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AL Cy Young Award Rankings: King Felix Is Back, Justin Verlander Pulling Away

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 13, 2016

AL Cy Young Award Rankings: King Felix Is Back, Justin Verlander Pulling Away

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    Everyone in and around the Seattle area can relax. Felix Hernandez will have at least one good start to show for his efforts in September when all is said and done.

    King Felix was awful in his first three starts in September, giving up 16 runs and 30 hits in just 16 innings. The very man who had pitched five complete-game shutouts in a span of 12 starts suddenly looked like a clone of, say, Freddy Garcia or Jason Marquis.

    The aliens who kidnapped King Felix's essence returned it to him last Wednesday night in Seattle. He held the Baltimore Orioles, one of the hottest-hitting teams in the majors, to a single earned run in eight innings of work. For the Mariners, it was a sight for sore eyes.

    The question now is whether King Felix's return to form is too little, too late where the American League Cy Young race is concerned. Hernandez was leading the charge in my weekly rankings for a while, but he tumbled down to No. 3 last week while Justin Verlander reclaimed the top spot.

    Scroll ahead for a look at how the Cy Young race is shaping up with a little over a week to go in the regular season.

    Note: Stats come from unless otherwise noted.

Honorable Mentions

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    Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

    Over the last few weeks, Yu Darvish has been hotter than the surface of the sun. In his last six starts, Darvish has compiled a 4-1 record, a 1.84 ERA and a .136 opponents' batting average. He's struck out 52 in an even 44 innings pitched. For the season, he's 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA and a WAR that FanGraphs has calculated at 4.8. That's good for fourth in the American League.

    Matt Harrison, Texas Rangers

    Matt Harrison is rolling right along. He's allowed just two earned runs in 16.2 innings in his last two starts, one of which was a tough-luck loss. He's now 17-10 on the season with a 3.17 ERA, and he ranks seventh in the AL with 201.1 innings pitched.

    Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays

    I'll reiterate that I don't like the idea of closers winning the Cy Young award, but Fernando Rodney is the one guy in the AL who's at least worthy of consideration. He's got 44 saves in 46 opportunities, as well as a 0.64 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP. He's holding hitters to a .161 batting average.

    Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers

    Max Scherzer was in my top five the last two weeks, but he's out this week after his season took a turn for the worse in his start against Oakland last Tuesday. His shoulder injury apparently isn't very serious, but he didn't look like himself against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday.

    In five innings, he gave up six hits and three earned runs with just four strikeouts. He was in the top five in the first place largely because of the hot stretch he was on, and he's no longer hot.

5. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels

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    Last Week: Unranked (honorable mention)

    Those of you who have been following these rankings from week to week will know that I'm not a huge fan of the season Jered Weaver is having. I've typically been of the mind that it's not impressive as it seems upon first glance.

    He's never been far from the top five, however. And with Scherzer out of the rankings this week, Weaver was the obvious choice to take his place in No. 5 spot.

    There are no complaints whatsoever to be made about Weaver's record. He leads the American League in both wins with 19 and winning percentage at .826. He also leads the AL in WHIP at 1.00, which is largely due to the fact that he's holding hitters to an AL-best .213 batting average.

    Where Weaver's Cy Young candidacy starts to get a little shaky is when you look at his ERA. His 2.74 ERA may rank third in the AL, but FanGraphs has his fielding independent pitching (FIP) calculated at 3.72. Because FIP essentially measures what a pitcher's ERA should look like, the signs suggest that Weaver has been luckier than your average AL hurler this season.

    And this makes sense if you consider the circumstances. Weaver's 6.77 K/9 is his lowest since 2007, and it goes to show how much more he's relying on his defense this season. His defense happens to be well above-average, and Weaver has the added luxury of pitching half his games at a park that definitely favors pitchers.

    The point is that you can only chalk up so much of Weaver's success this season to his own personal skill. He's gotten a lot of help from various circumstances that have little to do with his right arm.

    Still, none of this is to suggest that Weaver is having a bad season. He's having one of the best years of his career, and his Cy Young candidacy isn't getting any weaker in the stretch run. So far in September, Weaver has a 2.10 ERA.

4. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

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    Last Week: No. 4

    Chris Sale's last two starts encapsulate what the second half of his season has been all about.

    Combined in 13.2 innings against the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians, Sale gave up 18 hits and four walks. He had to throw over 110 pitches in each outing, and he was unable to walk away from either start with a win to show for his troubles.

    The bright side? Sale only allowed three earned runs in each start. He had to battle, but he kept the White Sox in the game and gave them a chance to walk away with a win, even if it wasn't going to go on his own personal record.

    So it goes for Sale since the All-Star break. He went 10-2 in the first half and is just 7-5 so far in the second half. His opponents' batting average has increased from .198 to .267. His ERA has jumped from 2.19 to 3.66.

    That's obviously a big increase, but a 3.66 ERA is still solid, and it goes to show how well Sale has adjusted to both the league's adjustments to him and his own limitations. Sale isn't dominating hitters like he was in the first half of the season, but he's still giving the White Sox quality innings.

    All of this may sound like me making excuses for Sale to be included on this list, but that's not the case. Taken as a whole, his 2012 season is definitely worthy of Cy Young consideration.

    Sale ranks seventh in the AL with 185 strikeouts, and he ranks fifth in ERA at 2.86 and fourth in WHIP at 1.10. FanGraphs has his FIP at 3.25, which ranks behind only David Price, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez among American League hurlers.

