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MLB Awards: AL Cy Young Race Turning Into Battle for the Ages

As we near the end of July, the various MLB awards races have seen some contenders separate themselves from the rest of the field. In the AL Cy Young race, three pitchers have carved up their opponents, setting up for an epic battle over the last two months of the season.

The AL Cy Young Front-Runner: Shane McClanahan

After a seventh-place finish in the Rookie of the Year vote at the MLB Awards in 2021, Shane McClanahan has been nothing short of dominant in 2022. Even after a rough start against Cleveland on Sunday, the 25-year-old southpaw sports a 2.07 ERA/2.64 FIP (176 ERA+) and a major-league best 0.828 WHIP and ranks second in the AL with 158 strikeouts in 122 innings (11.7 K/9). Furthermore, McClanahan has allowed just 20 walks, giving him a major-league best 6.87 K/BB ratio. After averaging under five innings per start last year, McClanahan has averaged almost seven innings per start this season.

Statcast supports McClanahan"s strong performance, as his 35.4-percent strikeout rate, 2.32 xERA, 5.0-percent walk rate, .188 xBA, and 29.5-percent hard-hit rate all rank in the top 10 percent in MLB. After allowing hard contact at one of the worst rates in baseball last year, McClanahan"s opponents have an average exit velocity of just 87.1 MPH this year. He has relied on a stellar four-pitch arsenal, with a fastball that sits in the high 90s, a change-up, and two wipeout breaking pitches. All four pitches have generated a negative run value, including an insane negative-11 mark for his curveball and negative-9 on his change-up. His change-up and slider have both registered whiff rates of over 48 percent while his an xBA of just .155.

The one knock on McClanahan is his home run rate, as he"s allowed 14 long-balls this season. Overall though, his performance puts him ahead of the pack for the AL Cy Young award, and if it keeps up then he is expected to be on stage for the MLB awards.

A Close Second for the AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander

Verlander underwent Tommy John Surgery late in the 2020 season, but he"s returned as strong as ever in 2022. In his age-39 season, Verlander has 14-3 with an MLB-leading 1.81 ERA and a 0.871 WHIP, and his 214 ERA+ is the best in the majors. Verlander has averaged just under seven innings per start and has struck out 122 batters while issuing just 22 walks in 124 innings (5.55 K/BB ratio). While his advanced stats show that he may be due for some regression, Verlander still sports a 2.95 xERA and his opponents have just a .236 wOBA, which ranks in the top 10 percent of MLB.

Verlander"s average fastball velocity is back up to 95 MPH this year, the highest it"s been since 2018. Furthermore, his heater has registered an outstanding negative-14 run value, which is among the best in the majors. While he"s struggled with the home-run ball in the past, Verlander has allowed just 12 homers this year, giving him a 2.5-percent home run rate (down from 4.6-percent in 2019). The nine-time All-Star won the AL Cy Young in his last full season, and he has a strong case to do so again at the MLB Awards this year.

Laying in the Weeds of AL Cy Young Contention: Dylan Cease

Dylan Cease was somehow left off the All-Star Game roster despite being the hottest pitcher on the planet over the last two months. Since June 1, Cease has made 10 starts, going 6-2 while allowing just three earned runs in 57 innings (0.47 ERA) and giving just 39 hits with 78 strikeouts (12.3 K/9). In that stretch, Cease has lowered his ERA from 3.69 to 2.03, and his 12.5 K/9 is the highest mark in MLB. He trails only McClanahan and Verlander in the AL in ERA and is just behind McClanahan for second in strikeouts. Cease"s advanced statistics (2.66 FIP, 2.99 xFIP, 2.73 xERA) actually indicate that he"s been better than Verlander in some ways. Cease"s opponents have just a .189 xBA, .293 xSLG, and .260 xwOBA, all of which rank in the top 10 percent in MLB.

A big reason Cease has been so dominant this year has been his slider, which he"s throwing more than any other pitch. Opponents are hitting just .125 against the pitch with a .140 xBA, .179 xwOBA, and .203 xSLG. Furthermore, it has an impressive whiff rate of 47.3 percent and a ridiculous negative-27 run value, which is the best mark for a slider by a large margin (Shohei Ohtani is second at negative-16). In fact, Cease"s slider has the best run value of any pitch thrown in MLB this year (Corbin Burnes‘ cutter ranks second with negative-20).

The biggest concern with Cease is his control, as he leads MLB in walks with 49. He"s also averaging fewer than six innings per start and while his slider has been outstanding, the rest of his pitch arsenal has produced middling results. Still, with the roll he"s on right now, Cease has put himself in a position where he still has a chance to bring home some hardware at the MLB Awards, including the AL Cy Young.

Prediction: McClanahan Wins the AL Cy Young Award, Narrowly

All three of these pitchers will be interesting to watch over the final two months, and it will likely come down to whose arm holds up the longest when MLB Awards time comes around. McClanahan hasn"t pitched more than 123 1/3 innings in a professional season, while Verlander is pitching his first full season since 2019 and Cease often struggles to pitch deep into games. McClanahan"s numbers are the most impressive with surface-level and advanced stats, and even if he tails off a little bit, he still has what it takes to bring home the AL Cy Young award this year.

main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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