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No Cy For Sale

The White Sox hold a two-game lead over the Tigers in an up-for-grabs AL Central division. The rivals squared off this weekend in a crucial series, and tonight’s finale pits respective aces Chris Sale and Justin Verlander against one another. Sale has been a major reason the White Sox have held the division lead for this long, leading to speculation that he could dethrone Verlander in the Cy Young Award race.

While the 23-year-old lefty has turned in a fantastic season – especially considering it’s his first in the starting rotation – his award prospects should be tempered. His opponent is still king of the jungle.

The major difference between Sale’s and Verlander’s cases is playing time. Obviously, great pitchers help their team more and increase their own individual value by toeing the rubber more often. The near 40-inning gap between Sale and Verlander is integral to the discussion, because it truly has been all that separates the two starters. Aside from sheer playing time, they are having almost identical seasons.

Sale: 24 GP (23 GS), 157 IP, 25.0% K/PA, 6.3% BB/PA, 44% GB, 2.81 ERA, 3.23 SIERA
Verlander: 27 GS, 196.1 IP, 25.3% K/PA, 6.4% BB/PA, 40% GB, 2.80 ERA, 3.26 SIERA

Identical is being used in its literal sense here, as these pitchers are mere rounding errors away from each other in each of the relevant rate stats above. However, Verlander’s increased playing time has led to a WAR advantage of 1.5 wins. Verlander currently leads the junior circuit at 5.6 WAR, while Sale ranks third at 4.1. Though it’s easy to argue that Sale has pitched as effectively as Verlander on a start-by-start basis, Verlander has simply made more starts, and that goes a long way in accruing value.

The AL Cy Young Award landscape isn’t two pitchers deep, however, and since Sale ranks 3rd in WAR there is clearly someone sandwiched between him and Verlander. Felix Hernandez ranks between these two, and is actually just a hair behind Verlander with 5.5 WAR. Then again, Hernandez has thrown over half of his innings at Safeco Field, which has doubled as both the Mariners home park and a museum that reenacts the Deadball Era for interested fans this season. Even after accounting for the extreme disadvantage hitters face at Safeco, the playing time disparity bumps Hernandez over Sale.

Then there’s the matter of Sale’s teammate, Jake Peavy, having an equally good season. Through 26 starts and 181 innings, Peavy has 3.8 WAR to his name and similarly efficient and impressive peripherals. Of course, many voters still look at W-L record as a proxy for determining pitcher value and performance, and Sale’s 15-5 mark trumps Peavy’s 9-10 record. It also bests Verlander’s 12-7 and Felix’s 13-5. While Hernandez himself won the award with a 13-12 record in 2010, he was the clear choice that season. Right now, there are three reasonable choices and W-L record may loom large.

This season’s award race should prove interesting down the stretch, as Sale is the only pitcher in the race with a shot at 20 wins. However, he isn’t even likely to reach 200 innings, while his main opponents have 240 innings on their peripheries. Even if they did rack up that much playing time, voters could find reasons to not vote for them. Team performance could come into play for Hernandez, while a White Sox division title, plus a sexy wins total, could be enough to sway the vote in Sale’s favor.

This conflates will-win and should-win, which often happens in award discussions. Who will win is obviously up in the air right now, but there isn’t a clear-cut favorite. In terms of who should win, well, it shouldn’t be Sale. He has pitched very well this year but hasn’t pitched as often as Verlander or Felix, and the gap in WAR of over 1.5 wins is too much to ignore.