    The one knock I would make against Sale is that he hasn't logged a ton of innings this season. But hey, he's pitched over 100 more innings than he pitched in 2011, and he's logged eight more innings than Jered Weaver.

    And besides, the fact that Sale ranks third among AL hurlers in WAR despite his relatively low innings count is a fitting testament to how good he's been this season.

3. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Last Week: No. 2

    David Price didn't have his best stuff his last time out against the Boston Red Sox. He lasted 7.1 innings, but he let the Red Sox knock him around for three earned runs on eight hits and a walk.

    There'd be no shame in an outing like that if these were the Red Sox of, say, two months ago. But seeing as how the Red Sox a little more than a Triple-A team at this point, there's at least some shame in an outing like the one Price had against Boston his last time out.

    But only some. Price wasn't great, but that should not and must not obscure the fact that he's in the middle of an excellent season.

    Price is one win short of matching his career high of 19 that he set back in 2010. He's already on pace to set a new career best with a 2.58 ERA, which is presently good for the top mark in the American League. He also ranks fifth in WHIP at 1.12, sixth in strikeouts and ninth in innings pitched.

    Price has been particularly good in the second half of the season, going 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA and a .211 opponents' batting average. Dating back to the middle of June, he's logged at least seven innings in all but two of his last 16 starts.

    The advanced metrics like Price too. FanGraphs has his FIP at 3.19, which is good for third in the AL. He ranks sixth in WAR at 4.4.

    So why is Price down a spot this week from where he was last week?

    It's not so much because he did anything wrong. His start against Boston wasn't perfect, but it's not like it was a facepalm-inducing disaster.

    Price's slight drop in the rankings this week has more to do with how the next guy on this list bounced back in his most recent start.

2. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

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    Last Week: No. 3

    There was a time when Felix Hernandez looked untouchable. In 14 starts between the middle of June and the end of August, King Felix went 9-0 with a 1.40 ERA and a .183 opponents' batting average. In the process, he pitched five complete-game shutouts, including the 23rd perfect game in MLB history.

    Then came September, and King Felix's armor finally started to crack.

    In his first three September starts, Hernandez posted an ERA of an even 9.00 and allowed opposing hitters to accumulate a 1.024 OPS against him. The hits he gave up tended to be crushed.

    So in a span of a couple weeks, King Felix went from being a favorite to win his second Cy Young award in three seasons to being just another guy in the race. In essence, the King became a mere member of the court.

    There never was any reason to panic about Hernandez, of course, but he proceeded to put a lot of minds at easy anyway by dominating the Orioles for eight innings last Wednesday. The effort allowed him to lower his ERA from 2.92 to 2.85, and it put him back in the running for the AL Cy Young.

    Hernandez's September numbers still don't look very sharp, but the numbers he's accumulated throughout the entire season are what really matter. Fortunately for him, they're quite good.

    King Felix's 2.85 ERA is good for fourth in the AL, and his 1.10 WHIP ties him with Chris Sale for third in the AL. Hernandez ranks fourth in strikeouts and second in innings pitched behind Justin Verlander. Nobody in baseball can match Hernandez's five shutouts, as no other pitcher has more than three.

    Per FanGraphs, Hernandez has an AL-best FIP of 2.91, a sign that there's nothing at all fluky about the success he's having this season.

    As such, the three poor starts that Hernandez had at the start of this month are the real fluke where his 2012 season is concerned. By the numbers, he's been one of the best pitchers in the league.

    He just hasn't been quite as good as the next guy on this list.

1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

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    Last Week: No. 1

    Justin Verlander went through his own Felix Hernandez phase a couple of weeks ago, giving up a total of 15 earned runs in 19.2 innings pitched between three starts against Kansas City, Chicago and the Los Angeles Angels. This prompted some to start questioning whether Verlander was finally sinking into a funk.

    Nope. Verlander is immune to long slumps, and he's made it abundantly clear in his last three starts that he's just fine.

    In 21 innings pitched over his last three starts, Verlander has allowed just two earned runs and struck out 19 while allowing just four walks. He allowed two earned runs in eight innings on Monday against the Royals, meaning he's now had 14 starts this season in which he's pitched at least eight innings and given up two or fewer earned runs.

    Think about that for a second. Verlander has only made 32 starts this season, so there's basically a 44 percent chance of him going eight innings and allowing two earned runs or fewer. Not even Felix Hernandez can say that.

    Considering this, it's really no wonder that Verlander ranks second in the AL in ERA at 2.72 and WHIP at 1.06. It makes just as much sense that he's leading the AL in both strikeouts and innings pitched.

    Per FanGraphs, Verlander ranks second in the AL behind Hernandez in FIP at 3.00, and his 6.5 WAR leads not only AL hurlers, but all MLB hurlers.

    For the record, Verlander's WAR alone doesn't make him the man to beat in the AL Cy Young race, sort of how Mike Trout's WAR doesn't automatically make him the man to beat in the MVP race.

    But just like Trout, Verlander's high WAR says a lot about how good he's been this season.

Last Week's Rankings

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    5. Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers

    Out this week, but he could finish the regular season in the top five next week if he dominates in his next outing.


    4. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

    Steady as she goes.


    3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners



    2. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

    Down one, but holding strong.


    1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

    He hasn't been as good this season as he was in 2011, but that shouldn't be held against him.


    Feel free to check out last week's rankings.


    If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

    Follow zachrymer on Twitter

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