Awards races are ultimately endurance races. Though there are rare cases in which a player misses a ton of time late in the year but is able to ride his prior accomplishments to hardware (Josh Hamilton's 2010 American League MVP Award-winning season comes to mind), last impressions are often lasting
Awards races are ultimately endurance races. Though there are rare cases in which a player misses a ton of time late in the year but is able to ride his prior accomplishments to hardware (Josh Hamilton's 2010 American League MVP Award-winning season comes to mind), last impressions are often lasting impressions.
This is why this year's AL Cy Young Award race has evolved from a Chris Sale sweep to a downright dead heat. Because of his impeccable conditioning and rare and consistently proven ability to get better as a season evolves, Corey Kluber is a starter who can close with the best of them. And with the help of his teammates, who have scored seven runs against Sale twice this month, Kluber -- despite posting an ERA north of 5 in April and missing the majority of May with a back issue -- has closed in on the Red Sox lefty in the Cy battle and put himself in the conversation for the MLB Award for Best Pitcher (more on this below).
Here are the two pitchers' respective AL ranks going into this week, as Kluber prepares for a date with the Yankees in the Bronx on Monday night (looking to extend the Tribe's streak of three straight shutouts) and Sale makes his next start in Toronto on Tuesday:
ERA: Kluber 1 (2.65), Sale 2 (2.88)
WHIP: Kluber 1 (0.91), Sale 2 (0.93)
Baseball Reference WAR: Kluber 1 (5.7), Sale 2 (5.1)
FanGraphs WAR: Sale 1 (7.4), Kluber 2 (5.3)
Fielding Independent Pitching: Sale 1 (2.07), Kluber 2 (2.56)
Innings: Sale 1 (178 1/3), Kluber 9 (152 2/3)
Opponent OPS: Sale 1 (.567), Kluber 2 (.575)
K/9: Sale 1 (12.77), Kluber 2 (12.26)
K/BB: Sale 1 (7.23), Kluber 2 (6.50)
Sale has a 2.33 ERA against teams other than the Indians, who might have left Kluber high and dry in his last start (he held the Red Sox to two runs on four hits over 7 2/3 innings and still took the loss) but have had his back here.
The most definitive difference between Sale, who would be a first-time winner of the award, and Kluber, who won it in 2014, rests in workload, and barring a late Sale injury, there's nothing Kluber can do to erase it. But what Kluber can do in these final weeks is create a more convincing case in the rate stats.
Doing so would mean building off an established trend of second-half surges. Going back to 2014, the only qualified pitchers in baseball with better second-half ERAs than Kluber's 2.56 mark are Clayton Kershaw (1.45) and Jacob Arrieta (2.25).
Sale, for the record, ranks 27th, at 3.31.
Why is it that Kluber typically improves as the year rolls along? People with the Indians say a lot of it comes down to conditioning, though Kluber added that it usually takes time to get a feel for his pitches in a given year.
"A lot of times, things are so disjointed at the beginning of the year with off-days and stuff that you're not able to get on a routine as much," Kluber said. "And then I think part of it is also, even though you have your mechanics and pitches, you're learning each year how to use it and how they're working at that point in time. Your cutter from 2017 may not be same pitch as your cutter from 2015. For whatever reason, it might act differently."
When Kluber won the 2014 AL Cy Young Award, he did it with a fantastic finish in which he posted a 1.73 ERA in 14 starts after the All-Star break to "catch" presumed front-runner Felix Hernandez. Again, the overall workload discrepancy could be the difference-maker in the voting, but it's possible we're witnessing a similar dynamic here in '17.
The workload issue also complicates the conversation for the MLB Award for Best Pitcher this year. Kershaw (2.04 ERA) should return this week from his back issue, which has kept him away from the Dodgers since July 23 and has limited him to 141 1/3 innings. Max Scherzer (2.25 ERA in 160 1/3 innings) has pitched just 15 innings this month because of a neck issue that has him on the DL. If extra credit is given for the sheer ability to post up every fifth day without incident, then Sale, Giovany Gonzalez (2.40 ERA in 168 2/3 innings) and Zack Greinke (3.14 in 166 1/3) all have their arguments amplified.
But because a second-half surge can leave a lasting impression on the voters, Kluber (and his teammates' success against Sale) has made the AL Cy Young Award race a lot more interesting than it looked just a few weeks ago.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.