This week, Bally Sports is checking out the MLB awards races — MVP and Cy Young — as we pass into the middle third of the 2021 season. We’ve scouted the NL MVP and AL MVP races. Let’s check the AL Cy Young contenders as of Wednesday.
Through two months of the 2021 season, the American League's Cy Young Award seemed like Gerrit Cole's to lose. The Yankees ace posted a 1.78 ERA with 97 strikeouts and nine walks in 11 starts covering 70 2/3 innings, the best pace in the AL.
It's not that his first start in June, against the Rays a week ago Thursday, was a dealbreaker: Cole allowed five runs in five innings for the second time in four starts. All it did statistically was draw a crowded field closer to him.
On Tuesday, at his most recent pre-start press gathering, Cole put a little more doubt in the minds of the potential electorate when he gave a cryptic answer about the sticky stuff that pitchers allegedly have been doctoring balls with. Because of the skyrocketing amount of strikeouts league-wide, Major League Baseball has been threatening to randomly search pitchers for illegal tacky material that helps them — too much — get a grip on their pitches and spin them to oblivion. The rules against doctoring balls have been there for more than 100 years, but the league only sparingly has enforced them. Four minor leaguers recently were suspended after umpires found illegal substances on their person. The big leagues, so they say, are next.
Twins slugger Josh Donaldson, ahead of Cole's start at Minnesota on Wednesday, blurted out that
Cole might be using sticky stuff called "Spider Tack," and that foreign substances that pitchers in general use was about to be the biggest performance-enhancing scandal in MLB since steroids.
Here's what Cole said, after pausing for several seconds, in response to the Spider Tack question:
"I don't quite know how to answer that, to be honest. There are customs and practices that have been passed down from older players to younger players, from the last generation of players to this generation of players, and I think there are some things that are certainly out of bounds in that regard."
Cole blamed mechanical issues for his spin rate declining by an average of 125 rotations per minute in his start June 3, leaving everyone to infer it wasn't because he was laying off the sticky stuff in anticipation of a raid by the umps.
Therein lies the rub, so to speak, when it comes to the Cy Young race. If all of these pitchers (not just Cole) are using substances that could be confiscated and then start holding back from using them, what effect will it have on their numbers?
Then again, as Justin Morneau pointed out on the Twins broadcast on Bally Sports North, if everyone who was using the illegal substances stopped because of reprisal fears, would Cole not still be a great pitcher?
With Cole as a focal point, the tacky story throws the entire Cy Young race into uncertainty. Heading into action Thursday night including Cole, there were 10 pitchers in the AL producing ERAs under 3.00. Two of them, White Sox right-hander Lance Lynn and left-hander Carlos Rodón, were under 2.00. Lynn's HR/FB percentage and BABIP indicate regression is coming for him, but Rodón, along with Rays' right-hander Tyler Glasnow and Cleveland righty Shane Bieber, have peripherals that indicate they'll be able to continue their respective dominance.
Rodón (37.1%), Cole (36.5%), Glasnow (36.1%) and Bieber (34.4%) also lead the league in strikeout percentage. Cole's 3.9 walk percentage leads the league and leads, and none of the other top Cy contenders are close.
Rangers righty Kyle Gibson (2.06 ERA) and Orioles lefty John Means (2.28) have had career-best starts but have to be considered unlikely to cling to the Cy Young race. Gibson has a 4.43 ERA for his career and his .242 BABIP this season would defy probability over a full season. Means, like Rodón, threw one of the six no-hitters so far. Shoulder fatigue has put him on the injured list. He also posted a 5.21 ERA in his past four starts — which probably relates to his injury.
Hey, what about that Cole-Donaldson matchup?
Donaldson struck out in both of his first two trips, with Cole appearing to stare him down both times.
At least Cole adhered to his better angels and kept the ball away from Donaldson’s body.
Coming on Thursday: We’ll check in with the NL Cy Young contenders to see how Jacob deGrom is doing.