Two weeks ago, the Cy Young race in the American League looked like a two-horse race, with both Houston’s Justin Verlander and Tampa Bay’s Shane McClanahan hovering at or below the 2.00 ERA mark and racking up innings atop their teams’ respective rotations. McClanahan has the larger strikeout percentage and subsequently superior marks from fielding-independent metrics that some voters increasingly weigh. Verlander was averaging one extra out recorded per start prior to being lifted early his last time out, and his 16-3 win-loss record might hold some sway with traditionalist voters.
Or, all of that could be rendered moot.
Both Verlander and McClanahan are on the 15-day injured list, and Verlander, who had been improbably leading the Majors in ERA as a 39-year-old in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, sounds as though he’ll miss several weeks rather than just the 15-day minimum. McClanahan, a late scratch from his last start, is already throwing and seems likelier to make a quick return. However, the Rays could very well take a cautious approach and limit his innings after a two-week absence due to a shoulder impingement.
At the very least, the door is now open for further competition in Cy Young voting, ostensibly setting the stage for the closest AL vote we’ve seen since 2019, when Verlander and then-teammate Gerrit Cole finished in the top two positions on the ballot. Last year’s NL Cy Young voting sparked plenty of controversy and debate as well, and as things currently stand, we could get an encore of that scene in the AL this year.
If not Verlander or McClanahan, who are the top names to consider? Let’s dive in.
Dylan Cease, RHP, White Sox
Cease, following a near-no-hitter against the Twins that saw him go 8 2/3 before Luis Arraez cracked a ninth-inning single, may have leapfrogged both Verlander and McClanahan as the odds-on favorite in the American League. He’s sitting on MLB’s third-lowest ERA — sandwiched right between Verlander and McClanahan, no less — and that 2.13 mark is complemented by a 31.4% strikeout rate that ranks as the fourth-highest of any qualified starting pitcher in baseball.
At 5.5 wins above replacement (per Baseball Reference), Cease already leads American League pitchers — even over Verlander and McClanahan. That’d due largely to the fact that Cease is putting up these numbers in front of one of the game’s bottom-10 defenses.
It’s not all roses, as Cease has a 10.4% walk rate that sits dead last among qualified starters. He hasn’t been terribly efficient, either; where both Verlander and McClanahan have averaged comfortably more than six innings per start, Cease has averaged 5.77 innings per appearance this year.
Still, Chicagoans can no doubt see the parallels between Cease’s 2022 showing and the 2016 performance of another Chicago hurler — crosstown righty Jake Arrieta, when he rode a historic summer surge to Cy Young honors. Over his past 15 starts, Cease has tallied 93 innings of 1.45 ERA ball and held opponents to one or zero runs on a dozen occasions. Cease isn’t quite in Arrieta territory (0.86 ERA in his final 147 innings), but he’s not terribly far off, either. If he can sustain anything close to this pace, Cease will finish the season at or near the top of the AL in terms of innings pitched, ERA, total strikeouts and strikeout rate.
Alek Manoah, RHP, Blue Jays
Manoah looked borderline unhittable for the season’s first two months, carrying a 1.67 ERA in that time and allowing just 55 hits and a 0.59 HR/9 mark through June 13 (75 2/3 innings). He had a solid but closer-to-average run for much of the summer but has now yielded just three runs in his past 28 1/3 innings.
At 171 innings of 2.42 ERA ball on the year, the 24-year-old is on the periphery of the race at present. He ranks fourth in American League ERA but trails McClanahan, Cease and especially Verlander in that department. He lacks the gaudy strikeout ratios boasted by both Cease and McClanahan but limits hard contact better than any non-McClanahan pitcher in the AL, evidenced by a 31.3% hard-hit rate. (McClanahan leads qualified AL starters at 30.1%.)
