit Cole to win the first Cy Young Award of his career. For those of you wondering about that last sentence: yes, Gerrit Cole has never won the Cy Young. He was in Pittsburgh in the first five seasons of his career, from 2013 to 2018. The Pirates aren’t known for getting the best out of their players, so Cole maxed out there in 2015 with a 24.3 percent strikeout rate, finishing fourth for the NL Cy Young.
When Cole was traded to the Houston Astros, the team helped him use his fantastic four-seamer up in the zone to generate whiffs and make his excellent secondary pitches play up. In 2018, his strikeout rate increased to 34.5 percent. Cole probably deserved the AL Cy Young in 2019, with a 2.50 ERA, 326 total strikeouts (a 39.9 percent K rate), and 7.3 fWAR, but he came just a few votes shy. Instead, the BBWAA chose teammate Justin Verlander for the honor.
After signing with the Yankees for the 2020 season, Cole was good, though not quite the optimal version of himself during his first campaign in pinstripes. This year, though, the path seems wide open for him if he remains healthy and conquers his recent spin rate concerns. Through 14 starts, Cole has a 2.31 ERA with a 2.44 FIP and a 34.7 percent strikeout rate. Even if his spin rates aren’t quite as overwhelming as they were in the first month of the season, he demonstrated last night against Toronto that he can still quite capably handle a powerful offense with relative ease.
However, just because Cole is in a strong position to win the Cy Young at last and may be considered the favorite by some, that doesn’t mean there are no other frontrunners for the award.
The two most prominent names in the Cy Young conversation besides Cole play for another American League contender: the Chicago White Sox. And no, Lucas Giolito isn’t one of the names. Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon both have cases as strong as Cole’s at the moment, and with more than half of the regular season still to go, the race is going to be fascinating.
Rodon is having a breakout season and has an outstanding 1.89 ERA. He pitched a no-hitter against Cleveland on April 14th, has fanned 13.1 batters per nine innings, and his success is backed by a strong 2.41 FIP. Lynn, an offseason acquisition by the White Sox and a former Yankee, actually has the lowest ERA of the group, at 1.51, with 10 punch-outs per nine frames.
Cole’s strongest argument of being the favorite is his considerable advantage in WAR among the three pitchers. He has a 3.0 WAR according to FanGraphs, better than Rodon’s 2.5 and Lynn’s 1.9. If we go to the Baseball Reference version, the Rangers’ Kyle Gibson surprisingly leads them all with 3.7; his other peripherals don’t quite have him in the same discussion as the aforementioned trio of top arms. Cole is second with 3.6, Lynn is fourth with 2.8, and Rodon is sixth with 2.4.
We haven’t even completed half of the season, but we can say with confidence that Cole is, without a doubt, a prime Cy Young candidate in 2021. It will be up to him to maintain the level of dominance he has shown so far for the whole campaign. In other words, he is not competing with anyone but himself.