With just 24 days left in the MLB regular season, starting pitchers are down to their final four or five chances to make a case for the Cy Young Award.
As such, it's time to get down to brass tacks.
Back in the doldrums of summer, it was perfectly acceptable to start sentences in these award projections with "If Patrick Corbin" or "Maybe Hisashi Iwakuma," but September is no time for those pie in the sky suggestions.
There are four legitimate candidates for the AL Cy Young Award. And barring a nuclear meltdown at Dodger Stadium, the NL Cy Young Award has already been won, though I'll make a case for 1.75 other pitchers as possibilities to steal a first-place vote or two from Clayton Kershaw.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs.com and are accurate through the start of play on Thursday, September 5.
Felix Hernandez (12-9, 194.1 IP, 3.01 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 9.26 K/9, 4.88 K/BB, 5.8 WAR)
If Monday's departure due to lower back cramps results in an early shutdown of Seattle's $175 million man, I think we can safely rule Hernandez out of the AL Cy Young race.
However, if he does keep pitching and pitches well, he's easily on his way to the best statistical season in a career that already features one Cy Young Award and two other finishes in the top four.
Hernandez's K/9 is higher than in any previous season and his BB/9, FIP and xFIP are the lowest of his career. If you understand ratios at all, it shouldn't come as a surprise that his K/BB is significantly better than his previous career best of 3.98.
Being a better version of the 2010 Hernandez that won the AL Cy Young doesn't necessarily give him a win in 2013, though.
Although that was the most hotly contested pitching award in recent history, the competition is even fiercer this season.
As good as David Price and C.C. Sabathia were in 2010, I would argue that Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and Yu Darvish have each been that much better.
Chris Sale (10-12, 187.2 IP, 2.97 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 9.54 K/9, 4.98 K/BB, 4.7 WAR)
I can appreciate that FIP and innings pitched are the primary factors in the Fangraphs calculation of WAR, but there's no chance that Chris Sale is a full win above replacement behind both Max Scherzer and Felix Hernandez.
Entering play on Labor Day, all three pitchers were between 2.90 and 2.99 ERA, 180.1 and 187.2 innings pitched, 9.30 and 9.87 K/9 and 4.68 and 4.94 K/BB. Yet somehow, Scherzer and Hernandez had a WAR of 5.4 each while Sale sat back at 4.4.
In 19 of his 26 starts, Sale has pitched at least seven innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs to score. As a point of comparison, only 15 of Scherzer's 28 starts and 15 of Hernandez's 29 outings meet those criteria.
Thanks to poor run support, he's 9-6 with four no-decisions in those starts. But if we can look past his losing record, it's pretty clear that he at least belongs in the discussions about the best pitchers in the American League.
I can't imagine at this point that he would win the AL Cy Young, but he's no worse than a dark horse for the award with a few starts remaining in the season.
It's high time people actually start giving him that much respect.
Max Scherzer (19-2, 190.1 IP, 2.88 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 9.88 K/9, 4.54 K/BB, 5.7 WAR)
Wins and losses are what they are, but there's something to be said for being the best pitcher in what has been the best pitching staff in baseball.
Scherzer leads the American League in both true runs allowed and WHIP by a fairly significant margin. Both his fastball and his slider have been more valuable than those of any other qualified AL pitcher.
Writing off his 19 wins to nothing other than a ton of run support is both lazy and inaccurate analysis. He has truly been one of the best pitchers in the American League this season.
Yu Darvish (12-7, 179.2 IP, 2.91 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 12.02 K/9, 3.64 K/BB, 4.3 WAR)
For the life of me, I can't figure out why many people want to pretend that the chase for the AL Cy Young is a two-horse race between Felix Hernandez and Max Scherzer. I still believe Darvish is the runaway favorite.
It was back in June that I first dove into Darvish's strikeout rate and what it meant for his Cy Young candidacy, and there's a strong case to be made that he has only gotten better since then.
He has struck out at least 11 batters in five of his last eight starts and is currently on pace to finish the season with 278 strikeouts. In fact, he has already reached the magical mark of 240.
What's so magical about that number, you ask?
