Choosing award winners has a tendency to dunk winner or obvious choice come the end of the year. And this baseball season proves yet again, that there are many worthy players deserving of MLB hardware; the Cy Young being no exception.
The American League Cy Young Award race was, at one point, a battle between Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, and, to a lesser extent, James Shields. Although Shields never really stood a chance against the most dominant pitcher in the AL, Verlander, the previous Cy Young winner, Sabathia, and the starting pitcher of the All-Star Game, Weaver, his remarkable season should not go unnoticed, and won't, if for nothing else besides his exceptional major league-leading 11 complete games. Shields threw the first and last pitch in 11 of the 33 games he started this season, which is sensational, especially for someone who had a 5.18 ERA in 2010 (2.82 this year).
However, from (almost) the start of the season, until the end, there hasn't been a better pitcher than Verlander. The Detroit Tigers went 25-9 in games that he started this year and he was a large reason why they ran away with the Central division.
Pending Weaver's last start of the season, Verlander is in line to lead the league in the pitching Triple Crown categories -- wins, ERA and strikeouts. Verlander finished the season with a 24-5 record, a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts. Weaver heads into his final start of the season with an ERA of 2.41, but regardless of what he does, it matters little, except for perhaps personal fulfillment. Weaver could throw a perfect game and it would not be enough to overtake Verlander.
Further, Verlander also leads the league in WHIP, at a mark of 0.92, innings pitched (251), opponents batting average (.192), opponents on-base percentage (.242) and opponents slugging (.313). Simply put, there hasn't been a more difficult pitcher to hit off, or reach base against, than Verlander, which is a true measure of a pitchers dominance.
And if you are part of the group that has soured on the win statistic, Verlander shares the co-lead for quality starts with Weaver at 28. That means in 28 of his 34 starts this season, he went at least six innings and allowed three earned runs of fewer. In fact, he has gone at least six innings in every start this year and allowed two runs or less in 19 of them. After his worst start of the season on May 24 against the Tampa Bay Rays, Verlander strung together nine consecutive starts of allowing two runs or less, pitching at least seven innings and recorded double-digit strikeout totals in three of them. And three starts before his worst showing of the season against the Rays, he threw a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The last time Verlander lost a game was July 15, and since then, the Tigers went 12-1 in games that he started. He has become a near automatic win every time he takes the ball.
Verlander would be the unanimous pick to throw a one-game playoff for any team in the AL. That right there is the definition of a Cy Young winner.
Condolences to Weaver, and especially Sabathia, who anchored a New York Yankees team to first place in the AL East despite gaping holes in the rest of the rotation. Dan Haren of the Los Angeles Angels and CJ Wilson of the Texas Rangers should also find themselves on the backend of the ballot.
The National League race should end a little closer than what the AL race likely will. That's because a real strong case could be made for Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies teammates Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, as well as Arizona Diamondbacks ace Ian Kennedy. Kennedy isn't likely to challenge these three on the ballots, but he has had a remarkable season nonetheless.
Kennedy shares the co-lead in wins with Kershaw at 21, and ranks in the top-10 in ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, quality starts, strikeout-to-walk-ratio, opponents batting average, opponents on-base percentage and opponents slugging. The problem is that wins is the only category that he leads in, and when you're looking to topple Kershaw, Halladay and Lee in a bid for the Cy Young, you have to do more than that. Kennedy deserves serious praise for anchoring a surprising Diamondbacks team to first place in the West, but that praise won't come in the form of a Cy Young.
On to the big three.
Across the board, their numbers are nearly identical. These three have been as dominant as Verlander, despite not receiving the same spotlight. One in particular, Kershaw, has been just a slight bit better than Halladay and Lee, and for that, he should take home the hardware.
Like Verlander, Kershaw is the league-leader in the pitching Triple Crown categories (21 wins, 2.28 ERA, 248 strikeouts), is the co-leader in WHIP at 0.98, second in innings pitched (233.1), tied for second in quality starts (25) with Halladay and Lee, third in strikeout-to-walk-ratio -- behind who else, Halladay and Lee -- and second in strikeouts-per-nine-innings at 9.57.
It doesn't end there. Kershaw held opponents to the lowest batting average (.207), on-base percentage (.256) and slugging (.298) in the NL, and is the only qualified starter in the majors to hold opponents to a slugging percentage below .300.
Only Halladay (eight) and Lee (six) have thrown more complete games than the five Kershaw has. Lee's six shutouts easily outpace the rest of the field, but that should matter little when it comes time to vote.
Kershaw has become a strikeout machine, but has also substantially lowered the amount of walks he's issued over the past few seasons. The southpaw has seen an uptick in innings in each of the past three years and has accompanied that with a lower walk-rate, while averaging over nine strikeouts-per-nine-innings in each of those seasons. Kershaw's devastating 12-6 curveball is one of the best pitches in the game, and at just 23 years of age, he may only get better from here.
The Dodgers ace allowed more than two earned runs in a start only once since July 7, sporting a goose egg in seven of them. In the second half he went 12-1, with a 1.31 ERA, while holding opposing hitters to a .196 batting average. Kershaw not only was the best pitcher in the NL this season, but perhaps even better than Verlander. Either way, he is the NL Cy Young winner.
Halladay and Lee were nearly as good, but should fall just short. Their teammate Cole Hamels had a phenomenal season as well, only overshadowed by the two arms that go before him in the rotation. San Francisco Giants teammates Tim Lincecum (don't be fooled by his record) and Matt Cain also turned-in impressive seasons, as did the Milwaukee Brewers big offseason acquisition, Zack Greinke.
Combined with their age and dominance, this might be the first of many Cy Young Awards for both Verlander and Kershaw.