The 2016 MLB season is almost at the all-star break and it is shaping up to be a two-person race between Chicago’s Chris Sale and Cleveland’s Danny Salazar for the American League Cy Young award.
Sale, who is 14-2 with a 2.93 ERA in 17 starts, is the front-runner, yet his peripheral stats are more in line with a pitcher on the decline. For example, his strikeout rate went from 11.8 in 2015 to 8.9 in 2016 and his fastball has lost almost 2 mph in just one season.
Normally these two circumstances operating in concert would be catastrophic, but this is all part of Sale’s plan “to throw it a little easier.” And so far it is working. Sale is facing fewer 3-0 counts and is seeing a career-high 73 percent of pitches swung at for strikes while leading the league in WHIP (.983).
Salazar, meanwhile, has increased his strikeout-per-nine rate to 10.3 while lowering the number of home runs he has surrendered to a career low 0.7 per nine innings, and now leads the league with a 2.36 ERA. Voted the pitcher of the month for June, Salazer went 5-0 with a 1.91 ERA in five starts. His fastball held opposing hitters to a .151 average and his change-up was as effective as ever, striking out 16 batters in 37 at-bats ending on the pitch.
Using Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections in Tom Tangos’s simple Cy Young Tracker, which projects how the Baseball Writers’ Association of America will vote for the Cy Young award, Sale should have a an edge over Salazar once the final votes are tallied. For example, Sale is expected to throw 219 innings, 31 more than Salazar, and win four more games. Sale is also anticipated to strike out 234 batters, whereas Salazar is penciled in for 213. However, Salazar is expected to allow fewer earned runs, and should end the season with a lower ERA (2.92) than Sale (3.08). But that won’t be enough to give Salazar the advantage in Cy Young points.
The next closest pitcher behind the favored duo is Salazar’s teammate Corey Kluber. Kluber is 8-8 with a 3.79 ERA who shows enough command of the strike zone (4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio) that ERA estimators like FIP (2.96) and SIERA (3.49) see improvement on the horizon. But, based on projections, it won’t be enough to make him a serious contender once the season ends.