Flawed leaders in the muddled National League Cy Young race

Aug 16, 2023; San Diego, California, USA; San Diego Padres starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) throws a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles during the first inning at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 16, 2023; San Diego, California, USA; San Diego Padres starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) throws a pitch against the Baltimore Orioles during the first inning at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports /

The list of National League Cy Young candidates looks a lot like the Island of Misfit Toys. There’s a lot of them, and every one’s beauty is offset by at least one glaring flaw.

Since somebody must win the award, that means the honor will probably go to whoever performs best in September. As that final month approaches, it’s difficult to peg a single favorite.

Here’s a warts-and-all rundown on the leading National League Cy Young candidates.

Zac Gallen, Arizona Diamondbacks. Like a lot of pitchers on this list, Gallen’s prospects would be greatly enhanced if he can lead his team into October baseball. He has a strong overall profile with elements likely to appeal to both old-school and new age voters.

At +3.9, Gallen ranks second in pitcher WAR. He’s third in wins with a 14-6 record, and fourth in workload, having completed 173 innings through Wednesday.

His 3.32 ERA is good but nothing special for a Cy Young candidate, a statement that could also be made about his 129 ERA+. Both looked better until Gallen coughed up his worst performance of the season Monday against the Dodgers.

Where Gallen falls short is in what is probably the most compelling stat to the new age crowd, Win Probability Added. His sits at +2.2, which ranks only 11th-best in the league. It’s a fair point that WPA tends to favor late-inning specialists. However, even among logical Cy Young contenders, Gallen only stands third in WPA.

Gallen, then, is a pitcher who doesn’t lead in any category likely to capture the attention of Cy Young voters, but who represents well in most of them.

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers. Kershaw is the best-known of known quantities, having won the Cy Young three times between 2011 and 2014. His 2023 stats reflect his age, 35, especially with respect to his workload, a paltry 112 innings. That, and the impact it has on all his compilation-related numbers, is the downside.

You see the peripheral impact all around Kershaw’s data. He is only 21st in ERA+, 21st also in Win Probability Added, and 38th in innings. He has just six wins.

Despite all that, Kershaw still manages to stand in a tie for seventh (with Atlanta’s Spencer Strider) for WAR, which is a pretty good endorsement for the continued quality of Kershaw’s work.

In the end, the fact that he’s only made 20 starts to date and only pitched 112 innings is likely to undermine his 12-3 record and 2.48 ERA, which would lead the league if he had sufficient workload.

But hey, it’s Kershaw, so never count him out.

Blake Snell, San Diego Padres. Snell has two outstanding qualifications, and in combination they probably make him the current betting favorite. At 2.60, he leads the league in ERA and, at +4.2, he also leads in WAR.

When you can present black type to both the old school and new age subdivisions of the voting bloc, you have an advantage.

Snell is also second in ERA+, trailing only Justin Steele, and he’s tied for sixth in Win Probability Added.

The principal argument against Snell is workload. He’s covered a respectable 149 innings for the Padres, but that ranks only 14th on the current NL leaderboard. Considering only serious Cy Young contenders, Gallen, Logan Webb, Zack Wheeler and Spencer Strider are all ahead of him in the heavy lifting category.

And don’t be fooled; workload counts. Six times in the most recent 10 seasons, the NL Cy Young Award winner ranked third or higher in innings.

Justin Steele, Chicago Cubs. Steele is getting a lot of late-season attention as the pitching ace of a rising Cubs team. He is tied for the league lead in wins with 15, and his 168 ERA+ is the league’s best. So there’s something in Steele’s line that appeals to both new age and old school voters.

He’s second to Snell in ERA with a decent chance of catching him by season’s end. If Steele can parley the ERA crown with the leadership in wins and ERA+, that might be an unbeatable combination. Throw in a total WAR that ranks fourth among pitchers just for good measure.

But as with Snell and Kershaw, there’s that workload question. Steele has pitched a season high 144 innings to date, but that’s still only 16th-best in the league. Tuesday night, in a critical game against the division-leading Brewers, Steele delivered six shutout innings … then was pulled in a 1-0 game.

He has only pitched into the seventh inning four times all season, and has not recorded a single out beyond the seventh.

Spencer Strider, Atlanta Braves. Strider’s 15 victories ties Steele for the league lead, and his 236 strikeouts is several dozen ahead of the current runner-up in that category, Snell.

But beyond the flashiness that goes with pitching for the game’s best team and striking out a lot of opponents, Strider’s numbers are nothing great. He’s seventh in ERA+, seventh in ERA, and 10th in innings pitched.

He’s an ordinary seventh in WAR and (at +1.9) just 17th in Win Probability Added. In fairness, to Strider, it’s likely that playing for the dominant Braves depresses his WPA because there are only a finite number of slices in the WPA pie and a host of Braves players dividing it.

Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants. Webb is in the uneasy position of probably needing to carry the Giants to a post-season berth in order to be strongly considered. But there is a solid case to be made for him.

It begins with workload. Teams hanging to the fringes of contention need a workhorse they can lean on, and Webb is second behind only Sandy Alcantara in innings pitched, with 174. He’s tied with Gallen for second in WAR behind only Snell.

The drawbacks are twofold. First, his 9-10 record (while reflecting his team’s work as much as his own) is not eye-catching. In four of those 10 defeats, Webb gave up three or fewer earned runs.

Webb also comes up mediocre in Win Probability Added. His total to date is +1.9, worse than all but two of the other apparent candidates.

Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies. It would be a mistake to discount the leader of the Phillies staff as a Cy Young contender. He’s been there before, but Wheeler’s problem is that he really hasn’t been exceptional in any statistical aspect this season.

His best credential is a fourth-place ranking in WAR; he’s at 3.9, trailing Snell, Gallen and Webb. But he only ranks eighth in innings pitched, 12th in ERA, and 24th in Win Probability Added. His 120 ERA+ is nice, but hardly compelling against Steele (168) or Snell (157).

In short, you have to look past a lot of statistically better-qualified candidates if you want to honor Wheeler.

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