With just over four weeks left in the 2021 Major League Baseball season, the picture for individual awards continues to clarify, though they are also far from over. We'll take a snapshot here with the Cy Young races each Friday until we're done with the regular season.
As a reminder, this isn't necessarily how I would vote or the candidates I absolutely consider the most deserving. Instead, I'm handicapping how the field is shaping up for the voting body at large, based upon my decades of experience studying BBWAA voting trends.
These aren't ranked unless I say so.
American League Cy Young field
This is probably too close to call right now, but I'm not going to go with a cop out and not name a front-runner. Cole is second in WAR, third in ERA, has the lowest rate of hits allowed, the highest strikeout rate, the most strikeouts and is just a handful of innings pitched away from the lead. In deeper rate stats, he scores out well, too, sitting first in FIP by a wide margin and third in ERA+. He also leads in wins if that's your thing, but the voters have proven for the past decade that those generally take a back seat to other matters.
In Lynn's last outing against the Cubs, he allowed seven earned runs on seven hits in five innings. Team that with Cole's recent 15-strikeout outing and these last two starts flipped these two. That's how close it was. Lynn still leads in ERA, but it's 2.59 to Cole's 2.73. Lynn is third in WAR, fourth in WHIP, fifth in FIP and first in ERA+. He's also outside the top 10 in innings pitched and strikeouts. His excellent run prevention and ability to keep runners off base for the most part have him sitting second, but the workload concern means he needed to blow people out in ERA and WHIP and he's not doing that anymore.
How about this late charge? Ray has a 1.72 ERA in his last seven starts and has gotten to double digits in strikeouts in each of his last three outings. He's charged his way to first in WAR, second in ERA, second in WHIP, second in innings (by one out, or 1/3 of an inning), second in strikeouts and second in ERA+. He signed a show-me one-year deal heading into this season and he's earning himself a killing in free agency after this year. A Cy Young would be the cherry on top. He's right there. In fact, that's why there aren't numbers next to Lynn or Ray's names. I believe they are neck-and-neck for second and really breathing down Cole's neck for first.
These are really the only three who would have a chance to win the award right now in the AL, in my opinion. Chris Bassitt getting hit in the face ended his run. Carlos Rodón would be in very good shape, but due to his injury he doesn't even qualify for the ERA title at this juncture. José Berríos, Zack Greinke and Nathan Eovaldi are others who would have a shot at some down-ballot love, but there's a clear-cut top three right now. There don't appear to be any relievers capable of cracking many top-five votes right now.
National League Cy Young field
Yes, I believe Buehler is the clear leader right now. This would make the Dodgers' cushion in most Cy Youngs even bigger. They've won 12 Cy Youngs in franchise history and no other team has more than seven. Buehler would join the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Eric Gagne, Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela, Mike Marshall, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Newcombe, who won the first one in 1956. Buehler currently has the best ERA in the league at 2.05 with second place being 2.27. He also leads in ERA+ somewhat comfortably and is second in WHIP. Further, with these excellent rate stats, he doesn't come with workload concerns. He is second in innings pitched. He also sits fifth in strikeouts. If you're into this one, Buehler also leads all NL starters in win probability added. I'm not sure this would be unanimous right now, but Buehler is the clear leader in the clubhouse.
Just a few weeks ago, Wheeler was the clear leader. Since throwing a shutout on Aug. 8, he's fallen on tough times, posting a 6.41 ERA in his last four starts. That's dropped him to 10th in ERA, nearly a whole run behind Buehler at 3.01. I still suspect Wheeler holds the second spot right now due to leading the league in WAR, which is driven by him leading in innings pitched and strikeouts, in addition to sporting a 2.69 FIP, which is second in the league -- and better than Buehler -- suggesting he's been hurt by his defense a decent amount.
Burnes leads in FIP by a hefty margin. His 1.57 figure teamed with a 2.27 ERA are stellar and he's right in this mix. Burnes also sits third in WHIP while leading the league in strikeout rate, having the lowest walk rate and obviously that means he leads in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Where he lags slightly behind, even if he has the best across-the-board rate stats -- and he arguably does -- is the workload. He's seventh in WAR and that's mostly due to him having only pitched in 139 innings, compared to 182 2/3 from Wheeler and 176 from Buehler. That's a lot of volume left on the table.
He's fourth in ERA, first in WHIP, second in strikeouts and fifth in WAR. He's second to Burnes in K-BB ratio. He trails only Buehler among NL starters in win probability added. He's clearly behind the top three, but has a real shot to get to his fourth Cy Young while also coming the second pitcher ever to win the award after being traded in season (Rick Sutcliffe to the Cubs in 1984).
Burnes' teammate is right on his heels. He's third in ERA, fourth in WAR, fourth in WHIP, fourth in strikeouts and fourth in FIP. He trails only Buehler and Burnes in ERA+. He's actually fifth in innings pitched, too, so he has a real shot here.
I didn't rank these because Scherzer and Woodruff are way too difficult to separate at this point when I'm trying to read the minds of a 30-person voting panel. Also, don't get caught up in any "markets divide votes" noise when it comes to Burnes and Woodruff because every single chapter (every city with a team) gets two votes. Yes, New York has the exact same number of votes as Milwaukee here.
Don't yet count out pitchers like Kevin Gausman, Freddy Peralta, Wade Miley or Joe Musgrove, but with each voter only getting five spots, my hunch is the overwhelming majority of the points would go to Buehler, Wheeler, Burnes, Scherzer and Woodruff right now. If anyone did name a reliever, it would probably be Josh Hader, but I believe he has three teammates ahead of him in line and is anyone really going to name four Brewers on a ballot? Seems unlikely.