It’s never too early -- especially this late in the regular season -- to talk about postseason awards. There is going to be plenty of conversation from now until Sept. 29, about whether Alex Bregman can somehow top Mike Trout for the American League Most Valuable Player Award -- one that so often feels like Trout’s personal property, even though his season ended early because of a right foot injury.
There is also baseball fun to be had in talking about the possible Cy Young Award winners.
In the AL, it's a two-man race between the Astros' Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. In MLB.com’s recent poll, they were the only pitchers to get any first-place votes, and they will almost certainly become the first pair of teammates to finish first and second in the Cy Young Award race since the D-backs' Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it on the NL side in 2002. There’s no way of knowing who will come in third, though it’s looking like Cleveland’s Shane Bieber. Former Houston pitcher Charlie Morton (Rays) is also likely to get some support, along with Domingo German (Yankees) and Mike Minor (Rangers). But the top vote-getters will be the two aces of AJ Hinch’s staff.
In any other season, Cole would be the AL frontrunner. He is currently second (to Verlander) in ERA (2.61), tied for second in wins (18) and first in strikeouts (302). He is currently on a rip of seven starts, during which he has struck out 10 or more batters in each. And, by the way, he is averaging 13.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and he became the 18th player to strike out 300 in a season Wednesday, though Verlander might get there, too, and make it 19. One more thing: Cole is also 9-1 this season after an Astros loss, according to my friend, John Labombarda, of the Elias Sports Bureau.
But Cole isn’t just up against a teammate in Verlander. He is up against one of the great pitchers of his time -- and one of the best of all time. Verlander won his 19th game on Tuesday night. He's first in the league in wins, second (to Cole) in strikeouts (283) and first in innings pitched (212) at age 36. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio is 7.08. The batting average against him is .169.
On top of all that, Verlander pitched the third no-hitter of his career on Sept. 1 against the Blue Jays, and he was a single ball four away from pitching a perfect game. If he wins his second AL Cy Young Award -- the first was in 2011, when he also won the AL MVP Award with Detroit -- it will feel as much like a Lifetime Achievement Award as anything else. Except that Verlander isn’t going anywhere. He is as dominant right now with the Astros as he ever was with the Tigers.
After beating the Rangers on Tuesday, Verlander was just seven strikeouts short of tying his career high, 290. And if he gets to 20 wins, it will only be the second time he’s done that.
“I’ve obviously been putting up some pretty good numbers, and trying to stick with the game plan and trust my instincts,” Verlander said after the Rangers game. “I was able to get eight strikeouts, which kind of puts me in the ballpark to get me to 3,000 [K's in my career] this year. That would be pretty freaking cool.”
Verlander remains, this deep into his career and into the season, the ace of his sport. There are others who come close. Nobody is better than he.
The race for the National League Cy Young Award feels more wide open, but the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg ought to get a long look from the voters. Last year, the Mets' Jacob deGrom beat out Strasburg’s teammate, Max Scherzer, for the honor. And even though there are people who think that deGrom is a worthy candidate again, despite his 9-8 record, you wonder if voters will circle back to him. He won it with a 10-9 record, and a 1.70 ERA. This time, it's still terrific at 2.61. It's also a fact that the Mets blew five games in which deGrom left with the lead. Nevertheless, deGrom got the award with just 10 wins. It could happen twice, but it’s hard to see it.
The Dodgers' Hyun-Jin Ryu leads the National League in ERA (2.35) and has a 12-5 record, but he isn’t in the Top 10 in any other significant category. Scherzer is 10-7, has had horrendous bullpen support in Washington and is fifth in ERA (2.81) and third in strikeouts (233). But he’s not close to making the kind of case that he made last year when he lost out to deGrom.
The Cardinals' Jack Flaherty has had a spectacular 1.05 ERA in the second half. He’s sixth in ERA (3.05), ninth in strikeouts (206) and has a 10-8 record. The Cards wouldn't be in first place in the NL Central without him. In terms of winning the NL Cy Young Award, though, it might be too little and too late.
I believe this is Strasburg’s time to finally win the award, even with a 3.49 ERA. He leads the league with 17 wins despite losing to the Cardinals after a sketchy first inning on Monday night. He also leads the league in innings (196), is second in strikeouts (235 -- only four behind deGrom after Monday). He is 8-3 after Nationals losses. And perhaps the most telling statistic of all? Strasburg has accounted for 20 percent of the Nats' victories this season. You tend to see a number like that on non-contending teams. It’s more rare on a playoff club, which it looks like Washington will be.
This is the pitcher Strasburg was supposed to be. Verlander? He’s who he’s always been. He ought to win his second AL Cy Young Award. Strasburg ought to dethrone last year’s champ, deGrom, and win his first.