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Tampa Bay Rays: Can Blake Snell Win the AL Cy Young?

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OAKLAND, CA - JULY 18: Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on July 18, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - JULY 18: Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on July 18, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /
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With August coming to a close and award season fast approaching, how does Blake Snell stack up against the top arms in the AL, and does he have a legitimate case for the American League Cy Young award?

On Tuesday against the Royals, Blake Snell went six strong innings striking out 11 and giving up just one run on a solo-shot to Ryan O’Hearn. Since returning from the disabled list on August 4th, Snell has been in a groove allowing only 2 runs in 20 innings and posting 26 strikeouts to just 4 walks. Three consecutive wins have brought his record up to 15-5, and his season ERA now stands at 2.07. He’s certainly been the MVP of this Rays team and he’s been impressive all year, but how does Snell stack up in the Cy Young discussion?

It’d be remiss of me not to mention Trevor Bauer and his incredible season, but since a stress fracture is going to keep him out until late-September he isn’t going to win this award. The way it looks right now, with Luis Severino pitching his way out of this race, there are five pitchers who have a real case to be made as the best pitcher in the American League. Let’s take a look at those five and see how things look going into the final month of 2018.

Chris Sale – Boston Red Sox

Chris Sale is the favorite to win the award at this point, despite the fact that he’s on the disabled list with a shoulder issue. Through 146 innings, Sale has posted a 1.97 ERA and a 1.95 FIP, a K-BB% of 32.9%, and 6.1 fWAR. When he’s at his best, Sale is unhittable. There’s an outside chance that Sale misses a few more weeks and still leads the AL in strikeouts with 170 innings pitched, which would be incredible. Sale is one of the 3 best pitchers in baseball and we’re lucky to be able to watch him. If he comes back this weekend and continues to post the same numbers he has all year, it’s hard to see another pitcher winning the Cy. But if he were to miss another couple weeks, that will open up the race.

Justin Verlander – Houston Astros

Justin Verlander is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career and has a good a chance as any to pull away with the Cy Young award. Between watching him pitch this year and looking at his peripheral stats, this is vintage Justin Verlander. He’s consistently hitting high-90’s with the fastball and he’s pitching deep into games. In 169.2 innings, Verlander has a 2.65 ERA, a 3.16 FIP, a 29.1% K-BB%, and 4.5 fWAR. Verlander has done well limiting hard contact this year, and his strand rate sits at 87.1%. The fact that his fastball velocity is up over 95 mph again combined with the fact that he’s doing this at 35 makes it even more impressive than it looks.

Gerrit Cole – Houston Astros

Gerrit Cole showed flashes of brilliance in his five years in Pittsburgh, but he’s really put it all together this year after being traded to Houston. He has nasty stuff, hitting high-90’s with the fastball with a wipeout slider to boot. But he’s figured out how to mix his pitches effectively, rather than relying on the fastball to generate groundballs as they’re known to do in Pittsburgh and the results are staggering. In 164.2 innings he has a 2.73 ERA, a 2.57 FIP, a 26.7% K-BB%, and 5.4 fWAR. Cole has the second highest strikeout rate in the AL behind only Chris Sale.  This is peak-Gerrit Cole and it feels like my jaw drops every time I watch him pitch.

Corey Kluber – Cleveland Indians

Corey Kluber’s true talent level is higher than what we’ve seen from him this year, but he still belongs in this discussion. In a ‘down year’, Kluber has a 2.74 ERA and a 3.25 FIP in 174.1 innings, a 21.2% K-BB% and 4.2 fWAR. His miniscule 3.4% walk rate leads the majors and even though he has his worst strikeout rate since 2013, he’s been one of the five or six best pitchers in the AL. His case is a bit more predicated on him being both good and healthy rather than being great, but good Corey Kluber is still better than 95% of the remaining pitchers in baseball.

Blake Snell – Tampa Bay Rays

And last but certainly not least is Snell, who in a breakout season has used his increased velocity and two devastating breaking pitches to get his strikeout rate to almost 30%. Through 139 innings he has a 2.07 ERA, a 3.29 FIP, a 20% K-BB%, and 3.0 fWAR. For all Snell has going for him, his .236 BABIP allowed, 9.5% walk rate, and 88% strand rate are reflected in his higher FIP. He has fewer strikeouts than the other four pitchers in this conversation and more walks than all but Bauer. Snell needs to be dominant every start from here on out if he’s going to push himself to the front of this race.

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Ultimately, this is Sale’s award to lose but if the Red Sox decide to play it safe with their ace and he only makes another 3-4 starts before October, that will leave the door open for the others. Cole and Verlander are clearly second and third right now with Snell and Kluber just behind them. However, just two years ago we saw the voters give the award to Rick Porcello over Verlander and Sale because Porcello had 22 wins, despite him having inferior numbers across the board. If Snell or Kluber get to 21-22 wins and the others top out around 16, there’s a chance the voters reward that over the rate-statistic advantage Cole, Verlander and Sale have.

Snell is going to have to be really good and a get a bit lucky over the next five weeks if he’s going to win this award. But I wouldn’t count him out just yet; there’s still enough time for him to catch up. Plus, it’s always better to pitch well at the end of the year, rather than the beginning. A strong finish will keep him fresh in the voters’ minds come award season.

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