AL Cy Young Race Remains Wide Open With One Month Left to Play

With injuries to the two AL Cy Young favorites, the race to win the award has opened up to plenty of candidate down the stretch of the season.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JULY 19: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros pitches during an intrasquad game as they continue with Summer Workouts at Minute Maid Park on July 19, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) Photo: Getty Images

As the calendar flips from August to September and races around Major League Baseball heat up, finalists for year-end awards have a chance to make their final case to be honored as the season wraps up.

Just one season ago, the AL Cy Young race had five or six legitimate contenders to win the award heading into the final month of the season before Robbie Ray put together the strongest September of all the candidates. 

This year, the junior circuit once again has a lot of pitchers in the mix for the award. From Justin Verlander and his remarkable campaign to Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman carrying the Blue Jays pitching staff, there are so many different directions the award can go. 

With the season rapidly approaching its conclusion, here we’ll dive into the candidates to win the award, their cases so far and what the rest of their season may look like. 

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The Favorites

Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

2022 Stats: 16-3, 1.84 ERA, 2.72 FIP, 4.8 fWAR, 152 IP

Starting with the current favorite, Justin Verlander has bounced back from a 2020 Tommy John surgery and has maybe been even better than he was in his 2019 Cy Young winning campaign. 

While Verlander’s K% has dropped to the lowest it’s been (26.5%) since the 2017 season. It still ranks as the sixth-highest percentage among qualified starters in the AL. Combining that with the second lowest BB% of his career (4.5%), the two-time Cy Young winner looks poised to add another trophy to his resume. 

The big question for Verlander will be how his recent injury affects his candidacy. He was placed on the 15-day IL on August 30 with a calf injury. While it sounds like his stint on the IL won’t go longer than the 15 days, Verlander will still miss a couple of turns in the rotation.

With the Astros comfortably atop the NL West standings and holding steady as the American League No. 1 seed, it is fair to wonder how much work Verlander will get when he comes off the IL.

Will Houston give him a couple short starts to get his arm back at game speed and keep him on a short leash to ensure he’s ready to go for the playoffs? Or will they let him go as long as he can?

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He will likely get to start two or three games when he returns, so it seems like the best course of action is prioritizing his overall health for the division series. 

What can he do to solidify his Cy Young case? While he already has made a great case, if Verlander can return from injury and throw around 15 innings over the course of three starts and maintain the outstanding season he’s already put up, there’s a good chance he takes home the award. 

Even if he doesn’t end up winning, doing what he has thus far at age 39 is nothing short of incredible. Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs used Jon Roegele’s Tommy John surgery list, to find that Verlander is only the second player to return from Tommy John and throw over 100 innings after receiving the surgery at 36 or older.

While Verlander may be the favorite right now, a strong September from one of the many other pitchers in contention could knock the future Hall of Famer from the top of the list. 

Shane McClanahan, Tampa Bay Rays

2022 Stats: 11-5, 2.20 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 3.8 fWAR, 147.1 IP

From one pitcher currently on the IL to another.

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McClanahan was scratched from his most recent scheduled start and placed on the 15-day IL due to a left shoulder impingement. 

Before his injury though, McClanahan may have been the biggest threat to take the Cy Young from Verlander. 

He has the highest K% in the AL (32.5%), the seventh-lowest BB% (5.4%), the second-lowest FIP (2.65) and the lowest SIERA (2.50) among qualified starters. It’s clear that both traditional and advanced stats love what McClanahan has done so far this season, making his case for the Cy Young one of the more intriguing of all the contenders. 

With his combination of high total strikeouts, low walk totals and overall value provided to the Rays, McClanahan has ranked as the second-best pitcher in the AL by win probability added (2.80), only trailing Verlander. 

With Verlander hitting the IL, an opportunity for McClanahan to surpass the Astros ace presented itself, but now being out for two weeks himself, is there any way for the 25-year-old lefty to win the Cy Young?

Steamer only has McClanahan projected to throw 15 more innings in three starts, which may be a realistic total for a young arm whose innings Tampa Bay will likely want to keep at a minimum heading into the playoffs. 

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There was some reporting early on in the season that the Rays wanted to control McClanahan’s workload and that may come into play upon his return. So while he and Verlander both come back from the IL it seems more likely that McClanahan’s leash will be much shorter given the nature of their injuries, ages and where both teams sit in the standings. 

Despite having posted such impressive numbers so far, it may prove difficult for McClanahan to ultimately win the Cy Young. 

Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox

2022 Stats: 12-6, 2.27 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 3.5 fWAR, 147.0 IP

Cease has been one of the most fun pitchers in the American League this season. Between his AL-best 11.63 K/9 and finding a way to work around a league-worst BB/9 (3.80) and 10.4% walk rate, he’s putting together one of the most unique seasons in MLB.

