The NL Cy Young Race Is More Crowded Than We Realized

The Constants

When it comes to the National League Cy Young race in 2017, the talk has consisted of mostly Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. Both pitchers, despite missing some starts this season, have been quite great:

Scherzer – 14-5 2.32 ERA 2.96 FIP 12.06 K/9 2.32 BB/9 1.06 HR/9 5.2 fWAR in 178.1 IP

Kershaw – 16-3 2.15 ERA 2.91 FIP 10.85 K/9 1.61 BB/9 1.13 HR/9 4.4 fWAR in 151 IP

All season these two have been my top two choices for the NL Cy Young. However taking a look today, what I believed to be a two-man race might actually be a five-man race.

The Late Season Entrants

Stephen Strasburg

Although Stephen Strasburg was having a good season before it, he is currently in the middle of a 34 inning scoreless streak, which is a Washington Nationals franchise record. Strasburg is yet another pitcher to miss time in the middle of the season, having pitched only 7 starts with 44 innings in the second half. However, when sorting NL pitchers with minimum 40 IP in the second half, Strasburg’s minuscule 0.61 ERA leads the league by nearly 1.30 points over Washington Nationals teammate Gio Gonzalez.

As mentioned before, Strasburg’s first half numbers were good but didn’t necessarily jump out at you. His second half numbers, on the other hand, are quite extraordinary:

First Half – 9-3 3.43 ERA 3.13 FIP 10.22 K/9 2.64 BB/9 0.88 HR/9 2.9 fWAR in 112.2 IP

Second Half – 4-1 0.61 ERA 1.90 FIP 11.05 K/9 1.64 BB/9 0.41 HR/9 1.9 fWAR in 44 IP

Overall – 13-4 2.64 ERA 2.79 FIP 10.46 K/9 2.36 BB/9 0.75 HR/9 4.8 fWAR in 156.2 IP

Since being the first overall pick of the 2009 MLB draft, Strasburg has always had huge expectations. Those expectations went sky high once he put up a 2.91 ERA and 2.08 FIP in 68 innings in 2010 before getting injured and requiring Tommy John surgery. Since then Strasburg has been great, but never top tier. If he keeps this up, there is a very good chance he will get top 3 NL Cy Young votes up there with multiple time Cy Young winning pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.

Zack Greinke

Zack Greinke is no stranger to Cy Young discussions. In 2009 he won the AL Cy Young award, and then six years later finished second to Jake Arrieta for the 2015 NL Cy Young award. However, his follow up to the 2009 and 2015 seasons did not go well, with a 4.17 ERA and 3.34 FIP in 2010 and a 4.37 ERA and 4.12 FIP last season in 2016.

In 2017, Greinke is back at it leading the surging Arizona Diamondbacks as the team’s ace. Despite the Dbacks playing their best baseball in the second half of the season, Greinke has been very consistent from the first half to the second, doing exactly what Arizona signed him to his massive contract to do:

First Half – 11-4 2.86 ERA 3.17 FIP 10.13 K/9 1.78 K/9 1.16 HR/9 3.2 fWAR in 116.1 IP

Second Half – 5-2 3.21 ERA 3.02 FIP 8.87 K/9 2.19 FIP 0.77 HR/9 2.0 fWAR in 70 IP

Overall – 16-6 2.99 ERA 3.11 FIP 9.66 K/9 1.93 BB/9 1.01 HR/9 5.1 fWAR in 186.1 IP

Greinke is doing everything a team’s ace is supposed to do. He is second in the NL in wins with 16, he’s got around a 3.00 ERA and 3.00 FIP, and he’s fourth in innings pitched. He isn’t leading the league in strikeouts or ERA, but he is an all-around excellent pitcher and will have people talking about him come award season.

Jimmy Nelson

UPDATE: It appears Jimmy Nelson is out for the year with a shoulder injury. It’s too bad, he was having such a great season. The below was written without the knowledge of the injury.

In two and a half season in the MLB prior to 2017, Nelson’s talent hadn’t really shown through. He’d never had better than a 4.00 ERA or 3.75 FIP in a full season. Things were the worst for him in 2016 with a 4.62 ERA and 5.12 FIP. However, things changed for him in 2017. Nelson has upped his K/9 from the low to mid 7s all the way up into the 10s, while lowering his K/9 from around 3.5 career down a full point to 2.46 at the moment. These have been huge steps to get him from a pitcher struggling to hold onto his rotation spot to ace of the up and coming Milwaukee Brewers.

Back in the middle of July, I wrote an article about my top 5 choices for each league’s First Half Cy Young winners. I ended the NL portion by choosing Jimmy Nelson (along with Stephen Strasburg) for the 5th spot, something that surprised me very much at the time. Since then, he’s done nothing less than impress me further:

First Half – 8-4 3.30 ERA 3.18 FIP 9.74 K/9 2.23 BB/9 0.91 HR/9 2.8 fWAR in 109 IP

Second Half – 4-2 3.80 ERA 2.82 FIP 10.99 K/9 2.85 BB/9 0.68 HR/9 2.1 fWAR in 66.1 IP

Overall – 12-6 3.49 ERA 3.04 FIP 10.21 K/9 2.46 BB/9 0.82 HR/9 4.9 fWAR in 175.1 IP

One may look at his 3.80 ERA and not be all that impressed, but with a huge increase in strikeouts and lowering his HR rate, he went down to a 2.82 FIP, along with the elite pitchers in the MLB. It will take some work over the next three weeks to really get into the Cy Young race, but Nelson is definitely on the cusp.

Top of Their Draft Boards

It is very interesting to look at this group of pitchers and see where they came from. Strasburg, Greinke, Kershaw, and Scherzer were all taken in the first round of their respective MLB drafts. In fact, they were all taken in the top 11 picks, with Strasburg going 1st, Greinke 6th, Kershaw 7th, and Scherzer 11th. Nelson is the only pitcher among them not to be drafted in the first round. He was taken all the way down in the…2nd round. That’s right, Jimmy Nelson is the lowest among them drafted, and it was just a round or so later.

This is a group of supremely talented pitchers who scouts knew would be great from an early age. To see so many high-end draft picks as the favorites for one league’s Cy Young award is exciting to see when so many first and second round players bust year after year. This is really a testament to the scouting that came from not only the teams that drafted these players, but that scouted them in trades or free agency, as in the cases with Scherzer and Greinke.

Five Worthy NL Cy Young Contenders

Getting back to 2017, when looking at these five pitchers on Fangraphs, you see five pitchers separated by less than full win in fWAR between 5.2 and 4.4. You see five pitchers between a 2.79 and 3.11 FIP. Jimmy Nelson may skew the ERA a bit, but outside of his 3.49 ERA, everyone else is below a 3.00 ERA. The next three weeks are going to be what separates these guys when it comes to getting NL Cy Young votes

The next three weeks are going to be what separates these guys when it comes to getting NL Cy Young votes. I still believe we will see Scherzer taking his 3rd career Cy Young award or Kershaw will sneak his 4th career Cy Young award, but some continued second half excellent from Strasburg, Greinke, or Nelson and we will have one hell of an NL Cy Young discussion on our hands after this season.