In a year that was chock full of spectacular pitching performances, including a single-season record nine (!) no-hitters, six hurlers stood above the rest for their sheer dominance across the length of the campaign and are in the running for the ultimate honor a Major League pitcher can receive: the Cy Young Award.
This year’s group of American League and National League Cy Young finalists includes an ace who has won the award three times previously along with five pitchers looking to hoist the hardware for the first time.
Here's a look at the case for each of the six candidates before the winners are announced Wednesday on MLB Network at 6 p.m. ET.
Gerrit Cole -- RHP, Yankees
In Cole’s second season as a Yankee, the right-hander was 16-8 with two complete games and a 3.23 ERA, limiting opponents to a .223 batting average. The 29-year-old fireballer presented one of the circuit’s toughest matchups for opponents, recording 243 strikeouts against 41 walks in 181 1/3 innings.
Cole paced the AL in victories and strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.93), ranking second in the AL in strikeouts, K’s per nine innings (12.06) and WHIP (1.06). He was third in the AL in ERA and fifth in walks per nine innings (2.03). His 243 strikeouts were the second most in a single season by any Yankee, trailing only Ron Guidry’s 248 strikeouts in 1978.
With nine double-digit strikeout games, Cole tied David Cone (1998) for the most in franchise history and the second most in the Majors this year, behind the Blue Jays’ Robbie Ray (10). Cole entered September as the AL’s clear Cy Young Award frontrunner before a left hamstring injury hindered his effectiveness. -- Bryan Hoch
Lance Lynn -- RHP, White Sox
There was a time around late July or early August where Lynn seemed like the favorite to win the AL Cy Young. The White Sox clearly were at least one starting pitcher short during their three-game Wild Card Series loss to the A’s during the 2020 playoffs, and Lynn, along with the emergence of Carlos Rodón, made a noticeable difference for one of the best rotations in baseball this past season.
Although Lynn was slightly hampered down the stretch by right knee inflammation, his numbers still stack up with the AL’s best. Over 157 innings this year, Lynn posted an 11-6 record and a 2.69 ERA. He struck out 176, walked 45, allowed 123 hits and recorded one shutout. That shutout came in Lynn’s second start with Chicago and first at Guaranteed Rate Field as a member of the White Sox, when he fanned 11 Royals in a five-hit, 111-pitch performance. Lynn finished with a 1.07 WHIP and a career-best 161 ERA+, producing an ERA lower than both fellow Cy Young finalists Cole and Ray, although his 28 starts were two fewer than Cole and four fewer than Ray.
Along with the on-field effort, Lynn was one of the most charismatic and dynamic quotes on the team and a true clubhouse leader, and the White Sox dubbed him their Game 1 starter in the AL Division Series against the Astros, signifying his ace stature. -- Scott Merkin
Robbie Ray -- LHP, Blue Jays
Last offseason, the Blue Jays said that one of their top priorities was to improve their strike-throwing as a team. Soon after, they brought back Robbie Ray, who’d just led the Majors in walks, on a one-year, $8 million deal. Counterintuitive as it might sound, it worked.
Ray had a career year, and one of the best we’ve ever seen from a Blue Jays lefty. With a 2.84 ERA over 193 1/3 innings and an MLB-best 248 strikeouts, Ray didn’t just become a dominant starter, he became the Blue Jays’ ace by every definition of the term.
Ray’s talent has always been evident, so this wasn’t the result of a grand overhaul in mechanics, but by making the proper adjustments with pitching coach Pete Walker and trusting his stuff in the strike zone, Ray subtly reinvented himself. It’s difficult to describe what it looks like when a pitcher is pitching with confidence, but if you watched one of Ray’s starts in 2021, you know the sight well.
The most impressive part of Ray’s season, though, was his consistency. Given Ray’s track record, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the odd start where he struggled with control in between these gems, but he rarely cracked. Every five days, there was Ray, giving the Blue Jays six-plus innings with two runs allowed and 10 strikeouts. You could set your watch to it.
