Now that we have a full baseball season again, after 2020’s season-in-a-can, we can get to choosing our award winners on normal calibrations. Thankfully, Shohei Ohtani made the AL MVP choice academic by having the most unique and unmatched individual season in baseball history. Pretty easy to hand him an MVP when he’s doing things that have literally never been done before. The NL MVP is more muddled, thanks to Fernando Tatís’ shoulder, which can’t seem to stop popping out for smokes every six weeks or so, and he still might win it anyway. Bryce Harper and Trea Turner are worthy names and candidates as well.
The NL Cy Young isn’t any more clear, but is a choice between pitchers all doing their own march to the sea. Corbin Burnes walks a guy per month. Max Scherzer has been charging hard on the outside since his trade from the Nationals to the Dodgers. Zack Wheeler has been sneaky good for the Phillies. Walker Buehler has always had this kind of pedigree and it was only a matter of time before he usurped Clayton Kershaw as the Dodgers’ perennial Cy candidate. It’s exciting.
The AL Cy Young… Robbie Ray? This fuckin’ guy?
If you go by Baseball-Reference’s measure of WAR for pitchers, which some prefer for pitchers over Fangraphs, Robbie Ray is your clubhouse leader with a couple of weeks to go in the season with 6.3 bWAR. Fangraphs has him at a much more modest 3.7 fWAR, ranking third behind Gerrit Cole and Nathan Eovaldi.
In reality, Cole should probably win it. He’s struck out the most hitters, he has the second lowest batting-average against, and has the lowest FIP by some distance. The problem is Cole was one of the faces of Spider Tack Summer, with his wondrous dance around straight-up admitting using Spider Tack, which basically served as an admission that he used Spider Tack. This doesn’t mean Cole hasn’t been great since he had to go “straight” (if pitchers have indeed done so), but that kind of smell sticks with someone (KAROOOGA!). Especially combined with the Yankees barfing up a lung the past few weeks. Should that slump continue throughout the rest of the season and they miss out on the playoffs altogether in the Bronx, it will cost Cole votes, unfairly.
Eovaldi’s stats are actually better than they look, as he’s been let down by his defense a bit, considering his 3.57 ERA is almost a full run higher than his 2.86 FIP. And he’s thrown the most innings of any starter, which has helped (barely) keep the Red Sox afloat in the Wild Card chase. Well, that and everyone else’s inability to string two wins together, other than the Blue Jays. Eovaldi has kept the ball in the park better than just about anyone, which should be a big consideration these days. But people spend so much time looking at strikeouts these days that his merely-great 25 percent K-rate isn’t going to move people like Cole’s and Ray’s 30+ percent figures.
Ray has been the surprise, though he has flashed this kind of form before in Arizona, especially in 2017 when he carried a 2.89 ERA. But back then he still walked over 10 percent of the hitters he faced.
The difference this year is dropping that rate to 6.5 percent. Ray’s done that by basically reducing his repertoire to just a fastball and a slider, which wouldn’t seem on the surface to be enough to dominate for a full season like it has. But when the fastball averages 95 MPH, that helps a ton. Ray has also shortened the break on his slider, helping it look like a strike longer, which has caused the chase rate on it to jump about 8 percent, according to StatCast.
But still… this is Robbie Ray. Is this the best we can do? The last AL pitcher to win the Cy while putting up less than 7.0 bWAR was Rick Porcello in 2016, a happening that every baseball fan agreed we would simply wipe from the memory banks (how did Verlander not win that one? Other than voters fatigued by selecting him?). Dallas Keuchel won in 2015 with a sub-7.0 bWAR season in another “Well someone’s gotta take it” year.
Ray’s season certainly wouldn’t be the worst to ever claim the award. And he’s been among the best in the AL without injury or ethics concerns. Still, it leaves you a little cold, doesn’t it?
Now he’ll storm through the AL playoffs thanks to my powers, so you’re welcome, Toronto. Maybe you should install him as goalie when the baseball season is over.