If the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers have a rematch of the 2017 World Series, it could be a showcase of contenders for the AL and NL Cy Young Awards.
Astros teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are the leading contenders for the AL award, while Hyun-Jin Ryu is the runaway contender for the NL award.
Ballots for the awards are due from Baseball Writers’ Association of America members before the playoffs begin but aren’t announced until after the World Series concludes.
It could be epic if the Astros and Dodgers make it through to the Fall Classic and these pitchers come up big.
Here’s a look at the major contenders.
Verlander and Cole help form one of the most potent rotations in baseball. Verlander currently has the nod over Cole, while Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays is generally considered the third choice.
The 36-year-old Verlander won the award following his brilliant 2011 season with the Detroit Tigers, when he also won the AL MVP after leading the majors with 24 wins, and 250 strikeouts in 251 innings, while topping the AL with a 2.40 ERA. He finished second in the balloting in 2012, 2016, and 2018.
After Verlander finished second behind Boston’s Rick Porcello in 2016, his then-girlfriend and now wife Kate Upton used a profanity in a tweet calling out whichever two voters left him off their ballots altogether. He was second last year behind Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell, who is currently out with an elbow injury.
Verlander is 15-4 with a 2.81 ERA, which is second-best in the AL. He leads the majors with 228 strikeouts and a 0.84 WHIP, and tops the AL with 169 2/3 innings.
But he’s gotten no-decisions in his last two starts. On Saturday night, the Astros lost their fourth straight game and wasted Verlander’s latest strong effort. He had 11 strikeouts in seven innings to set a franchise record with his sixth game in a row of 10 or more. Randy Johnson and J.R. Richard also did it five straight times.
Mark Canha and Marcus Semien hit solo homers off Verlander, who has allowed a career-high 31 home runs this season.
“The Canha homer, that was a not very well-executed fastball,” Verlander said. “The Semien one I’ve just got to tip my cap, that was pretty much right where I wanted to throw it and he put a good swing on it.”
In his previous start, Verlander lasted only five innings and got a no-decision in a loss to the lowly Baltimore Orioles, at least avoiding what would have been his first loss since early July. It did mark the end of the Astros’ eight-game winning streak, and was just their fourth loss in 22 games.
“When you’re playing great baseball it seems like the losses even hurt that much more,” Verlander said. “We put ourselves in a position to win; our guys did a fantastic job battling back. Just one pitch early in the game, a couple pitches that I made that were mistakes.”
Verlander lost Game 6 of the 2017 World Series against the Dodgers.
Cole, meanwhile, has missed two starts with a right hamstring injury.
He had said the injury is “not super serious.” Cole said he never had a similar hamstring injury, but added, “I’ve had my fair share of stuff that I’ve had to get through.”
Cole is 14-5 with a 2.87 ERA and 226 strikeouts. His ERA is third in the AL, his strikeouts second, and his 0.98 WHIP is second.
Even if he doesn’t win the Cy Young Award, Cole is setting himself up for a big payday on the free agent market. The 28-year-old Cole is in his seventh season overall and second with the Astros. He finished fourth in the NL Cy Young balloting in 2015 while with Pittsburgh and was fifth in the AL balloting last year.
Morton is 13-5 with an AL-best 2.77 ERA for the Rays, who have been in playoff contention for most of the season and currently hold the AL’s second wild card. Morton is 35 and in his 12th season. He has never been a factor in Cy Young Award voting but he has made the All-Star team the last two seasons. He won Game 7 of the World Series while he was with the Astros.
Two dark horses are All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Indians (12-5, 3.27, 200 strikeouts) and Lance Lynn of the Texas Rangers (14-8, 3.60, 187 strikeouts).
Ryu, the Dodgers’ big lefty from South Korea — he’s 6 foot 3 inches tall, 255 pounds — is the overwhelming favorite in the NL. He has the best ERA in the majors by far, an eye-popping 1.64, and is second to Verlander with a 0.94 WHIP as he leads the Dodgers toward their seventh straight NL West title.
On Aug. 11, Ryu returned from a 10-day stint on the injured list with minor neck stiffness with an impressive seven scoreless innings of five-hit ball in a 3-1 win against Arizona.
“It’s definitely unbelievable,” Ryu, a first-time All-Star this season, told reporters through a translator. “I don’t think it’s all because of myself. There are many people around me who helped me reach that number.”
If Ryu maintains his pace, he would finish with the lowest ERA since Bob Gibson’s 1.12 in 1968. Ryu is focusing more on staying sharp for the playoffs, where the pressure is building for the Dodgers to not only get to the World Series, but to win it, after losing to the Astros in 2017 and the Boston Red Sox last year.
“It was really impressive,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He didn’t skip a beat. He did everything he needed to do, and that’s a good-hitting club over there.”
On Saturday night, Ryu lost for the first time in seven starts as his ERA rose 19 points in a 4-3 loss at Atlanta, in a matchup of the two best teams in the National League. His record dropped to 12-3.
“It was still good enough for us to win, and unfortunately we came up a little bit short,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Ryu, 32, is dominant because he can command four pitches.
There was a time, though, when the Dodgers wondered what his future would be like. He missed the entire 2015 season due to a partially torn labrum that required surgery. He made only one start in 2016 before bouncing back in 2017. Although he missed three months with a groin strain, he perhaps telegraphed how good he’d be this season when he came back and finished the regular season with a 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.
He had a brilliant start to the playoffs, being chosen over Clayton Kershaw to start Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, and responding with seven brilliant innings. But he struggled in his final three postseason starts, including losing Game 6 of the NL Championship Series against Milwaukee and Game 2 of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox.
Three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals had been the favorite to win the award after going undefeated in June, but has made just one start since the All-Star break due to a mild rhomboid strain. He threw a simulated game on Saturday. Scherzer is 9-5 with a 2.41 ERA.
Scherzer won the AL Cy Young Award in 2013 with Detroit and then took the NL Cy Young Award in 2016 and 2017 with Washington. He led many major categories last year but finished second to Jacob deGrom of the New York Mets, whose major league-best 1.70 ERA in 217 innings completely overshadowed his pedestrian 10-9 record for a struggling team that gave him little support. DeGrom received all but one vote, which of course set off the Mets fan base.
With the 35-year-old Scherzer sidelined, his teammate Stephen Strasburg is next on the list of contenders, although no one is going to supplant Ryu if he keeps pitching the way he has.
Strasburg, 31 and in his 10th season, is 15-5 with a 3.82 ERA and 185 strikeouts, fourth in the league.
Long shots include rookie Mike Soroka of the Atlanta Braves (10-2, 2.41) and deGrom, who is 8-7 with a 2.61 ERA but leads the NL with 194 strikeouts. DeGrom has won his last four decisions and four of five, and the Mets are just two games out of the second NL wild card.
One guy who might get a few votes down the ballot is Ryu’s teammate Clayton Kershaw (12-2, 2.63, 141 strikeouts), who knows a thing or two about Cy Young Awards. He’s won three, plus hitting the daily double when he won the NL MVP in 2014.