While he doesn’t fare as well in some stats such as FIP and SIERA as other top Cy Young candidates, Cease’s stuff makes up for the difference. He has the third-lowest HardHit% allowed in the AL (32.2%) to go along with the best Whiff% (47.2%). 

If you look at Baseball Reference’s WAR leaderboards for pitchers, Cease is actually the leader in the AL. This is thanks to bWAR being calculated using runs allowed compared to FanGraphs which uses FIP — which we already know doesn’t love Cease. 

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What this does tell us about Cease is that his run prevention may be the best in the American League and with Verlander heading to the IL, the gap between the two may be closer than you may think. 

Cease will have every chance down the stretch to cement his case as the deserving Cy Young winner. With Verlander and McClanahan on the IL, he has the chance to have the most impressive overall body of work.

Per Tankathon’s remaining schedule strength page, the White Sox have the eighth easiest schedule remaining. With series against the A’s, Tigers and Rockies all coming up this month. 

If Cease can take advantage of the easy schedule, help Chicago stay within striking distance of a playoff spot and keep up his impressive season, he can climb into the 180-inning range with incredible ratios which may be enough for him to secure the Cy Young. 

Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

2022 Stats: 11-7, 2.67 ERA, 2.59 FIP, 4.0 fWAR, 128.0 IP

Ohtani is more than a longshot to come away with the Cy Young in 2022. When you take the qualified filter off any leaderboard one name pops up at the top of most categories that wasn’t there before and that’s the 2021 AL MVP. 

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What Ohtani has done on the mound this season has been incredible. He has the best K/9 (12.38) in the AL, a sub-1.00 HR/9, the best K-BB% (27.6%) and has put up a winning record with a team that is nearly 20 games under .500.

If there’s one player that could really storm up and catch Verlander throughout September, Ohtani may be the guy to watch. 

He’s projected to make six more starts and end the year with over 160 innings pitched, which would theoretically put him in the same range as Verlander and McClanahan and would be more innings than Corbin Burnes pitched in his 2021 Cy Young winning campaign. 

As the volume question likely evaporates from Ohtani’s case over the next couple weeks, the 28-year-old superstar winning the award for the league’s top pitcher may look more and more like a reality. 

The Angels schedule doesn’t appear to be too difficult through the end of the season as Ohtani may get starts against the likes of the A’s and Tigers, which would be nice to counterbalance some of the games they have coming up against the Astros, Mariners, Twins and Guardians. 

If Ohtani can catch up to Verlander in innings or ultimately not end up too far behind, there is an argument to be made that he has been more dominant in 2022 than the Astros star. 

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With better strikeout numbers and better peripheral stats (FIP, SIERA and xFIP all favor Ohtani) it won’t take much for the two-way star to steal the award from Verlander. 

The Longshots

Shane Bieber, Cleveland Guardians

2022 Stats: 8-8, 3.06 ERA, 2.87 FIP, 3.9 fWAR, 159.0 IP

If there’s one player who’s snuck into the race, it’s been Bieber. His August propelled him up the ranks of starting pitchers and put him into a position where he may be able to win his second Cy Young in three years. 

In August, Bieber made five starts and posted a 1.62 ERA, and 1.77 FIP while striking out over nine hitters per nine and walking just over one per nine. He also held opposing batters to a .210 average and gave up just one home run in 33.1 innings of work. 

Currently holding onto the top spot in the AL Central, Bieber and the Guardians still have lots of work to do down the stretch to hold off the Twins and the White Sox. Steamer has Bieber projected to throw 40 more innings in six starts for the rest of the season.

If the AL Central does come down to the final couple weeks of the season, we could see Bieber make some very important starts against the likes of the Rays, the Royals and the Rangers. 

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This is important to note because it might be the only way Bieber can overtake some of the favorites and come away with the Cy Young. 

If he has a repeat of August and wills the Guardians to the playoffs while getting himself to around the 200-inning mark, Bieber could skyrocket up the list of top American League pitchers this season. He has had an up-and-down season — for the standard he set back in 2020 — but if he can finish the season strong and have some dominant outings, he may be able to throw his hat in the ring as the Cy Young winner. 

Kevin Gausman, Toronto Blue Jays

2022 Stats: 10-9, 3.14 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 5.1 fWAR, 140.1 IP

The MLB leader in fWAR, Gausman and teammate Alek Manoah have given the Blue Jays some stability in a rotation that has been anything but reliable. 

Gausman ranks at the top of the AL in K/9, BB/9 and HR/9, explaining why his fWAR ranks at the top of the majors. However, he has certainly been one of the top pitchers in all of MLB and has picked up right where he left off after finishing sixth in NL Cy Young voting a season ago. 

The foundation for his case to win the Cy Young was built through his great start to the season. He didn’t walk a single batter until his sixth start and didn’t give up a home run until his eighth outing of the year. 

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Since then Gausman has continued his excellence — outside of a tough July where he posted a 5.09 ERA through 17.2 innings. 

