Last year’s Cy Young award winners were hardly all that surprising. Justin Verlander (who also took home MVP honors for his performance) and Clayton Kershaw were already established stars in the middle of their best years before the season started. Kershaw is again having an excellent season in 2012, while Verlander is tied with Zack Greinkefor the Major League lead with 3.0 WAR as a starting pitcher. There’s certainly still a chance either man could repeat his award win from a season ago, but what about the competition? There are plenty of other hurlers out there who haven’t even come close to taking home hardware in their career yet but are vying to do so in 2012. Maybe one of them will be able to do it.
In the National League, Washington starter Gio Gonzalez stands as a somewhat surprising contender for receiving honors at season’s end. Gonzalez, who has always missed bats but struggled with control and command, seems to have pieced things together more thoroughly. His walk rate is still above the desirable level (3.72/9), but facing National League competition seems to have helped him out across the board. Gonzalez has been worth 2.7 WAR, struck out 11.02/9, and posted a 2.07 FIP and 2.35 ERA thus far. While Gonzalez’s BABIP has been quite low and he has allowed very few long balls, these strengths have been consistent throughout his career. The home park and league change could keep him on the Cy Young shortlist even if he’s benefitting from his league and park.
Gonzalez’s success is surprising, but it’s not as much of an eyebrow-raiser as a few other starters around the league. Aging knuckle baller R.A. Dickey, journeyman James McDonald, and starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter Lance Lynn are also making strong cases for awards consideration so far. Dickey has been worth 2.2 WAR, posted an ERA of 2.20 and FIP of 2.91, and struck out nearly five batters for every one he’s walked. McDonald’s WAR total sits at 2.1, his ERA and FIP are 2.39 and 2.73 respectively, and he’s struck out nearly a batter per innings. Lynn has an ERA of 2.42, a FIP of 2.89, a strikeout rate of 9.48/9, and a WAR figure of 2.0. No one could have reasonably predicted this kind of success from these three starters even if they all have the potential to be above average.
Over in the junior circuit, the White Sox have enjoyed the stellar efforts of two potential Cy Young contenders. One, Jake Peavy, is coming off several injury-riddled seasons that left many expecting his career was essentially over. The other, Chris Sale, is a young lefty with disgusting stuff who just made the transition from the bullpen this season. Peavy has walked less than a third of the batters he’s fanned, has an ERA of 2.91, a FIP of 3.35, and has been worth 2.1 WAR. Sale has been even better, as he’s been worth 2.6 WAR, has an ERA of 2.05, a FIP of 2.52, and a 4.22 K/BB ratio. Sale is probably the better bet to keep this up, as he’s younger, has all his stuff intact, and is less likely to break a body part even despite his unusual arm motion.
Maybe the most shocking name on this list overall is Texas starter Matt Harrison. Harrison’s numbers are less gaudy than the other candidates I’ve mentioned, but he sits 16th among MLB starters in WAR with 1.9. That number places him in contention for a Cy Young award should he improve his season down the stretch. Harrison has an ERA of 3.54 and a FIP of 3.62 while pitching in a very difficult home environment, and his very strongest suit has been control. Harrison has only walked 2.08 batters per nine, and he’s helped himself with a ground ball rate north of 51 percent. As much as Harrison doesn’t seem like a top notch starter, he was also worth 4.2 WAR in 2011 and seems to have developed into a nice guy to have in the rotation.
The most likely candidates are still pretty much the guys we’re used to (Verlander, Grienke, Cain, Strasburg, and Sabathia are all in strong contention), but it’s still fun to take stock of things in June and realize that maybe a surprise winner is in the cards. Dickey could normalize, Lynn could come back to earth, McDonald could show us why he’s bounced around so much, and Sale could get tired as the season wears on. On the other hand, maybe one of them will write his name in baseball history. Oh, speculation, you’re a wonderful thing!