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Chris Sale, Jose Quintana have company in AL Cy Young race

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White Sox lefties have work cut out for them to distinguish themselves from crowd

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Chris Sale’s suspension didn’t hurt the White Sox’ postseason chances. It didn’t lead to him getting traded, or even generate any rumors stronger than the circumstantial evidence usually provides. There may be more tension than he or Robin Ventura are willing to admit, but Ventura probably won’t be back next year, so that particular relationship seems like a two-month issue.

(Bruce Levine asked Rick Hahn about Ventura’s status over the weekend, and while Hahn didn’t tip his hand, it doesn’t qualify as an endorsement:

"He is able to get to the core of his job, and put the other distractions out of his head. We had the same conversations a couple of years back, when he was in the last year of his deal that time. Even as a player, he played out the last year of his contract, and focused on the end of that particular season. He let the contractual stuff go until the end of the season, and that is our plan at this point.")

After all of the acrimony, Sale’s freelance tailoring service might have damaged his Cy Young chances more than anything (jerseys notwithstanding).

The missed start bit into the innings cushion he could lord over the rest of the Cy Young contenders. Without workload on his side, he slipped back into the logjam of AL starters. Here’s a rough assessment of the field starting with Baseball-Reference.com’s WAR, then adding a couple others.

W-L ERA G IP H R ER BB K FIP bWAR
Michael Fulmer 9-3 2.43 18 111 86 33 30 32 94 3.64 4.3
Cole Hamels 12-3 2.89 23 146.1 127 54 47 56 144 4.08 4.3
Jose Quintana 9-8 2.93 22 144.1 127 48 47 41 117 3.48 4.1
Chris Tillman 14-4 3.50 24 144 125 56 56 53 122 4.07 3.9
Corey Kluber 11-8 3.22 22 151 118 59 54 34 153 2.79 3.9
Chris Sale 14-5 3.12 21 147 117 53 51 33 143 3.64 3.8
Justin Verlander 12-6 3.52 23 153.1 120 62 60 41 164 3.46 3.7
Aaron Sanchez 11-2 2.85 22 145.1 126 49 46 42 121 3.31 3.6
Danny Salazar
11-4 3.38 20
117.1
96
45
44
51
133
3.63 3.1
J.A. Happ
15-3 3.09 22
137
116
48
47
41
117
3.83 3.0
Steven Wright 13-5 3.01 22 146.2 124 65 49 51 123 3.37 2.5

Without his usual strikeout-loaded dominance, Sale’s brand of pitching is now a more ordinary kind of excellent. Unlike 2014 (2.17 ERA) or 2015 (274 strikeouts over 208 innings), he doesn’t have any numbers that jump off the page now that his innings have returned to the pack, although toward the top of it.

Besides being a pleasure to watch two nights out of five, having Quintana in the same rotation is instructive for the Cy Young race on the whole. We know that Quintana, while a fine pitcher, couldn’t match Sale in terms of per-start dominance entering the season. But because Quintana has improved while Sale has changed/plateaued, the gap is narrower than ever. Quintana had even started winning on the peripheral front, out-FIPing Sale over the course of the season. Sale still had a significant edge in innings, but after one missed start for Sale and one good start for Quintana, the margin is now down to a rounding error.

This sets up a fascinating homestretch for the Cy Young race. Sale has as good a chance as anybody if he can blast past the 200-inning and 200-strikeout marks (he’d have to pitch reasonably well to do so). Quintana has his work cut out for him escaping Sale’s shadow, but a sub-3.00 ERA over 200 innings could do the trick, should Sale struggle to find a higher gear.

Outside of the Sox, you’ll probably see the young guns tail off. Salazar was a potential All-Star Game starter, but he’s on the DL with a elbow inflammation. Fulmer already has an innings gap, which could grow if the Tigers decide to nurse him through August and September like the Blue Jays are doing with Sanchez.

Of the remaining pitchers, the biggest threat is probably Kluber. He leads the league in FIP, and his ERA could eventually match it if his last month is any indication. He’ll have Sale’s innings and Sale’s strikeouts, and he also has Sale’s profile, since he won the Cy Young in 2014.