With less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Cy Young Award races in both leagues are poised to come down to the wire. The races in both leagues are incredibly similar, with a pair of aces leading the way, followed by long-shot starters and dominating closers. And not surprisingly, a close look at the contenders reveals that fantasy value usually matches up with the contributions a player makes to his actual team.
Although Chris Sale has faltered in some big games down the stretch, the Red Sox southpaw may still be the leading Cy Young Award candidate in the American League. Sale ranks second among Junior Circuit hurlers in ERA (2.76) and WHIP (0.95), while leading the Majors by a wide margin with 278 whiffs. In fact, he may post the highest single-season strikeout total since Randy Johnson fanned 334 batters in 2002.
Corey Kluber is currently pitching as well as anyone (1.89 ERA, 0.75 WHIP since June 1), but he posted a 5.06 ERA across his initial six starts of the year before spending almost all of May on the disabled list. With a strong finish to the season, the 31-year-old could capture his second AL Cy Young Award. And with a shortage of ace-level hurlers for fantasy owners to choose from, those who keep pace with the changing landscape will consider Sale and Kluber during the initial round of 2018 drafts.
Yankees right-hander Luis Severino has become a surprise AL Cy Young Award candidate after logging a 5.83 ERA across 71 innings last season. On the strength of a heavy ground-ball lean (50.7 percent) and improved strikeout and walk rates (10.8 K/9, 2.4 BB/9), the youngster has emerged as a front-line starter with an ERA (2.96) and WHIP (1.05) that rank behind only Sale and Kluber among Junior Circuit pitchers. For fantasy purposes, Severino will receive consideration once roughly five starters have been plucked from 2018 draft boards.
AL Cy Young Award voters who are willing to consider a closer will need to give Red Sox stopper Craig Kimbrel some serious attention. While the righty has blown four saves, he has yet to suffer a loss this year while also compiling five victories. Remarkably, he has retired 112 of the 221 batters he has faced this year (51 percent) via the strikeout. Throw in a 1.50 ERA and a 0.67 WHIP, and Kimbrel is having one of the best seasons of any closer in recent memory. With stellar statistics this season and throughout his career (1.81 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 14.8 K/9 rate), the veteran will be one of the initial two closers off the board in virtually every 2018 fantasy draft.
The National League race is similarly tight, with Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer and Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw set to wage their battle into the final days of the regular season.
Scherzer seemed to have the award locked up when it was announced that Kershaw would miss a handful of weeks with a back injury, but the Nats' ace reopened the door when he dealt with neck inflammation during late August. While Kershaw leads the Majors in ERA (2.15), Scherzer can produce an impressive 2.32 mark, and he also leads MLB with a 0.87 WHIP. Scherzer has also thrown 27 1/3 more innings than Kershaw and owns a higher K/9 rate. The NL Cy Young Award -- and the top pitcher spot on 2018 fantasy draft boards -- will likely depend on which one of these aces has more success in September.
Although not as much of a sleeper as Severino in the AL, D-backs right-hander Zack Greinke has emerged as an unlikely NL Cy Young Award candidate after posting a 4.37 ERA last season. Most observers entered the season believing that Greinke -- who won the AL Cy Young Award with the Royals in 2009 -- could not duplicate the success from this three-year stretch with the Dodgers (2.30 ERA, 1.03 WHIP from 2013-15) while working regularly at hitter-friendly Chase Field. But the 33-year-old has thrived at his home venue this season en route to compiling 16 wins and ranking among the top 10 in MLB in ERA (2.99), WHIP (1.05) and whiffs (200). With one disappointing season and one excellent campaign since joining the D-backs, Greinke will likely be mentioned as a low-end ace for 2018 mixed-league drafters.
Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg has become a late joiner to the NL Cy Young Award race on the strength of a scoreless-innings streak that sits at 34 frames. And the right-hander now owns a lower ERA (2.64) and WHIP (1.03) than Greinke. But because he trails his teammate Scherzer in virtually every standard pitching measurable, Strasburg has the slimmest chance of anyone on this list to come away with the award.
In comparison to Kimbrel, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen may present an even stronger case for those who can wrap their heads around a reliever winning a Cy Young Award. The right-hander has blown just one save this season while going 5-0 with a 1.32 ERA and a 0.72 WHIP. He has also logged an eye-popping 98:7 K:BB ratio across 61 1/3 innings. While some may not be willing give this award on the strength of what will likely amount to roughly 70 innings, voters will have a tough time arguing that Jansen could have done much better in his role this season. And fantasy drafters would be foolish to consider any other reliever while Jansen is sitting on their 2018 draft board.
Fred Zinkie is the lead fantasy baseball writer for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredZinkieMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.