Who could challenge Zack Wheeler for the NL Cy Young?

Zack Wheeler has never won an award in his Major League career. He was finally elected to an All-Star team for the first time in 2021. About a month later, he finds himself as the leading candidate to win the National League Cy Young Award.

Just two weeks ago, Jacob deGrom was the odds on favorite to pick up his third Cy Young Award, and it wasn’t particularly close. No pitcher since 1900 has ever qualified with a lower ERA than Bob Gibson in 1968 (1.12). However, July 28 brought news of an injury setback for deGrom and the eventual end to his Cy Young campaign.

Zack Wheeler is among the favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire)

DraftKings now gives Zack Wheeler top odds to bring home the Cy Young at +175. He leads MLB in innings pitched (156), strikeouts (181), complete games (3) and rWAR for pitchers (6.0). He is sixth in the NL in ERA (2.42) and second in FIP (2.41).

Wheeler credits much of his improvement to a revamped slider, his usage of which has increased 9% since 2020. “It’s become a really good swing and miss pitch for me, before it was going to be a ball every time. I’d kinda hoped someone would swing at it, but now I can throw it for strikes and still have the movement that I want.”

Wheeler’s Halladay-esque performance on Roy Halladay Retirement Day Sunday only solidified his spot at the top of the Cy Young betting odds. Yet, close on Wheeler’s heels is the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler at +350.

Buehler is first among qualified pitchers in the NL in ERA (2.13) and he’s thrown over 6 1/3 innings per start. His FIP is 3.11 and his xERA is 3.02. Buehler is fifth in WHIP (0.935), ninth in K/BB (4.00) and ninth in the NL in strikeouts (152).

Following Buehler is the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff at +350. Woodruff places third in the NL for ERA (2.23). His WHIP (.888) leads MLB. Woodruff has excelled at limiting hard contact. His 31.3% hard hit rate is 90th percentile league wide, providing a strong basis for an xERA of 2.93 and FIP of 2.72.

Aiding Woodruff is increased usage of his curveball, a pitch he didn’t begin using regularly until 2020 and now throws 16% of the time. His fastball has also seen improvement. Since Woodruff broke into the Brewers rotation in 2017, his signature pitch has seen an uptick in velocity, from 94 mph to 97 mph on average.

The Brewers second ace is Corbin Burnes, who stands at +400 to win the NL Cy Young. Burnes’ repertoire in 2021 has been quite unique. His primary pitch is a cutter thrown 52% of the time while his curve, fastball, changeup and slider are all thrown between 16% and 10%. His vast repertoire has kept hitters off balance and allowed Burnes to accrue a ferociously high strikeout rate. He leads the NL in K/9 (12.79), BB/9 (1.56) and HR/9 (0.37). Naturally, he leads MLB in FIP (1.51) and is second to only Buehler in ERA in the NL (2.23).  

On Wednesday, Burnes became only the third pitcher in MLB history to strikeout 10 consecutive hitters in a game, joining Aaron Nola (2021) and Tom Seaver (1970) in that special category.

It would seem strange that Burnes does not have a monopoly on the NL Cy Young race given both his dominance over advanced stats and his exceptional traditional numbers. Holding him back is a lack of innings pitched. Burnes has only thrown over 100 pitches three times in 2021. He is 22nd in the NL in innings pitched (121).

At +900 for the NL Cy Young is Giants’ ace Kevin Gausman. A nine-year MLB veteran, Gausman has never so much as received a single Cy Young vote. His 2021 All-Star appearance was the first of his career dating back to 2013. Oddly enough, Gausman does not lead a single traditional or advanced category. However, look closer and you’ll find that his name appears near the top in almost every single traditional statistic. Among National League leaders he is fifth in ERA (2.29), fifth in WHIP (0.968), fourth in H/9 (5.90), fifth in strikeouts (162), tenth in K/BB (3.77), and fourth in FIP (2.94).

Remarkably, Gausman has improved a tremendous amount without having to drastically change his usage or repertoire since breaking into MLB. Gausman relies heavily on a fastball/splitter combo which he throws 52% and 42% of the time respectively. He mixes in a “show-me” slider 6% of the time.


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