With two straight top-six finishes in American League Cy Young voting, it's hard to say Chris Sale has been overlooked and underappreciated, but it still feels like that's the case, doesn't it? Sadly, that trend seems to be continuing this season too, as Sale ranks as one of the very best pitchers in the Junior Circuit but doesn't seem to get quite the same level of recognition as several other arms.
A third consecutive top-10 placing in the league's Cy Young tallying seems a sure bet for Sale as 2014 enters the final stretch. But does the 25-year-old Chicago White Sox southpaw actually deserve to win the hardware this time after coming close in years past?
Sale undoubtedly is having yet another phenomenal campaign, what with his 10-2 record, 2.14 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. But that doesn't begin to show how incredible he's been.
As you can see, Sale basically is in the top five—heck, the top two—in the AL in just about every meaningful pitching statistic, conventional or otherwise:
Source: FanGraphs, Baseball Reference
There are a lot of ridiculous numbers in there, huh? And yet, two things should stand out immediately.
The first is that, despite the dominance, Sale somehow doesn't lead the league in even one of those categories. That somehow doesn't seem possible, until you remember that Felix Hernandez is in the AL.
The Seattle Mariners right-hander—and 2010 AL Cy Young winner—is No. 1 in pretty much all the above metrics, including ERA, WHIP, FIP, xFIP, fWAR and bWAR, making him the front-runner for his second Cy.
Source: FanGraphs, Baseball Reference
What should be evident from that table, though, is that there really isn't much separation between the digits Hernandez has put up and those Sale has. The disparities in ERA, WHIP, batting average against and others are minute. In fact, Sale actually comes out ahead of Hernandez in strikeouts and walks per nine.
But getting back to the second thing that should have stood out about the table displaying Sale's numbers, there is one massive, overwhelming, too-big-to-ignore difference: innings pitched, which explains the highlighting above.
Because he missed at least five starts from mid-April to late May with a left-elbow injury, Sale has thrown but 122.0 innings on the season so far. By comparison, Hernandez is up to 173.1 to date. For further context: There are only 44 starting pitchers in the AL who qualify for the ERA title based on their innings-pitched total, and Sale ranks 36th.
Sale is on pace for about 170 innings all told, whereas Hernandez is in line for 248.1. That would be way too wide a gap to make up, even if Hernandez fell off a bit and Sale maintained his performance.
Beyond King Felix, every other major contender for this honor—from David Price, Corey Kluber, Jon Lester, Yu Darvish and Max Scherzer to even Garrett Richards and Sonny Gray—should have little to no trouble surpassing 200 innings. All of them have thrown at least 140 frames already as is.
Now, Clayton Kershaw is fighting a similar battle in the National League, where his 128.1 innings are markedly lower than the totals for other Cy contenders like Johnny Cueto (171.2) and Adam Wainwright (162.0).
Except, Kerhaw's other numbers—like his 1.82 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 11.0 K/9 and MLB-best 194 ERA+—are simply so unbelievable that they should help make up the difference, as long as he reaches the 180-plus frames he's on pace for.
Even that, though, is going to be a point of contention in the Senior Circuit since the three-lowest innings-pitched totals by a Cy Young winner since 2003—the year reliever Eric Gagne won it—are David Price's 211.0 in 2012, followed by Roger Clemens' 214.1 in 2004 and Max Scherzer's 214.1 last year.
That's why as fantastic as Sale has been this season—when healthy—debating whether he's deserving of the 2014 AL Cy Young Award is sort of silly. Not because Sale can't win it given how great he's pitched, but because this is Hernandez's award to lose.
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