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Assessing the AL Cy Young Award picture

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With Gerrit Cole nearing a return to the rotation, where does he sit in the chase for the top pitching award?

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Yankees haven’t had a Cy Young Award winner since Roger Clemens in 2001, and indeed only five Yankees have won the award since its introduction in 1956. They’re the Bronx Bombers for a reason, pitching has never been the first thing you think of when it comes to the organization.

And so perhaps its fitting that in the season where the pitching staff has overdelivered, and the offense has been mediocre, the Yankees have their best chance at seeing a Cy Young winner in the Bronx in 21 seasons. Gerrit Cole entered the season as the odds-on favorite to capture the AL hardware, and he’s mostly delivered on that promise this year. After his June swoon and missing two starts to the COVID-IL, though, the competition for the Cy Young is actually a fairly crowded field.

Strictly speaking, we can look at the WAR leaderboards and find that Cole is tied for second in fWAR and third in bWAR, which would immediately put him in finalist territory. But it’s the Cy Young Award, not the Leading in WAR award, so some context is needed. Carlos Rodón leads the AL in fWAR, but he’s only thrown 109.2 innings so far this year.

He’s been just about the most effective per-inning starter in the league, but if he only ends up with 140 or so innings pitched, compared to some of the other contenders that will sniff 200, you need to really be head and shoulders above the competition. As it is, Depth Charts projects Rodón for 49 more innings this season, and 158 IP would be the fewest innings thrown by a Cy Young winning starter since Rick Sutcliffe was traded midway through 1984. If Cole and Rodón are at least comparable on a per-inning basis, and Cole comes close to the 189 projected innings DC pegs him for, he should edge out Carlos.

Really, the prime competition for Cole will likely end up being Lance Lynn, that other excellent White Sox hurler:

Lynn definitely has the advantage in ERA, and if he hits the 162 IP qualifier, is probably the favorite to win the ERA title overall. But the stats that we would look at as more predictive over time either have the two aces neck and neck, or show Cole at an advantage.

What this means is, if both pitchers maintain this performance over the 50-55 innings they’re expected to throw for the rest of the season, Cole should be a little bit better. In particular I would expect to see a little regression in Lynn’s home run rate — he’s never been a guy to give up as many home runs as Cole, but his rate this season strikes me as a little low given his career high fly ball rate, and career high barrel rate.

One of the interesting elements of this race is the teams these pitchers play for, and how their position in the standings will dictate usage. The White Sox have skipped Rodón a couple of times, and as they have a playoff spot all but locked up, it wouldn’t be that out of left field to see them rest Rodón and Lynn, or take them out of games early, or juggle the rotation to set up for a postseason run. Whereas the Yankees will need Gerrit Cole to make every single possible start as they chase down a playoff slot. That might give him the innings edge over his competition — again, if all three pitchers are similar in stats, and Cole has thrown 20 innings more, he has to get the edge.

And then there’s the field. Robbie Ray has had a really strong season, and is certainly in the Cy conversation by ERA, but those more predictive metrics put him a step below Cole and Lynn. Nathan Eovaldi is sort of the opposite case — really strong predictive metrics but overall run suppression hasn’t been great. I would bet on Eovaldi seeing some home runs ding his metrics even more so than Lynn. Yes, his FIP is strong, but it’s buoyed by a a 6.5 percent HR/FB rate. Playing in parks that are fairly home run friendly, and already outpacing his xHR for the season, some of those fly balls are going to carry.

The final thing worth pointing out is what I consider to be the single most important pitching statistic, K-BB%. Pitchers have more control over those two things than anything else, and don’t need to rely on their defense or the ballpark to manage those batters faced. By that metric, well:

The only guy anywhere close to Cole is Rodón, who we’ve talked a lot about in this post. Once again, the question of Cole, Rodón, and Lynn is an innings question, and I tend to think Cole will end up with that accumulation. (Rodón didn’t do himself any favors in that regard, as he just hit the 10-day IL with left shoulder fatigue.)

Gerrit Cole was signed specifically for seasons like this — the favorite to win the Cy Young in preseason, and statistically, the guy with the best case as the season goes on. He represents the best chance the Yankees have to see the Cy Young Award in the Bronx in two decades, and it shouldn’t surprise any of us if he ends up with the hardware this winter.