In terms of having a shot at winning the Cy Young, Gausman is in a very similar situation to Bieber. His performance throughout September could have him rise into the top tier of contenders.

Steamer has him projected for another 38 innings over seven starts, which would take him to around the 170-inning mark, which is comparable to where Verlander is projected to end up. So Gausman will have to pitch at an extremely high level — perhaps a level even higher than he did through his first five starts to have a chance at taking the award. 

But if he can pitch similarly to his final five starts and help the Blue Jays down the stretch into a playoff spot, perhaps he can gain some narrative points with the voters for putting his team on his back and willing them into the Wild Card round. 

Alek Manoah, Toronto Blue Jays

2022 Stats: 12-7, 2.60 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 3.1 fWAR, 155.2 IP

Staying north of the border, Manoah has maybe been even better than his co-ace so far this season. 

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With a lower ERA and more innings pitched, Manoah has given the Blue Jays a chance to win every time he’s taken the mound this season. He hasn’t gone fewer than five innings in any start in 2022 and hasn’t given up more than four runs in an outing.

While he may not have the gaudy K% or BB% numbers as some of the other top pitchers in the AL, Manoah’s consistency may be one of the more underrated factors in all of baseball right now. 

Just in his second full season, the 6’6″ righty has begun to slow down as the season wears on. His ERA increased every month between March and July and then dropped just .11 points between July and August. 

At just 24 years old, if Manoah wasn’t so necessary to the Blue Jays every five days, there may have been some more talk earlier about an innings limit coming into play to save his arm for the playoffs. 

Having already blown past his career-high in innings, it seems like Toronto’s plan is just to let him keep on the path they are currently on, as they push to contend for a World Series. 

Steamer has him projected for another 38 innings through six starts which would put him just over 190 for the year. The Blue Jays would probably prefer to have a playoff spot locked up early and try and get Manoah a break heading into the postseason, but there likely won’t be any skipped starts or time off until that point potentially arises. 

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With that said, Manoah’s past couple of months suggest that he may have a tough time returning to his early season levels of excellence. Meaning that any hopes that he storms to a Cy Young victory down the stretch may be out of reach. 

Framber Valdez, Houston Astros

2022 Stats: 14-4, 2.63 ERA, 3.23 FIP, 3.3 fWAR, 164.0 IP

Valdez and his league-best 67% ground ball rate are coming off an outstanding month of August. He went 5-0 and threw 35.1 innings with a 2.04 ERA, putting his name into the Cy Young conversation.

Valdez and Verlander have arguably been the best 1-2 atop any AL rotation this year and with the latter on the IL, Valdez is going to lead the rotation for the next week or so. 

Like Manoah, Valdez’s consistency has been impressive throughout the season — especially of late. He has made 22 consecutive quality starts, which have spanned 150 innings with a 2.46 ERA and a 13-3 record. 

Again without the high strikeout numbers and actually higher walk numbers than you may expect (3.07 BB/9), Valdez may have a tough time moving to the top of the Cy Young conversation. 

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He is projected to finish the year with over 200 innings pitched, which combined with the success he’s had on the mound thus far, should lead to him getting votes for the award maybe even in the top three if he finishes the season strong. 

Overall Valdez has been a key part of the Astros run to the top of the American League and as a pitcher who finds success differently than many of the top pitchers in the game today, he deserves more recognition for what he has done in 2022. 

Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees

2022 Stats: 10-7, 3.28 ERA, 3.07 FIP, 3.2 fWAR, 164.2 IP

Despite the criticism that Cole faces, he has proven to be one of the best pitchers in the American League once again.

In 2021, many felt that Cole was the deserving Cy Young winner over Ray and in 2022 he’s putting up very similar numbers. Sure the race last season may have seen a worse pool of candidates overall, but Cole has still been very good for the Yankees this year. 

He ranks second in the AL in K-BB% (25.2%), third in K% (31.3%) and first in innings pitched. 

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While he has been killed by the home run this season (1.26 HR/9) — it’s tough not to be when pitching at Yankee Stadium — Cole looks to be rounding into his Cy Young form heading into September. 

Despite the Yankees struggles of late, Cole is doing his part to keep the team afloat as they try to return to their early season dominance.

Once again, Cole’s odds at winning the Cy Young may be too far gone with some of the more complete seasons that some of the other candidates have put up. But it’s not too late for Cole to push for his fifth-straight top-five finish. 

The Yankees sit in the middle of the pack when it comes to strength of schedule remaining, so Cole will likely have some tough starts down the stretch, but if he can throw well against the likes of the Rays, the Blue Jays and the Twins it may prove valuable to both him and the team come October. 

Last year he had an awful September/October which likely lost him the Cy Young and that poor end to the season continued right into the Wild Card game, so maybe Cole flips the script this season and finishes strong leading into a strong postseason run. 

All stats courtesy FanGraphs and from before play on September 2nd