Betting The A.L. Cy Young Race
There's money to be made betting the individual awards in baseball and this year's race for the AL Cy Young Award is a classic example. Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox is having an outstanding season and has emerged as the deserved favorite. But anytime you see odds like (-150) for an award like this - where Sale is currently listed - your mind should be immediately be looking for the quality longshots at good prices. Because the history of this award tells us to expect the unexpected?
How many people saw Dallas Kuechel coming last season? Or Corey Kluber the year before? Those are your last two winners of the AL Cy Young Award. If you jump over to the National League remember that everyone coronated Zack Greinke. That was at points in the season much later than this, Greinke continued to pitch great and he still didn't win it. Jake Arrieta came surging down the stretch to snare the honor.
The upshot of this is that value investments are on the market. We'll review them now, but one important prerequisite is this - because of the nature of this award, baseball bettors have to be willing to factor in stats they personally may not care for into the equation.
Old-school guys aren't into WHIP (walks + hits per nine innings). Others believe wins is completely outdated. When you handicap a game you just incorporate the data you value the most. When you handicap an award you include past voting results into the equation to get a good gauge on what will move this year's voters. It's a different twist, but at the end of the day it's still just smart baseball handicapping.
Sale's numbers are a 10-2 record, a 2.87 ERA, 91 innings pitched (best in the league) and a 1.01 WHIP. That's the standard everyone else is going to be aiming at the next 3 ½ months. Here's how the challengers look, with their prices in parentheses:
Rich Hill (+750): The Oakland A's veteran is a great comeback story after a career with arm trouble, posting an 8-3 record and 2.25 ERA. The biggest negatives are that his team is not in contention, he's not a workhorse (64 IP) and given all that - and his injury history - the price needs to be higher still.
Felix Hernandez (+750): Normally the chance to grab King Felix - finally on a contending team at this kind of price would be welcome, but he just the disabled list with a calf injury. That means stay away for now, but don't let him drift too far off the radar - it's not going to keep him out long and this may be just what bettors need for the price to fatten up either further.
Masahiro Tanaka (+900): Tanaka really picked the wrong time in history to be a Yankee. In spite of a 2.76 ERA, 78 IP and a 1.00 WHIP, he's only got a record of 3-1. The once-potent New York offense is a shell of itself and he can't get support. His numbers are good anywhere and in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium they're positively outstanding. He's still got the New York market behind him though and if his offense can just help him get a few more wins, the award could be in reach.
Danny Salazar (+900): The 24-year-old that has emerged as the Cleveland Indians' ace is one of the more intriguing candidates here. His ERA is a splendid 2.24 and the WHIP is a solid 1.12. For Salazar to win it, he'll need to see the other stats brighten up - his record is 6-3 and he's only got 68 innings pitched. But in his favor, his team is in first place and looks to be settled in for a long summer and early fall of playing big games.
Chris Tillman (+1000): Tillman's Orioles lead the AL East and he's the clear ace of an otherwise troubled rotation. Voters that like wins will warm to the 8-1 record. Analytics guys won't hold a 3.01 ERA against him because he pitches in hitter-friendly Camden Yards against a steady diet of the great lineups in Boston & Toronto. The 77 innings pitched are pretty good. And that price is pretty good.
Jose Quintana (+1400): Sale's running mate in Chicago, Quintana should have a better shot than he probably actually does. He's got a 2.58 ERA in 76 innings. But hard luck and a bad offense have him at 5-6. And that was at the start of the season when the White Sox' offense was actually helping the team win games. Quintana won't take any Chicago votes from Sale.
Corey Kluber (+2000): Kluber's status as the 2014 Cy Young winner has to be driving this market respect for his chances. He's got the innings (88) and the WHIP (1.01) but his record is a draw at 6-6 and the ERA is high at 3.65. It's a mystery why Kluber has this number, while candidates like Detroit's Jordan Zimmerman or even Boston's surprising Steven Wright are off the board entirely.
Marco Estrada (+2200): The Blue Jays' starter can't be overlooked. His 1.00 WHIP is the best in the league. He's a good workhorse, with 80 innings pitched. His ERA is 2.57. The only thing he needs is wins, with a record of 4-2. The Toronto offense as a whole is having a somewhat sluggish first half, so if they hit more, the team will rise in the standings, Estrada will win more...and you could have him at a 22-1 price.
Cole Hamels (+3300): In spite of his stellar career, Hamels has never finished higher than fifth in the Cy Young voting. But as longshots go, this one isn't bad. He's 5-1 with a 3.32 ERA, pitches on a team that's in first place, has good name recognition and respect as a big-game pitcher. With a strong push, Hamels could some "career achievement" support in the voting even though that's not supposed to matter.
You can see that the prices give you a lot of flexibility. If you start at the (+900) level, you can pick four candidates and turn a profit so long as one of them wins. Chris Sale is a great pitcher, he's been in the top six of the AL Cy Young voting for four straight years...but he's never won it. And there's a lot of history that tells us this is a race with a lot of twists and turns before the finish line.