As September draws near and the divisional and wild-card races heat up, scoreboard watching becomes a secondary pastime of many baseball fans.
This year, many can keep an eye on a crowded race for the American League Cy Young Award as well.
As many as a dozen pitchers now have at least a reasonable case to be named the AL’s best pitcher, creating one of the deepest fields and biggest headaches for those voting for the award in recent memory. Nearly every team has a pitcher in the conversation. This week one of the dozen could rise to the top of the list and by the end of the season not be in the top 10.
And, thanks to his recent surge, Indians ace Corey Kluber finds himself right in the middle of it as he guns for his second Cy Young Award in three seasons.
After his strong start Friday night against the Texas Rangers, Kluber is 6-0 with a 1.75 ERA in his last nine starts, which somewhat resembles the run he went on to end his 2014 Cy Young season. Overall, he’s 14-8 with a 3.07 ERA, 3.11 FIP, 9.12 K/9 rate and 4.5 WAR.
But he has company, and plenty of it.
There’s Kansas City’s Danny Duffy, who was moved to the rotation in May and has been lights out ever since, leading the league in ERA (2.66) and leading the Cy Young contenders with a 9.54 K/9 rate.
Staying in the division, the Chicago White Sox have two contenders: Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. Sale (15-7, 3.14 ERA, 9.07 K/9, 4.4 WAR) has numbers similar to Kluber’s. Quintana owns a 2.84 ERA but has to hope voters overlook a 10-9 record.
In Detroit, Justin Verlander has found his old form with a 14-7 record, 3.33 ERA, 9.4 K/9 and 4.0 WAR. It won’t actually happen this way, but it’s also not impossible, with only a month left, that the top 5 in the Cy Young voting will all come from Central Division teams.
Then there’s Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez with a 12-2 record, 2.99 ERA and 3.33 FIP. His teammate, J.A. Happ, is 17-4 with a 3.19 ERA and 8.05 K/9.
New York’s Masahiro Tanaka has led the Yankees in a frustrating season to an 11-4 record, 3.11 ERA and 4.4 WAR. Boston’s Rick Porcello has enjoyed a resurgence and owns the best record of the contenders at 17-3 to go with a 3.23 ERA. The higher-paid of the Red Sox starters, David Price, could still make a case with a strong September, as he has a 3.45 FIP and 3.7 WAR.
The West has but one contender, Texas’ Cole Hamels, who dominated the Indians on Thursday and is 14-4 with a 2.67 ERA, 8.91 K/9 and 3.86 FIP. The Indians and Rangers have been tightly bunched all season, with both teams looking to earn the AL’s best record. Then, Jonathan Lucroy’s “Veto Heard ’Round Cleveland” further added to the story. Now, Kluber and Hamels could lead the charge as the season winds down.
And this year a reliever has caused a stir and driven a conversation as to whether a closer can win the Cy Young. That would be Baltimore’s Zach Britton, who has 38 saves, a 0.69 ERA, 10.56 K/9 and 1.98 FIP.
Right now, Kluber might have the strongest case, though it’s razor thin at best. His 4.5 WAR and 3.11 FIP both lead the league, and he’s fifth in both ERA and K/9. He’s also led the Indians staff while Danny Salazar missed time with elbow inflammation and Josh Tomlin struggled in August.
It’s also all come after Kluber had a rocky start to the 2016 season, when he allowed 13 earned runs in his first three starts and began the year 0-3. Since that time, he’s been arguably the most consistent pitcher in the AL.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not focused,” Indians manager Terry Francona said last weekend. “You work, you work, you work, and when he gets on a roll, I think he’s able to maintain it so well just because his work ethic and routines are so good that once he gets to that, and you have to fight to get there sometimes, but then he stays there.”
This Cy Young race involves some of baseball’s biggest names among starting pitchers in Kluber, Sale, Verlander, Hamels. It also has some deserving, undervalued names and quality stories, like Quintana, Duffy, Porcello, Sanchez and Happ. They’re all intertwined into what should end up as a close, tightly contested race, with each start weighing heavily on a season-long body of work. It’s likely that every night or close to it, someone will be rising or falling in the rankings.
In the end, the toughest part might be the voting.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/RyanLewisABJ.