Where Does Chris Sale Stand Among Cy Young Contenders?

As the season enters its final month, award discussions will amp up. While getting up-in-arms over the results of certain results is often silly and pointless, there is some actual meaning behind them. Hall of Fame voters regularly (rightfully or wrongfully) cite the number of MVP trophies, Cy Young awards, or Top 5-10 finishes when dissecting a guy's career. So while throwing a fit (hello, Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera) isn't always the best idea, these results have some merit.

Of course, one member of the White Sox already has a major award locked up (if you want to consider Rookie of the Year a major award), as Masahiro Tanaka's injury eliminated all possible competition for Jose Abreu. But another member of the White Sox will also garner serious consideration for a major award, and Chris Sale will more likely than not find himself just shy of claiming the American League's Cy Young award for the second straight year.

That award's winner has seemed a foregone conclusion for a while now. Felix Hernandez has been the AL's version of Clayton Kershaw for most of the season, and it's been difficult to see anyone putting up a real fight against a guy who leads the league in FanGraphs' WAR, xFIP, is second to Max Scherzer in strikeouts, AND has a respectable win-loss record for once (ya know, for the voters that still care about that kind of thing).

If I were a betting man (I am) the smart money remains with Felix, but Hernandez is coming off of his worst three-start stretch of the season, having given up 10 earned runs over his last 17.2 innings pitched. (not terrible, but also not Felix-esque). There's a month left to go, and two other contenders who could make things interesting if his slump continues and they continue to dominate.

Chris Sale

Sale vs. Felix would be an absolutely amazing Cy Young race down the stretch if it weren't for one thing — Felix has pitched 49 more innings than Sale as of the end of play on Sunday.

That month Sale missed at the beginning of the season will ultimately be his downfall. It's entirely possible that Felix would have run away with the award regardless, but while Sale's K/9 is second to only Yu Darvish in the American League, Felix holds a significant edge in WAR (5.5 to 4.7) and xFIP (2.52 to 2.79), which is a far more telling stat than Sale's lead in ERA (2.11 to 2.23).

And, like it or not, those innings pitched matters. It seems silly in the age of advanced metrics that give us a better understanding of a pitcher's true value, but those 49 innings are significant, both in Felix's durability and in understanding that we don't know what Sale's stat line would look like if he had thrown as many innings as Felix. (For example, would the K/9 rate, xFIP, etc., still be as good?).

Corey Kluber

It's hard to imagine another pitcher, let alone an unknown like Kluber, would be able to enter the hemisphere of the likes of Felix and Sale, but here we are at the beginning of September and it's impossible to count out the Indians' newfound ace.

The counting stats measure up. Kluber actually leads Felix by eight in strikeouts and has thrown just six fewer innings. And via FanGraphs, Kluber also passed him in WAR at 5.8 vs. 5.5. (FWIW, Baseball Reference has Felix at 5.9 and Kluber at 5.8).

Felix, however, holds a significant edge in that trusty xFIP stat (2.52 vs. 2.73), and Kluber actually ranks all the way down at No. 7 in Win Probability Added, if that's your cup of tea. Felix leads the world at 3.43 while Kluber is all the way down at 2.54 (Sale is third at 3.03).

Kluber and Sale have certainly made this a race for Felix, and he'll have to continue his dominance throughout September if he wants to hold off these other contenders. Right now, the edge remains with him.

The more interesting question will likely end up being who finishes second. I don't think many would argue that Sale is a better, more accomplished pitcher than Kluber. But the Cy Young award is about a single season, and it's entirely possible that voters will see Kluber as a more valuable pitcher in 2014 than Sale, given his edge in stats such as innings pitched and strikeouts.

Whether Sale finishes second or third is mostly immaterial. The injury likely cost him a chance at a Cy Young, and it will be interesting to see how the trio of contenders finishes the season. Either way, a 1-2-3 of Felix-Sale-Kluber in some order appears as likely as ever.

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