Watching Washington Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez through the early innings of yesterday’s eventual 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, one would have likely had a hard time believing that the left-hander is in the running for the National League Cy Young Award. It is especially true when you consider the performance that New York Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey put on just a few hours earlier when he earned his 20th win of the season after tossing 7 2/3 innings, allowing just three runs on eight hits and two walks while striking out 13 batters.
But if you were to check the box score after the game, Gonzalez’s start would have appeared to be business as usual – three runs on six hits and three walks while striking out six through six innings. After suffering a hiccup in the first inning, which included three walks and three runs on a lofty 37 pitches, Gonzalez settled down. The following five innings, through which he allowed not a walk or a run, required just 69 pitches.
Now, once again, Gonzalez sits atop all of baseball after earning his major league leading 21st win as he continues to build his case for the NL Cy Young. But for Gonzalez, the path to the award is still very much an uphill climb as two contenders remain in the mix – one obvious and one less so.
As someone who watches the Nationals day in and day out, taking the time each day to write about them, it is hard to watch Gonzalez pitch every fifth day and not favor him for the NL Cy Young.
One of Gonzalez’s biggest accomplishments this year has been his stockpiling of wins, which always seems to be an indicator of who is and who is not considered a candidate for the award. This becomes especially true when a pitcher reaches the 20-win mark. But as many would argue – and for good reason – wins are not the best indicator of a pitcher’s skill or value.
What has revealed his dominance, however, are Gonzalez’s hits-to-innings pitched ratio and the number of strikeouts he has recorded. Gonzalez has allowed just 149 hits through 199 1/3 innings pitched, good for a major league leading .206 opponents’ batting average. In that same time frame, he has struck out 207 batters.
Of course, we can also look to his WAR and his FIP if you are into that sort of thing. Gonzalez leads the NL in both categories with a WAR of 5.4 and a FIP of 2.84.
The obvious challenger for the award is Dickey, who as noted earned his 20th win yesterday after leading the Mets to a 6-5 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
For many, Dickey is the obvious favorite. He leads qualified pitchers in more than a few relevant categories, edging out all NL pitchers in each of the following: strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games and shutouts. Where he does not lead, he is not far behind. It is perhaps even more impressive that he has accomplished this for a lousy team with an even lousier bullpen.
Then there is the less obvious challenger – Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.
To say that Kimbrel, who won the NL Rookie of the Year Award just a year ago, has been dominant would be an understatement. This year, Kimbrel has posted a 1.04 ERA with 111 strikeouts through 60 1/3 innings pitched – the best K/9 ratio of all-time. As if that were not enough, his .126 opponents’ batting average is the lowest of any pitcher since 1900. His 0.66 WHIP is the best of any NL reliever since 1900.
Many would argue that for a reliever to win the award, which is not without precedent, he would have to have had a historic season. Far be it from me to speak for you, but I think accomplishing something that has not been done in 112 years can be considered historic.
Other arguments against relievers winning the award include looking at the overall value of a reliever to his team compared to the overall value of a starting pitcher. While Kimbrel’s WAR of 3.4 is dwarfed by many of the league’s top starters, the Cy Young Award is not bestowed upon the most valuable pitcher. It is bestowed upon the best pitcher.
While there are certainly other pitchers in the mix, including Cincinnati Reds right-hander Johnny Cueto and Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, the three pitchers detailed here seem to be the frontrunners.
The bad news for Gonzalez, however, is that he is not guaranteed another start in the regular season. He is scheduled for a start at home next Tuesday against the Phillies, but that could change if the Nationals clinch the division before that. Gonzalez has had an astounding season, but he may have already done all he can to make a case for the NL Cy Young.