Assessing the Cy Young Candidacies of Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester
Prior to the start of the season, I had predicted that Jake Arrieta would repeat as Cy Young. I also predicted that Jason Heyward would hit 25 home runs, so take that for what it’s worth. A no-hitter in his fourth time out certainly didn’t hurt Arrieta’s chances, but something about the way he did it was troubling. The ace walked four batters in that game and has handed out at least that many free passes in six games since.
He’s still got a solid, though far from spectacular, 2.84 ERA and his 16-6 record is an indication that he’s kept the Cubs in games. But Arrieta’s not going to repeat as Cy Young. I’d have been much better off saying I thought one of his teammates would get the award. Given their performances to this point in the season, I have to believe Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester are both on the short list to be named the NL’s best pitcher at this point.
Last year’s Cy Young was a pretty clear three-man race, as Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Arrieta separated themselves from the pack. While the remaining weeks of the season may bring things more into focus, a good argument could be made for any one of at least five different pitchers. And that’s not including Clayton Kershaw, who is set to return from the DL Friday.
In his recent power ranking of contenders, Dayn Perry listed Hendricks third behind Max Scherzer and Madison Bumgarner. Lester, on the other hand, isn’t quite so favorably ranked. Since I’m not worried about the rest of the league, I wanted to take a few moments to look specifically at Lester and Hendricks and why either will or won’t win the Cy Young.
Why he won’t win
He’s under the radar, if that’s even possible for this Cubs team. I may be too close to the situation to know how he’s viewed from the outside, but nothing Hendricks does draws attention to his game. The numbers on the stat line are nice, but the days of Tim Kurkjian scouring the papers to cut out every box score are long gone. Lighting up the radar gun is what draws eyeballs to the television, which means Hendricks might as well be Cop Rock.
But let’s take things in the other direction and assume that the voters really are paying attention to Hendricks’ consistent approach and league-leading ERA and that they’re well-informed when it comes to peripheral metrics. The Cubs’ changeup artist actually ranks 8th in FIP and 12th in xFIP among qualified NL starters and he’s 7th with 3.6 fWAR. His .245 BABIP against is the 4th lowest in that group as well (Jake Arrieta’s .229 is the best, for what it’s worth).
There’s a possibility, then, for voters to look at Hendricks as some sort of sleight-of-hand practitioner, a guy who’s getting by on stage tricks. They’ll see an elite defense masking his flaws and point to someone like Scherzer or Noah Syndergaard as a more worthy candidate, the kind of pitcher whose dominance you can really understand. The other thing Hendricks lacks is a real signature game, that one you point to and say, “There, that’s where he announced himself to the world.”
Why he will
It’s hard to deny just how good Hendricks has been this season, particularly once he really got going in May. Over his first 7 starts, Hendricks was 2-3 with a 3.51 ERA in 41 innings pitched. Not bad by any stretch, but nothing to say he was better than a back-of-the-rotation pitcher. Over his next 20 appearances (19 starts), however, The Professor has gone 12-4 with a 1.60 ERA in 124 innings pitched.
If we narrow the sample to the last 14 starts (91.1 IP), he’s got a 10-1 record and a 1.28 ERA. What have you done for me lately? Dominate. Astute voters could see that the FIP and xFIP numbers don’t line up and realize that that’s owing to Hendricks’ style and his ability to pitch to contact in front of an elite defense. Pitching is, after all, about using everything at one’s disposal to limit opposing hitters. That Hendricks is able to leverage his teammates is a testament to his skill.
On the flip side of the magic coin from above, it’s possible that there could actually be a counterintuitive movement of voters casting ballots for him specifically because he’s not the prototypical elite pitcher. Remember, these are writers we’re talking about here, and you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think the story matters. A reincarnated version of Greg Maddux winning the Cy Young for a Cubs team that won 100 games? That gets clicks.
If the Cubs stick with a six-man rotation, Hendricks figures to make four more starts against the Cardinals, Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds. Even with decreased reliance on wins as an important measurement of performance, I think getting two or three more would help his cause. And if Hendricks can maintain his current pace and keep the ERA around 2.00, he’s got a real shot. If he can somehow limbo under that bar, the award is his.
If, on the other hand, he stumbles a little and gets up to, say 2.30 or even 2.50 (which would require a couple pretty rough starts), it’ll cost him. In the end, I’m going to say Hendricks misses out on the Cy Young.
Why he won’t
The 15-4 record and 2.61 ERA are great, but he’s had a few hiccups (like 18 earned runs allowed in his first four July starts) that could stand out if voters start splitting hairs. Speaking of splitting, it’s possible that Lester could have some of his potential votes vultured by his teammate.
Where Hendricks has the advantage of being so drastically different from the big arms around him, Lester sort of blends in with his surroundings. Maybe that’s just the hunter in him taking over. He doesn’t have a blazing fastball or insane movement, he’s just an excellent practitioner of his craft. That’s great for the Cubs, just not really something that sticks out when it comes time to cast ballots for postseason awards.
The lack of a signature game could be applied to Lester as well. He’s had a pair of complete games, but neither was a shutout and if someone is scouting the box score they might not see either as particularly outstanding.
Why he will
You want a good story? How about the guy who came up under Theo Epstein and won a pair of World Series titles with the Red Sox being named the NL’s best pitcher after coming to Chicago to join Epstein once gain? As the first really big free agent of the Cubs’ rebuild, Lester’s arrival was the sign that the Cubs were really ready to compete. His presence in the clubhouse is almost as important as his presence on the mound, so that could factor in.
Lester has been great this season as he’s settled in and grown comfortable with the Cubs. His stats probably won’t end up surpassing those he put up in 2014, but he’s still got a (very long) shot at 20 wins for the first time in his career. Even as pitcher wins have fallen out of vogue, that mark stands out as a nice feather in a starter’s cap. Should Lester pass Arrieta for the team lead in wins, he could perhaps sway some voters to his side.
If it’s good recent results the voters want, Lester’s got those in spades. You think they might like seeing a 1.35 ERA and a 4.18 K/BB ratio over his last seven starts? I do. And the fact that he’s done it after those July struggles adds to his reputation as a gritty gamer. That’s the kind of thing that could separate him from the pack in some eyes.
Lester also has (presumably) four starts left, but he’ll oppose the Astros, Brewers, Reds, and Pirates. Even winning all of them would leave him shy of 20 wins, but he could still shave some points off of that ERA. Unless he gets it down under 2.50, though, I just don’t see it happening. As I said, Jon Lester just doesn’t stand out enough to pull the necessary votes.
If Kershaw comes back and pitches up to his normal standards over the last month of the season, I could see him taking home the Cy Young again. If he looks a little shaky, I think Syndergaard and Scherzer are next in line. But I still keep getting this feeling that Hendricks could be the guy if he posts a low number and maybe gets that one big game.
Were I given a vote, the first thing I’d do is question the credentials of the governing body that granted it to me. The next thing I’d do is write Kyle Hendricks’ name in the top spot. I’m obviously biased and there’s still plenty of time for others to change the landscape, but it has been a joy to watch Hendricks go out there time after time and absolutely shut opponents down. And I love that he’s doing it while rarely even hitting 90 mph.
Who do you have in the Cy Young race? Would you go Lester or Hendricks, or do you think a pitcher from another team is more deserving?[poll id=”10″]