As regular readers know, I like to spotlight at least one awards race per week and this week I'm going to look at the American League Cy Young. We're going to end up talking mostly about one player: Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.
Other pitchers are in the mix and have a shot at the award, of course, such as Kevin Gausman of the Blue Jays, Sonny Gray of the Twins, Framber Valdez of the Astros and the Mariners' dynamic duo of Luis Castillo and George Kirby.
My fundamental belief on end-of-season awards is to only judge the actual "what happened" stats instead of stats that end up more predictive. That is to say, I'll care a lot more about ERA than FIP/xFIP, for example. I've also long thought innings pitched is an underrated stat -- so long as the pitcher is productive -- and it's becoming more and more underrated with fewer pitchers working deep into games.
Gerrit Cole is the AL leader in both ERA and innings pitched. That's an easy, open-and-shut case for me. He should be the winner. (And he is currently the -300 favorite.)
If you want more, he also has a huge lead in Baseball-Reference's version of WAR (he's fifth in Fangraph's version, but that's FIP-based and I already established what method I favor above), he's one off the lead in wins while having the best winning percentage, he's fourth in WHIP, third in strikeouts, first in ERA+ and first in win probability added among starters.
It's not necessarily an overwhelming case, but it's a case that should land Cole a firm victory, should things continue on this path. He has enough of a lead to earn the focus of this column instead of having me break down every other serious candidate.
It would be the first Cy Young for Cole. He's 32 years old, which isn't exactly ancient, but it still feels like a "finally!" moment for one of the game's best right-handers.
The close calls
Cole came into his own with the 2015 Pirates, just a few years after being the No. 1 overall draft pick out of UCLA. He went 19-8 that year with a 2.60 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings. He finished fourth in Cy Young voting, as there was a trio of a amazing seasons. Jake Arrieta was 22-6 with a 1.77 ER. Zack Greinke was 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA, while Clayton Kershaw had a vintage, Prime Kershaw season.
It was a harbinger of things to come for Cole and the Cy Young.
Cole would finish fifth in voting in 2018, fourth in 2020 and ninth in 2022. He also had two runner-up finishes in there.
2019 - Cole was 20-5 while leading the AL with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts. He worked 212 1/3 innings with a 0.90 WHIP, leading in ERA+ and racking up 6.6 WAR. He got 13 of the 30 first-place votes, but his teammate, Justin Verlander, got the rest and won the award. It wasn't a dubious vote, but Cole's season would've won some other years and was Cy-worthy.
2021 - Cole led the league with 16 wins and had 243 strikeouts in 181 1/3 innings. He had a 5.7 WAR and led the league with two complete games. He lost out to Robbie Ray, who led the league in ERA, innings and WAR. It was hardly a travesty, but instead more an illustration of how Cole just kept getting close without ever getting over the top.
There just aren't many pitchers with six top-10 finishes, five top-5 finishes and two runner-up finishes without a win.
The best pitchers to never win
First off, let's note that we're excluding pitchers who never got the chance to win a Cy Young due to it not being an award, such as Cy Young himself or Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson. Most names you'd throw out there for "best to never win a Cy Young" from before there was an actual Cy Young award would have won.
No, I'm talking about the greatest pitchers who had circumstances conspire to prevent them from taking home the hardware when it was available.
Chris Sale - He's not going to go down as an all-time great like most of the others on this list, but Sale's career to this point in terms of his misses on the Cy Young most resembled Cole's quest. It just looks like Cole is going to win one while Sale missed the boat. From 2012-18, Sale finished second (once), third (once), fourth (twice), fifth (twice) and sixth (once) in Cy Young voting, but never won.
Juan Marichal - When the Hall of Famer's career started, there was only one Cy Young instead of having one in each league. It probably didn't matter much in some of his great, early years due to the existence of Sandy Koufax. Plus, voting was much different then. There was only one vote cast per voter instead of giving second-place, third-place votes and so on. That means in Marichal's career year (1965), Koufax won unanimously and there wasn't even a runner-up. Ditto for Bob Gibson in 1968, another great Marichal year. Marichal finished ninth in MVP voting in '65 and fifth in '68. He also finished sixth in 1966.
Luis Tiant - Somewhat similar to Marichal, Tiant finished fifth in AL MVP voting in 1968 but there was a unanimous Cy winner (Denny McLain). Tiant led the league with a 1.60 ERA. He led the majors with a 1.91 ERA in 1972 and finished sixth in Cy voting. He also finished fourth in 1974 and fifth in 1976. He was inconsistent, but has a resume that would've landed a Cy Young if sequenced to better circumstances (see Arrieta's example above; he had one ridiculous season, a few other productive seasons and won it).
Kevin Brown - A two-time ERA champ -- including a 1.89 ERA in 1996 -- who led the league in wins and innings in a separate season, Brown finished second in voting once, third once and sixth three times. He led in WAR, ERA, WHIP and ERA+ in 1996, but lost out to John Smoltz, who led in wins, innings and strikeouts.
Curt Schilling - Schilling's crimes during his big seasons were lining them up against Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and prime Johan Santana. He finished fourth in 1997 behind Pedro, Greg Maddux and Denny Neagle (he should've finished ahead of Neagle, but Neagle had 20 wins). Schilling then finished second behind Johnson in both 2001 and 2002. The decisions were correct, even though Schilling posted seasons that would win the Cy many different years. Johnson was just other-worldly then. Schilling then went to the Red Sox for 2004 and finished second to Santana, again correctly, again with a monster season.
Don Sutton - From 1972-76, Sutton finished fifth, fifth, fourth, fifth and third, respectively, in voting. He'd win an ERA title and lead in WHIP in 1980 and not get a single vote. Steve Carlton absolutely deserved the award, but you could argue Sutton should've finished second.
Phil Niekro - Knucksie led the league in wins twice, innings four times, strikeouts once and WAR twice. He got Cy Young votes five different seasons, finishing second, third, fifth and sixth (twice).
Bert Blyleven - Vastly under-appreciated in his time, the Hall of Famer still had two third-place finishes, a fourth-place finish and one seventh-place finish.
Nolan Ryan - No, Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young. He led the league in strikeouts 11 times. He won two ERA titles. He had six top-five finishes in Cy Young voting but he topped out as the runner-up, just one time. He finished third twice. In 1987, he led the league in ERA and strikeouts while working over 200 innings, but finished only fifth. Why? He was 8-16. I'm so glad we don't get so overly focused on individual record now when it's a team sport.
The Cy Young is an individual award and it appears Cole is going to take home some individual hardware this season. If so, he'll be spared from this list. It is a damn good list, though, so there's no shame in reaching it if that ends up happening.