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Where does Gerrit Cole stand in the Cy Young Award race?

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There was no clear frontrunner among American League pitchers for most of the 2021 season. How does the Yankees ace stack up against other top candidates?

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The AL Cy Young Award race became somewhat crowded after the All-Star Break, and until the last week or two there weren’t any clear-cut frontrunners among the elite group. Yankees ace Gerrit Cole was the favorite to win the award at the start of the 2021 season, however, Cole’s campaign lost some edge after he missed two starts in August while on the COVID-IL — and then he had his outing on September 7th cut short due to a tweaked hamstring. A more recent start against Cleveland on September 19th was a doozy and didn’t help his candidacy.

Considering his stock in the crowded race took a downturn in the first half of September, Cole’s start in the highly-anticipated series opener against Boston on Friday carried extra weight. His performance at Fenway on Friday could either take Cole out of the race, or solidify his place among the American League pitchers jockeying for the award. The results pulled towards the latter, as the Yankees ace pitched a two-hit shutout into the sixth inning on Friday evening. Cole’s outing broke Boston’s seven-game winning streak (and made them stop wearing those fluorescent yellow uniforms) and quieted any talk of the guy not living up to expectations that he would be the Yankees’ savior in 2021. He did allow a few runs across in the end, but the game was well out of reach when the Sox’ bats woke up.

So, what does the 2021 AL Cy Young award race look like now, with one week left to go in the regular season? Currently, Blue Jays starter Robbie Ray presents the strongest case alongside Cole, as the two AL East pitchers have more or less pulled ahead of the bunch as the top two contenders for the award. In the last week or two, the drop-off from Cole and Ray to Chicago’s Lance Lynn has become bigger. Lynn has had a career year as one of the most effective pitchers in the American League, and for much of the 2021 season he led his peers in nearly all stat categories that matter.

Though he’s still considered a top candidate and will likely be a finalist for the Cy Young Award, Lynn spent the first two weeks of this month on the IL with right knee inflammation. Being sidelined at an inopportune time late in the season and dealing with a nagging injury has cut into his innings count, a category many BBWAA voters take into account when casting Cy Young votes. Lynn’s teammate, White Sox starter Carlos Rodón, also looked as if he would be in the running earlier this season, but an IL stint led to his pitching significantly fewer innings than the other top candidates as well.

At this point, it’s not unreasonable to say the competition has narrowed down to between Cole and Ray. Here is a look at their numbers side by side:

2021 Season Totals: Gerrit Cole vs. Robbie Ray

Pitcher IP ERA WHIP QS W L fWAR bWAR OPS against BA against
Pitcher IP ERA WHIP QS W L fWAR bWAR OPS against BA against
Robbie Ray (TOR) 188 2.68 1.04 23 13 6 4.3 6.8 0.658 0.212
Gerrit Cole (NYY) 175.1 3.08 1.04 18 16 8 5.3 5.8 0.622 0.216
Data: Fangraphs, baseball-reference.com, Baseball Savant

Through 31 starts, Ray has posted a career-low 2.68 ERA and is averaging 11.68 strikeouts per nine innings while holding batters he faces to a combined .212 batting average. Cole’s line is similar. Cole’s 3.08 ERA is slightly higher than Ray’s, but his average strikeouts per nine (12.17) and combined batting average against him (.216) are nearly identical to Ray’s stat line. As of Saturday’s games, Ray has pitched about 13 innings more than Cole has in 2021, which isn’t a negligible difference, but still not a terribly significant margin. Comparing their respective WAR values isn’t very helpful, at least in my personal opinion, since the figures measured by FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference vary so much and are inconsistent with one another.

So, where will the Cy Young race be decided? Which stats or qualities do the voting BBWAA members put the greatest emphasis on? It’s hard to know. As I see it, Cole and Ray diverge the most when it comes to quality starts. Quality starts (pitching six or more innings and allowing three or fewer runs) provide a more accurate snapshot of pitching performance than a win-loss record and in this vein, Ray has Cole beat. While both starters have pitched a comparable number of innings and posted very similar statistics, Ray has thrown 23 quality starts this season, five more than Cole, who’s thrown just 18. Even if Cole has been more “dominant” per se, the number of quality starts Ray has put up is impressive and suggests his pitching, on the season as a whole, has been consistently good more often than Cole’s.

One question that remains to be answered: How will this season’s foreign substance crackdown affect Cole, Ray and other pitchers in the Cy Young race? Will Cole’s reputation, perhaps marred by Spider Tack, impact his 2021 Cy Young campaign?

Voters might not consider this, but it’s worth noting that Cole’s spin rates decreased significantly after MLB’s public crackdown on sticky substances. Ray’s spin rates have remained consistent all season, varying a negligible 38 rpm throughout the season. The spin rate of Cole’s four-seamer, on the other hand, has fluctuated, dropping almost 200 rpm from April until now. Changes in spin rate can occur for a number of reasons (aging, change in windup, grip or other mechanics, etc), so even though it is impossible to attribute the drop in Cole’s fastball spin to any one thing in particular, the size of his decrease stands out.

Will voters hold potential foreign substance usage against Cole? Would doing so be unfair, or justified? There is a lot of uncharted territory in this year’s AL Cy Young race.