What do all of this year’s top contenders for the World Series crown have in common? An ace up their sleeve. 2017 has marked a year of unprecedented offensive output in the MLB. Rumors of “juiced” baseballs have surfaced. Herculean sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge pushed the realms of reality in the this year’s Home Run Derby. Superstars such as Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Joey Votto have continued to improve on what are already borderline Cooperstown-worthy careers.
However, in the midst of all of this offensive output, we have also seen four pitchers put together historically impressive seasons. Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Corey Kluber have combined to put together four of the most impressive pitching performances in recent history, and consequently one of the tightest Cy Young races as well. Each pitcher is so uniquely dominant and fiercely competitive that their performance has improved despite an uptick in offensive performance around the league.
Scherzer, a 6’3” right-hander from the Washington Nationals, is the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and the 2013 American League winner. Scherzer’s lethal five-pitch arsenal has allowed him to post career lows in earned run average (ERA) and walks + hits per inning (WHIP), while also posting a career high in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). Despite battling a nagging neck injury that has sidelined him for the past couple of weeks, Scherzer’s position on the NL Cy Young throne has only been solidified. He currently leads the National League in strikeouts, K/9, WHIP, complete games, batting average against (BAA), and pitching wins above replacement (WAR). Scherzer’s continued dominance and durability have solidified his place among the game’s elite and — if not for his opposition in the NL Cy Young race — as the best pitcher of the past five to seven years.
Clayton Kershaw, the left-handed ace for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has long been regarded as the best pitcher in Major League Baseball. He is a three-time Cy Young Award winner, former MVP, achieved the Pitching Triple Crown in 2011 (leading the league in Wins, ERA, and strikeouts), and is the only pitcher to ever lead the league in ERA four years in a row (2011-2014.) In fact, Kershaw leads all active pitchers in seemingly every important career pitching statistic. He leads all active pitchers in career ERA, WHIP, Win-Loss percentage, Win Probability Added (WPA), and is second in career pitching WAR behind CC Sabathia, who has seven more years of experience in his career. Despite missing around a month due to a back injury, Kershaw has still managed to post an eye-popping 16-2 record with a miniscule 1.95 ERA, both the best marks in Major League Baseball.
Kershaw and Scherzer’s battle for the status of top pitcher in the National League is tightly contested and may come down to which of the two pitchers can remain healthy for the longest period of time. That being said, when both pitchers are on the mound, their dominance cannot be matched by any of their counterparts in the National League.
In the American League, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber have put together a battle that has not only matched Scherzer and Kershaw’s, but perhaps surpassed it. Sale, the fiery side-winding left-hander recently acquired by the Boston Red Sox, and Kluber, the right-handed workhorse that Indians’ fans have affectionately nicknamed “Klu-Bot” due to his stoic demeanor, are both in the midst of remarkable campaigns. While their pitching approaches and range of emotions on the mound may differ, the two pitchers’ impacts on their teams and the impressive nature of their performances are very similar.
When the Red Sox traded for Sale in late 2016, they were dead-set on acquiring a surefire ace for the top of their rotation, and Sale has more than delivered. This season, Sale is currently leading the entire Major Leagues in strikeouts, innings pitched, K/9, and FIP (fielding independent pitching); and currently holds the American League lead in wins. Despite spending his entire career on a middling Chicago White Sox that failed to reach the postseason in any season of Sale’s 7-year stint, Sale appears to be poised to anchor the Red Sox’ rotation in October to fight for Boston’s second title in five years.
Kluber, on the other hand, is a familiar face to baseball fans who follow the postseason. His dominance in the 2016 playoffs helped carry the Cleveland Indians to their first World Series since 1997. If not for being on the wrong side of history in last year’s World Series, he would have likely been named the World Series MVP. Kluber has carried his October dominance over to the 2017 regular season and leads the American League in ERA and WHIP. He also resides in the top three of the American League in wins, complete games, and strikeouts despite missing time in early May due to a back injury. Although Kluber’s missed time may hurt him in the race for the Cy Young, it has only magnified his impact on Cleveland’s rotation as the Indians showed dramatic improvement following his return.
When everything is boiled down and the smoke clears at the end of September, I believe Scherzer and Sale will emerge as the favorites to take the Cy Young Award in their respective leagues, but we should not discredit the impressive seasons Kluber and Kershaw have pieced together. All four pitchers have put together seasons that would be more than qualified to take home the award in other seasons and have made the 2017 regular season truly one for the ages.
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