In the past 25 years, there have been 12 American League pitchers with an ERA of 2.90 or better and 240 or more strikeouts—Roger Clemens (1991, 1997 and 1998), Pedro Martinez (1998-2000), Randy Johnson (1995 and 1997), Johan Santana (2004 and 2006), Justin Verlander (2011) and Zack Greinke (2009).
Ten of those 12 pitchers won the AL Cy Young. The two who didn't win finished in second place to Roger Clemens because he had more strikeouts and a lower ERA than them in that season.
Scherzer and Hernandez have some great numbers, but Darvish has them both destroyed in the strikeout department. Unless he completely implodes in September, I would be slightly flabbergasted if Darvish doesn't win the Cy Young.
Craig Kimbrel (3-2, 44 saves, 0.94 ERA, 1.88 FIP, 12.95 K/9, 4.88 K/BB, 2.0 WAR)
Clayton Kershaw could give up 15 earned runs in his next outing and still win the NL Cy Young, but I would argue that Kimbrel has been good enough to finish in second place.
In the past 44 years, there have only been three pitchers to save more than 20 games and finish the season with a sub-1.00 ERA—Dennis Eckerlsey in 1990, Jonathan Papelbon in 2006 and Fernando Rodney in 2012.
Now, none of them came anywhere close to winning the Cy Young. Papelbon didn't get a single vote, Eckersley got two to rank in fifth in voting in 1990, while Rodney's 38 points were also only good enough for a fifth-place finish last season. However, I would argue that Kimbrel is in a much different situation than any of them.
Members of Eckersley's and Rodney's starting rotations went on to win the Cy Young. If not for Bob Welch and David Price, the closers probably would have gotten more votes.
Papelbon saved just 35 games while pitching for a team that missed the playoffs by nine games.
Not only is Kimbrel easily the best closer in the National League this season, and having one of the best seasons in the history of closers, but he's also the best pitcher on what is arguably the best team in the majors.
If the Braves win 100 games without a single starter finishing the season with a sub-3.00 ERA and without any batter hitting 30 home runs, isn't Kimbrel going to at least finish in third place in the Cy Young voting almost by default?
If he finishes the season with 50 saves and a sub-1.00 ERA, I could legitimately see him winning the award.
Clayton Kershaw (14-8, 209.0 IP, 1.89 ERA, 2.36 FIP, 8.66 K/9, 4.28 K/BB, 5.9 WAR)
With all due respect to anyone who was expecting to read about Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez, Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee, Jhoulys Chacin, Mat Latos or Patrick Corbin in this article, the race for the NL Cy Young Award ended when Harvey partially tore his UCL.
Wainwright was a prime contender two months ago, but he has allowed at least three earned runs to score in eight of his last 12 starts, raising his ERA from 2.22 to 3.14 in the process. His 2.55 FIP, 2.76 xFIP and 6.45 K/BB are still quite pristine, but he has taken a giant step back from where he was at in the first half of the season.
Fernandez is going to be shut down before the end of the year and Francisco Liriano has pitched just 136 innings. Great as they have been, no starting pitcher has won a Cy Young Award while pitching fewer than 200 innings since the strike-shortened season of 1994. As much as anything, the Cy Young is about endurance and consistency throughout the course of a full season.
Latos, Lee, Chacin and Corbin have each pitched admirably and feature nearly identical marks in ERA, FIP and WAR, but those numbers are also nowhere near those put up by Kershaw.
If—and this is a pretty big if—Kershaw completely melts down in the month of September and the voters insist on overlooking Craig Kimbrel to give the award to a different starting pitcher in the NL, Harvey has the best shot at getting those votes.
Despite only lasting for three-quarters of the season, his 6.2 WAR will likely end up being the third-best among NL starters. His 2.00 FIP will certainly be the best, and his 2.27 ERA would be the best if Kershaw's ERA balloons another four-tenths of a point.
Let's be serious, though. This was a three-horse race one month ago, and Harvey and Wainwright have drifted so far into Kershaw's rear-view mirror that he could moonwalk his way to the award.
In August, Kershaw averaged 1.01 strikeouts per inning while posting a 1.01 ERA for the month. It was the fourth time in this season's five months that he had an ERA of less than 2.00.
There are better K/9 and K/BB ratios out there for sure, but there hasn't been a total package anywhere near as great as Kershaw has been.