However, Manoah’s 171 are second-most in the American League, and if he continues this hot streak, there’s a chance he could wind up among the league leaders in ERA, innings pitched and other key categories. In terms of wins and losses, everyone’s trailing Verlander’s 16 victories, but Manoah’s 14 are tied with Framber Valdez for second in the league. Speaking of which…
Framber Valdez, LHP, Astros
It’s easy to be overshadowed by the season Verlander is enjoying, but we should all probably be discussing Valdez’s outstanding year more than we are. The 28-year-old southpaw is just one-third of an inning behind Manoah at 170 2/3, and he also sits sixth in ERA (2.64) and ninth in bWAR (3.4).
Valdez has emerged as baseball’s preeminent ground-ball starting pitcher, and it’s not close; he leads all qualified pitchers in ground-ball rate at 66.7%, and Logan Webb’s 57.5% rate is second-best. Even dropping the minimum to 50 innings as a starter, he still leads Alex Cobb (61.9%) and Andre Pallante (61.4%) by a wide margin.
In an age where starters are yanked from the game earlier than ever before, Valdez is a throwback. He’s worked at least six innings in every one of his starts since April 25, completing seven or more innings on 11 occasions and twice going the distance with a complete game. Over his past five starts, Valdez has 35 2/3 innings of 1.77 ERA ball. It’ll be a challenge for him to drop his ERA into the low 2.00s, and he can’t match Cease or McClanahan in terms of strikeouts, but Valdez will likely be the American League innings leader and finish with a mid-2.00s ERA and MLB-leading ground-ball rate.
Shohei Ohtani, RHP, Angels
When Ohtani pitched to a 3.99 ERA through the first six weeks of the season, it looked as if we were in for an (almost) mortal season out of the two-way phenom. He averaged just over five innings per start, and while the strikeouts were still there in droves, he was also unusually homer-prone. A Cy Young pursuit did not appear to be on the horizon.
In 88 2/3 innings since that time? Ohtani has a 1.83 ERA with fewer homers allowed (six) than in his first 47 1/3 innings (seven). He at one point rattled off six consecutive starts with double-digit strikeout totals, and opponents have batted .199/.249/.301 against him during this stretch.
Ohtani’s 33% strikeout rate on the season leads qualified starting pitchers (though would trail Braves phenom Spencer Strider by a good margin if Strider had a few more innings), and while many fans and Ohtani detractors bristle at the notion, it’s hard not to consider that he does all this while also serving as a middle-of-the-order slugger who ranks among the league’s top power threats.
Ultimately, with just 136 innings pitched this season, it’s hard to imagine that Ohtani will actually garner many (if any) first-place Cy Young votes. Yes, he’s sporting a 2.58 ERA, leading the league with a 33% strikeout rate and sitting second among AL starters with 4.7 bWAR. But Ohtani is ultimately going to be up against multiple starters with better bottom-line run prevention numbers and as many as 40 to 50 additional innings pitched. Corbin Burnes won an NL Cy Young last year with just 167 frames, but the top names in the American League this year have had better seasons.
Kevin Gausman, RHP, Blue Jays
Gausman will be the analytic darling in this year’s field. I debated whether to mention him at all for this breakdown, as he’d need a pretty dominant finish to push his way in among the leaders in more traditional categories, but the right-hander is second in the American League at FanGraphs with 5.2 wins above replacement. fWAR is based on fielding-independent pitching rather than actual runs allowed, and Gausman has been quite good this season — 3.12 ERA in 147 innings — despite being one of the game’s least-fortunate pitchers in terms of balls in play. He’s lugging around an MLB-worst .368 BABIP, and the next-highest mark (Jordan Lyles at .323) isn’t even close.
There’s perhaps some temptation to think that Gausman is then yielding far too much hard contact, but that’s not necessarily the case. He’s not managing contact as well as any of the others profiled here, but his 89 mph average exit velocity and 39% hard-hit rate are barely north of the respective 88.6 mph and 38.3% league averages in those regards.
Gausman has the game’s third-best walk rate (3.8%), the tenth-best strikeout rate (27.9%) and is sixth-best in the differential between those two (24.1 K-BB%). He’s averaging just 5 2/3 innings per start, however, and isn’t particularly helping his cause down the stretch (3.99 ERA over his past five outings… again, with a .370 BABIP).
A lot can (and will) change between now and season’s end, but since this is all just for debate anyhow, I’ll include a poll to close this out: