The case for each Cy Young finalist

There are plenty of interesting storylines among the 2020 Cy Young Award nominees, from an American League finalist who earned the MLB pitching Triple Crown to a National League candidate seeking to win the honor for a third straight season. Each of those Cy Young hopefuls has a solid résumé, as do the other four nominees this season.

Here’s a look at the case for each one before the winners are announced on MLB Network at 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday:

American League

Shane Bieber, Indians

This argument may not require too much convincing.

Bieber finished with eight wins, 122 strikeouts and a 1.63 ERA to walk away from the 2020 season as the first MLB pitching Triple Crown winner (not just for his respective league) since Johan Santana in 2006.

Bieber also led all qualified starters in fWAR (3.2), FIP (2.07) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.20). The 25-year-old’s strikeout rate of 41.1 percent was the highest by a qualified starting pitcher in a season.

The Indians right-hander set another record by becoming the fastest pitcher to reach 100 strikeouts in a season, as it took him just 62 1/3 innings. He recorded at least eight strikeouts in each of his first 12 starts of the year, making it the second-longest streak to start a season (trailing only Randy Johnson, who did it in his first 15 starts in 2000).

Though the Indians have taken home five Cy Young Awards, none of those pitchers won in unanimous fashion. Bieber certainly has a chance to be the first, which would also make him the first unanimous winner overall since Clayton Kershaw in 2014. — Mandy Bell

Kenta Maeda, Twins

When you’re listed between Pedro Martínez and Walter Johnson on a list, you know you’re doing something right as a pitcher.

Maeda didn’t quite have the workload in 2020 of Martínez or “The Big Train,” but that’s not his fault. He pitched about as effectively and consistently as the Twins could have hoped in the shortened season, and that’s why his 0.75 WHIP was the second-best mark by a qualified pitcher in MLB’s Modern Era (since 1900), trailing only Martínez (0.74 WHIP) in 2000 and sitting one spot ahead of Johnson (0.78) in 1913.

Maeda didn’t break strikeout records like Bieber and he didn’t blow hitters away with his stuff. Instead of overpowering opponents, Maeda kept them off base at an MLB-leading rate, using his slider and changeup to keep teams off-balance without a bad start among his 11 for the Twins. He never allowed more than three runs or six hits, all while completing at least five innings each time out.

His historic WHIP was the highlight of his stat reel, but his other numbers were also quite strong: Maeda’s 2.70 ERA ranked fifth in the American League, his 80 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings ranked seventh and his 3.00 FIP also placed him fifth.

Though only regular-season performance is considered for the Cy Young Award, Maeda’s consistency carried over into the postseason. The Twins’ 18-game playoff losing streak will hang over them for another offseason, but with five shutout innings against the Astros in the Wild Card Series, Maeda came as close to snapping it as any pitcher has since Johan Santana, who pitched Minnesota to its last postseason win in 2004.

The Twins expected consistency and experience when they traded away top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol to acquire Maeda. They got a playoff-caliber ace who received Cy Young votes for the first time in his career with a marked improvement from his days with the Dodgers, particularly against left-handed hitters. — Do-Hyoung Park

Hyun Jin Ryu, Blue Jays

The Blue Jays signed Ryu to be a true ace, and that’s exactly what the veteran lefty delivered.

Pitching to a 2.69 ERA with peripheral numbers that fell in line with his excellent career stats, Ryu was there to stop losing streaks and extend winning streaks, giving the Blue Jays something they desperately needed, especially in a season where their rotation was hit hard by injuries and inconsistent performances.

The postseason didn’t go as Ryu or the Blue Jays would have hoped, but he turned in his best start of the regular season when they needed it most, throwing seven shutout innings against the Yankees on Sept. 24 to help Toronto clinch a playoff spot. The unique Summer Camp leading up to a shortened season challenged Ryu, with his velocity taking some time to build back up, but his deep arsenal and feel for pitching kept him rolling.

Ryu’s changeup remains elite and keeps hitters off of his fastball and cutter, so there should be more of this to come over the next three years in Toronto. — Keegan Matheson

National League

Trevor Bauer, Reds

If Bauer is voted the winner, he would become the first Reds pitcher to take home the NL Cy Young Award. While history is not on his side, Bauer’s 2020 season shows why he is a leading candidate to claim the honor.