It’s difficult to overstate Ray’s value to the Blue Jays in 2021, too. Hyun Jin Ryu wasn’t himself, posting a 4.37 ERA, and when the season opened, there was no clear No. 2 starter. Without Ray, the Blue Jays don’t get nearly as close to the postseason as they did with their 91-71 record, and that’s why he’ll be one of the most popular names on the free-agent market with plenty of teams calling, including the Blue Jays. -- Keegan Matheson
Corbin Burnes -- RHP, Brewers
Start with the case against, because it’s short: Burnes ranked 19th in the National League with 167 innings pitched. That’s more than a dozen fewer than Max Scherzer and 46 fewer than Zack Wheeler, the Major League leader, but that was not Burnes' fault. He missed two weeks early in the season after testing positive for COVID-19 but otherwise took every turn offered him by the Brewers, who employed a six-man rotation for the vast majority of the season in an effort to keep the group healthy and productive while reverting to a 162-game schedule. It worked to the tune of 95 Brewers victories and a division title, and manager Craig Counsell has said he would do it all over again if given the chance.
Counsell argued vociferously that the innings criticism shouldn’t dent Burnes chances after an historic season in which he struck out 58 batters before issuing his first walk (a record), struck out 10 consecutive Cubs in one start in August (matching a record) and combined with Josh Hader in September to throw the second no-hitter in Brewers history. Burnes was 11-5 with a 2.43 ERA in 28 starts and finished as the Major League leader in ERA, strikeout rate (35.6%), K/BB ratio (6.88), FIP (1.63) and barrel rate (2.9%). Only Scherzer had a lower WHIP than Burnes’ 0.94. Only Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, in 1999, has posted a lower FIP in the divisional era (since 1969). -- Adam McCalvy
Max Scherzer -- RHP, Nationals/Dodgers
Though Scherzer’s season didn’t end the way he would’ve liked, there’s no denying the impact the right-hander had on the Dodgers after coming over in a trade from the Nationals on July 30. Scherzer gave an injury-riddled rotation an instant jolt, delivering with one of the best nine-game stretches in franchise history.
In those starts, Scherzer went 7-0 with a 0.78 ERA and struck out 79 over 58 innings. He held opposing hitters to a .150 average. The Dodgers won all nine of those games, and Scherzer joined the exclusive 3,000-strikeout club. If you’re looking for a winner that had a major impact on his team, it’s hard to overlook what Scherzer did for Los Angeles. And while the Dodgers had Julio Urías and Walker Buehler in the rotation, Scherzer immediately became the pitcher that the team leaned on the most as it navigated through a heated division race with the Giants.
He also posted some remarkable overall numbers, showing no signs of slowing down at age 37. Scherzer recorded a 15-4 record with a 2.46 ERA and 236 strikeouts this season. This is the fifth time in the last six seasons that Scherzer has been a finalist for the award, showing off impressive durability and consistency. If he wins a fourth Cy Young Award, he would join Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux as the only pitchers in Major League history to win four or more. -- Juan Toribio
Zack Wheeler -- RHP, Phillies
Wheeler is a throwback candidate in that he was one of baseball’s few pitchers who took the ball every five days and consistently pitched deep into games. He went 14-10 with a 2.78 ERA in 32 starts. He led baseball in innings pitched (213 1/3), complete games (three), shutouts (two), batters faced (849) and bWAR (7.6). He led the NL in strikeouts (247). He finished second in the league in fWAR (7.3), FIP (2.59) and xERA (2.78).
Wheeler pitched 34 more innings than Scherzer and 46 1/3 more innings than Burnes. In the case of Burnes, who averaged 5.96 innings per start, he would have needed to make eight more starts just to match Wheeler’s workload.
Of course, the deeper somebody pitches into games, the less effective he tends to be. Wheeler should not be penalized for being a workhorse, however, because his ability to pitch into the seventh, eighth and ninth innings also helped save the Phillies’ beleaguered bullpen. What if manager Joe Girardi pulled Wheeler earlier from games? The Athletic’s Jayson Stark crunched some numbers in an Oct. 1 story and found that if Wheeler, Burnes and Scherzer never threw a pitch beyond the sixth inning, Wheeler would have the best ERA of the three: Wheeler at 2.32, Burnes at 2.34 and Scherzer at 2.60. -- Todd Zolecki