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The case for each Cy Young Award candidate

November 12, 2019

Talk about difficult decisions. The 2019 Cy Young Award finalists are all outstanding choices, and we might see some very tight results. If an Astros pitcher is to win the honor in the American League, will it be Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander? Could veteran Rays right-hander Charlie Morton sneak

Talk about difficult decisions. The 2019 Cy Young Award finalists are all outstanding choices, and we might see some very tight results.

If an Astros pitcher is to win the honor in the American League, will it be Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander? Could veteran Rays right-hander Charlie Morton sneak up on the pair of aces? In the National League, you've got the strikeout leader, the ERA leader and the FIP leader all squaring off.

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It's going to be quite a finish to a thrilling race, and here's the case for each finalist.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Justin Verlander, Astros

Verlander had one of the best seasons of his career, perhaps trailing the 2011 campaign in which he won his only Cy Young Award -- at least thus far. In '19, Verlander led the Majors with a 0.80 WHIP that was the second-lowest in the big leagues in the past 100 years, bettered only by Pedro Martinez's 0.74 mark in 2000. He also paced the Majors in batting average against (.171), which was the seventh-lowest since 1900. In addition, Verlander led MLB in wins (21) and innings pitched (223), while ranking second in the AL in ERA (2.58) behind teammate Gerrit Cole. So Verlander had both quality and quantity.

The veteran right-hander allowed more than three runs only six times in 34 starts and never gave up more than four. He reached 300 strikeouts for the first time in his career, finishing second in MLB to Cole. On Sept. 1 in Toronto, Verlander threw his third career no-hitter, becoming the sixth pitcher in history with at least three no-nos. He also reached 3,000 strikeouts for his career in his final start of the season, becoming the fifth-quickest pitcher to reach that milestone in terms of innings. In 73 1/3 innings against playoff teams this year, Verlander posted a 2.20 ERA in the regular season. What’s more, he led MLB in WPA (5.6) and tied for the lead in WAR (Baseball-Reference) among pitchers at 7.8. -- Brian McTaggart

Gerrit Cole, Astros

Cole turned in one of the most dominant regular seasons by a pitcher in recent history, even after a pedestrian start (4-5 with a 4.11 ERA in his first 11 starts). He went 16-0 with a 1.78 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP with 226 strikeouts in 146 2/3 innings over his final 22 starts, including nine quality starts. The Astros won each of the final 13 games he started in the regular season, with Cole posting a 1.51 ERA in 89 2/3 innings in that span.

During the season, Cole posted a 1.71 ERA in 52 2/3 innings against playoff teams. By finishing the campaign with a 16-game winning streak, he set a franchise record and posted the longest in-season win streak since Roger Clemens won 16 in a row in 2001.

Cole led the Majors with 326 strikeouts, which smashed the franchise record and were the most in the AL since Nolan Ryan had 341 for the 1977 Angels. His 212 1/3 innings were the fewest ever by a pitcher to record 300 strikeouts, besting Pedro Martinez (213 1/3) in 1999. Cole also led the Majors with 21 double-digit strikeout games, becoming the fourth pitcher to accomplish that feat. That included a streak in which he reached double-digit strikeouts in nine consecutive starts (a Major League record) to end the season. During that stretch, he reached 14 strikeouts four times, including one game of 15 strikeouts.

Cole also led the AL in opponent OPS (.579) and was second in opponent batting average (.186), WHIP (0.89), opponent OBP (.237) and opponent slugging (.339). -- Brian McTaggart

Charlie Morton, Rays

While Morton didn’t finish with better numbers than either Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander, it’s hard to imagine a pitcher who meant more to his staff than Morton did with the Rays in 2019. Tampa Bay continued to implement the Opener strategy throughout the season, but that became more difficult as the injuries piled up. Blake Snell missed significant time after undergoing surgery to remove loose bodies in his throwing elbow. Tyler Glasnow missed nearly four months with a right forearm strain. Yonny Chirinos missed almost two months with a right middle finger issue. But through all of that, it was the 35-year-old Morton who held down the fort. He made a career-best 33 starts, and he delivered every time the team needed a big win. While Cole and Verlander are extremely deserving, it’s not an overreaction to say that the Rays wouldn't have made the playoffs without Morton’s ability to pitch 194 2/3 innings. -- Juan Toribio

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Jacob deGrom, Mets

deGrom is the first to admit that his 2019 season wasn’t quite as sharp as his '18 campaign, during which he received 29 first-place NL Cy Young Award votes after posting one of the lowest ERAs in modern baseball history. But it was still probably good enough for deGrom to become the 11th player to win Cy Young Awards in consecutive seasons.

deGrom led the National League in strikeouts, ranked second in ERA and third in innings, making him the only pitcher to finish even in the top seven in all of those categories. He also led the league in both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs’ valuations of pitcher WAR, while finishing second in WHIP and third in ERA+.

