Earlier in the week FunGraphs covered the AL Cy Young race, determining that the award is Chris Sale’s to lose so long as he doesn’t get hit by lightning or struck by an MBTA bus. The NL Cy Young race is not nearly as lopsided, with two of baseball’s most dominant pitchers fighting neck and neck for the pole position alongside some rising stars. While pitching in the NL can seem like an easier task due to the lack of a DH, the top 10 ERA leaders for both leagues feature similar weighted ERAs in the range of 2.72 to 2.83.
Like with the AL leaderboard, the NL leaderboard features quite a few names that simply don’t belong. Gio Gonzalez amassed an impressive 13 quality starts and 2.77 ERA through 17 games, yet his xFIP is a mediocre 4.30, largely due to an obscene 3.9 BB/9 rate. As his batted ball and sequencing luck regresses, Gonzalez will experience some tough starts ahead. Chase Anderson, who barely looked like an MLB starter at times in 2016, is 5th in NL ERA at 2.89. Like Gonzalez, Anderson’s 4.32 xFIP indicates that he won’t be on the list for long. Groundball artist Mike Leake, contrary to Gonzalez and Anderson, is actually pitching well this season, however not well enough to maintain a sub-3.00 ERA.
Robbie Ray’s high strikeout rates are sexy, however his wildness is not, nor is his proclivity for giving up hard contact. Ivan Nova, arguably the MLB’s most improved pitcher from this point last season, is doing great things in Pittsburgh, however his low strikeout rates and lack of name recognition hurt his chances. Alex Wood has been a revelation for the Dodgers and leads the NL with a 1.83 ERA, however his meager 73 innings and low quality start percentage will restrict Cy Young votes.
05. Stephen Strasburg
Kind of hard to believe that Strasburg, probably the most hyped pitching prospect in the last two decades, hasn’t won a Cy Young award yet. Part of the issue is health, with the injury-prone righty reaching the 200-inning plateau only once in his eight year MLB career. But when on the mound Strasburg’s stuff is undeniable, pitching to career 3.21 ERA and 2.87 xFIP. His current 2017 ERA of 3.51 places him outside the NL’s top 10, but his 3.29 xFIP is sixth, right behind teammate Max Scherzer. His 10.7 K/9 ranks fourth, while his 3.09 FIP is third. If Strasburg continues pitching to these excellent peripherals his ERA should drop in the coming months. The key for him will be maintaining health from here on out and reaching the ever elusive 200 innings.
04. Carlos Martinez
2017 marks the season where Carlos Martinez took the step from exciting young arm to the upper echelon of MLB starters. While Martinez posted ERAs of 3.01 and 3.04 in 2015 and 2016 respectively, he did so with good but not great strikeout rates. This season he’s upped his K/9 rate to 10.0, well above his 8.0 mark in 2016. Walks are still somewhat of an issue at 3.4/9, however his ability to suppress hard contact and keep the ball on the ground more than makes up for it. His 3.15 ERA is currently 10th in the NL, and will likely rank higher as those above him regress. Martinez is clearly a step above most of the other pitchers on the ERA leaderboard and is closing in on the Kershaw/Scherzer echelon.
03. Zack Greinke
Zack Greinke won the 2015 NL Cy Young award with one of the more dominant pitching seasons in recent memory, to the tune of a 1.66 ERA and 19-3 record. Greinke left the Dodgers for the Diamondbacks on a massive free agent contract in the 2015-16 offseason and struggled in his first season in Arizona, posting a 4.37 ERA. Fortunately for Arizona, their $35 million per year pitcher turned things around in 2017, pitching to a 3.05 ERA through 17 starts. While Greinke has struggled to pitch deep into games this season, with a resulting 53% quality start percentage, his 3.11 xFIP is fourth in the NL. What’s more, Greinke was done all this while pitching his home games in the second friendliest hitter ballpark in the majors in Chase Field, while also having to pitch some away games in Coors Field. Chase Field is set to install a humidor this July which is estimated to reduce home runs by 20-30% immediately. Look out for Greinke and other Arizona pitchers to benefit immensely as a result.
02. Max Scherzer
Scherzer, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, followed up his dominant 2016 campaign with an even more dominant start to 2017. While he likely won’t end up with 20 wins again, all the peripheral statistics point to a superior pitcher in 2017. Seriously, check it out: ERA from 2.96 to 1.94, K/9 from 11.2 to 12.2, xFIP from 3.37 to 3.13 and HR/9 from 1.22 to 0.90. If one were to find a fault in Scherzer, it would be his propensity to yield fly balls. His 48.4% flyball rate in 2017 is a career high, and might lead to a higher HR/9 rate as the humid summer months take hold. If the season were to end today, Scherzer would be the likely favorite to win the Cy Young, however he’ll likely finish 1B to Kershaw’s 1A.
01. Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw, three-time Cy Young winner and potentially the best pitcher of all-time, was robbed of a fourth Cy Young last season. Despite pitching in only 149 innings in 2016, he amassed the best WAR of any MLB pitcher at 6.9 and best ERA at 1.69. But he won’t get snubbed like that again. While Clayton looks less cyborg and more human this year, his 2.32 ERA is third in the NL. His 12 wins are first. His 14 quality starts are 2nd. His 2.85 xFIP is second. It’s a testament to Kershaw’s unfettered dominance that this type of performance is viewed as a ‘down’ season. So long as Kershaw remains healthy, he will end the season with 20 wins and a low 2.00’s ERA, which should be enough to lock down his fourth Cy Young award.