Bauer, 29, led the NL in ERA (1.73), WHIP (0.79), opponents’ batting average (.159), opponents’ BABIP (.215), ERA+ (276), hits per nine innings (5.06) and shutouts (2). He ranked second in strikeouts (100) and strikeouts per nine innings (12.3).

In 11 starts and 73 innings during the shortened 2020 season, Bauer had a 5-4 record while often dealing with poor run support. But over his final five starts of the season, as the Reds made a surge down the stretch, Bauer he went 2-2 with a 1.29 ERA and 46 strikeouts over 35 innings.

Bauer’s final regular-season start — on Sept. 23 vs. the Brewers – was probably his best and the most important to the club all season. He allowed one earned run and four hits over eight innings with one walk and 12 strikeouts in a 6-1 victory.

“There’s nobody, in my opinion, more deserving in the National League than him,” Reds Gold Glove-winning catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “In times where we needed wins or strong outings from our pitching staff or our starter, he was always the guy you went to. The one that comes to mind is when we’re trying to win every game down the stretch and he pitched on short rest against the Brewers and threw eight innings. The guy’s a bulldog, he’s a competitor, he wants to rip your head off when you’re playing against him, but he’s one of the nicest dudes to be a teammate of.” — Mark Sheldon

Jacob deGrom, Mets

Unfortunately for deGrom, whose otherworldly September performances allowed him to run away from the Cy Young pack in 2018 and ’19, the shortened ’20 season robbed him of that opportunity. Instead, the altered schedule uniquely hurt deGrom, who made all 12 of his starts against the potent offenses of the NL and AL East. Half of those outings came against teams ranked in the top 12 in the Majors in runs per game.

Compare that to Bauer, who faced a top-12 offense just once all season, or Darvish, who did so twice. Bauer’s remaining starts all came against offenses in the bottom third of the league in run production, including six outings vs. teams in the bottom five. Darvish had five starts against bottom-five offenses. deGrom had none. And yet his overall numbers were comparable.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that deGrom led all Cy Young finalists with a 2.66 deserved ERA — a statistic manufactured by Baseball Prospectus to tease out factors like defense, ballpark and quality of opponent. Bauer clocked in at 2.89, while Darvish finished at 3.26. deGrom also led the NL in both strikeouts (104) and strikeout percentage (38.8 percent), actually improving on the latter number from his Cy Young seasons. He set a career best in averaging 99 mph with his fastball, and he posted the lowest expected batting average (.195) of his career.

deGrom’s traditional numbers may have fallen just short of Bauer’s, but the two-time Cy Young Award winner arguably achieved more given the opponents he was forced to face. — Anthony DiComo

Yu Darvish, Cubs

Darvish’s 2020 Cy Young candidacy actually began last year.

After a tough first half in 2019, Darvish asked to take the ball for the Cubs in the first game after the All-Star break. He felt he was on the cusp of a turnaround and wanted to set the tone for his team over the final two-plus months. That confidence began to translate into ace-level performance.

Darvish felt more freedom to widen his arsenal of pitches and pitch at his own pace, moved further beyond his previous health issues with Chicago and began rewriting the narrative around the contract he signed with the North Siders.

“Yu Darvish is the one who deserves the credit,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said near the end of the 2020 season. “I think he got sick and tired of not being at his best and letting people down, and took it upon himself to make a lot of dramatic improvements.”

Dating back to the second half of 2019, Darvish has turned in a 2.40 ERA with 211 strikeouts against 21 walks in 157 2/3 innings. His 31.2 strikeout-minus-walk percentage leads qualified NL pitchers and is second in the Majors in that time period. But the 2020 Cy Young Award is not about parts of two seasons. It’s about this year.

This year, all Darvish did was lead all NL pitchers with a 3.0 WAR (via FanGraphs), a mark that trailed only Bieber (3.2) among all big league hurlers. Darvish led the NL in WPA (2.30) and FIP (2.23), with only Bieber ahead in those categories in MLB.

Darvish won eight of his 12 starts, turned in a 2.01 ERA and ended with 93 strikeouts against 14 walks in 76 innings, giving him a better strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.64) than Bauer (5.88) or deGrom (5.78). And with Darvish and Kyle Hendricks leading Chicago’s rotation, the offense-starved Cubs won the division after missing the playoffs last year. — Jordan Bastian