While it's not the same unbeatable resume as last year, whose is better? Max Scherzer’s best case all summer was volume, but second-half injuries knocked him down to third in strikeouts and 25th in innings -- which still might have been enough if he finished with better run prevention stats. A 4.81 ERA after the All-Star break ensured that wouldn’t be the case.

As for Hyun-Jin Ryu, a 5.40 ERA over his final seven starts likely doomed him. Although Ryu still hung on to win the ERA title, he did so by a small enough margin that it shouldn’t matter, considering how far ahead of him deGrom finished in strikeouts and innings. Even Ryu’s claim as the NL’s best overall pitcher is suspect given his 3.10 FIP compared to deGrom’s 2.67 mark.

The bottom line is this: In ending the season with 23 consecutive scoreless innings while Scherzer and Ryu faded, deGrom appeared to lock up his second consecutive Cy. -- Anthony DiComo

Max Scherzer, Nationals

Few pitchers in baseball history -- and none in the past two decades -- have had quite an extended stretch like the one Scherzer had during the month of June. In that calendar month alone, he made six starts and went 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA and 68 strikeouts, becoming the fourth pitcher in the Live Ball Era with that sort of production, a list that includes names such as Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson.

Stretch that out even further to a spectacular nine-start stretch from May 22 to July 6, and you’ll see that Scherzer was at the peak of his game this season, going 7-0 with a 0.84 ERA and 94 strikeouts to nine walks in 64 innings during that span. He appeared to be charging toward the fourth Cy Young Award of his career, but injuries interrupted and hindered Scherzer for the rest of the second half. From July 25 until the end of the regular season, he was limited to just eight starts, coming off two separate stints on the injured list.

Before those injuries struck, however, Scherzer was basically unhittable. If the purpose of the Cy Young Award is to honor the best pitcher in the league, then Scherzer stated his case plainly. The injuries robbed him of the volume of excellence of the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, and he cannot match the run prevention of the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu, but Scherzer was arguably more dominant at his peak this season than either of them. Not to mention, despite the time on the shelf, Scherzer still posted the best FIP (2.45) and K/9 (12.7) in the NL, second-best WAR for NL pitchers (6.5) and third-highest strikeout total (243). When Scherzer was healthy and on the mound this season, it's hard to argue any NL pitcher was better. -- Jamal Collier

Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers

If the case against Hyun-Jin Ryu winning the Cy Young Award rests on his August slump, then the case for him is best bolstered by the fact that he was at his best when needed the most. That was early in the season, when the Dodgers' rotation was undermined by injuries to Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and Rich Hill.

Ryu was the starting pitcher of the National League All-Star team on the strength of his dominant start to the season. Ryu recorded a 32 scoreless-innings streak from May 1-25, the longest such streak in the Major Leagues in 2019, and he was named NL Pitcher of the Month for May after posting a 5-0 record and a 0.59 ERA (3 ER, 45 2/3 IP) in six starts.

The 32-year-old Ryu, now a free agent, led the Major Leagues with a 2.32 ERA and ranked among NL leaders in strikeout-to-walk ratio (second, 6.79), WHIP (third, 1.01), opponents’ OBP (third, .263), fewest home runs allowed per nine innings (second, 0.84) and baserunners allowed per nine innings (third, 9.26). He went 14-5.

He was nearly perfect in 14 starts at Dodger Stadium, going 10-1 with a 1.93 ERA (20 ER, 93.1 IP), striking out 94 batters against 15 walks while posting a 0.94 WHIP and holding opponents to a .214/.251/.326 slash line. He led Major League starters in home ERA and ranked high among NL pitchers in WHIP (seventh, 0.94), strikeout-to-walk ratio (fourth, 6.27) and walks per nine innings (fifth, 1.45). -- Ken Gurnick