We know that different voters choose in different ways for different reasons. Some rely on old-school numbers like wins and ERA; others dive into the most advanced numbers they can find. Let's share with you some of those numbers now, and explain why these choices may not be as simple as they seem.
Let's start with perhaps the most interesting number of any award discussion all winter: By the most advanced Statcast™ pitching metric we have, Sale and Kluber are tied... to the third decimal point.
That's Expected Weighted On-Base Average, or xwOBA, and while it may sound complicated, it's really not. It attempts to remove the effects of defense and ballpark by simply looking at the quality of contact of each batted ball (by exit velocity and launch angle), and identifying the usual outcome of that combination across baseball, as well as including real-world strikeout and walk totals.
Across baseball in 2017, the average xwOBA was .314, and of the 228 starters who faced at least 100 hitters, the range went from .242 at the very top end to .404 at the bottom. The second-best starter, at .248, was Kluber. Also the second-best starter, at .248, was Sale. The most advanced tool we have says that the two were identically dominant this year, and Severino, for what it's worth, was elite as well, coming in at No. 9 with a stellar .267 mark.
A big part of that is missing bats. Of 265 starters to get a minimum of 100 swings this year, Kluber's 33.6 percent swing-and-miss rate was third, but Sale's similar 31.8 percent rate was fifth. On pitches thrown in the strike zone, Kluber got called strikes 31.8 percent of the time, again slightly ahead of Sale's 29.8 percent. In terms of hard-hit rate, 129 starters allowed at least 100 balls in play, and Kluber's 29.3 percent hard-hit rate was 10th-best, while Sale's 30.1 percent was barely behind. (Severino's 33.6 percent was 66th.)
In so many ways they're similar, but despite Sale's advantage in innings (214 1/3 to 203 2/3) and strikeouts (308 to 265), Kluber still seems likely to win. His sizable edge in ERA (2.25 to 2.90) will sway many voters, as will the recency bias of the fact that Sale struggled somewhat down the stretch (4.09 ERA after Aug. 1) while Kluber was dominant, striking out 224 in 23 starts after a May disabled list trip. After months of wondering if Sale would be in the MVP conversation, it now seems likely he'll finish second to Kluber in the Cy Young.
Above, when we talked about the top starting pitchers by xwOBA, we pointed out that Sale and Kluber tied for second-best. We didn't say who was atop that list, and that was Scherzer, with a .242 mark. That's slightly ahead of Kershaw's .253 (fourth-best) and Strasburg's .264 (eighth-best); obviously, we're talking about three elite starters here.
There's no shortage of reasons why Scherzer was so dominant yet again, but one thing that clearly stands out is that his four-seam fastball spin rate of 2,504 RPM was elite, coming in third (just behind Justin Verlander and ahead of Yu Darvish) of the 193 starters who threw a minumum of 200 four-seamers. High four-seam spin can give the "rising fastball" effect and is positively correlated with swinging strikes and popups; Scherzer's 34.4 percent strikeout rate was the second-highest of the 134 pitchers with at least 100 innings, behind only Sale.
When hitters did manage to make contact, they didn't make hard contact, and that's a combination that gets you baseball's best xwOBA. Scherzer's hard-hit rate of 29.2 percent was tied for ninth-best of those 129 starters who allowed at least 100 balls in play, but Kershaw's 26.5 percent was the best. While he's perhaps best known for his deadly curveball and slider, Kershaw's four-seam fastball allowed just a 84.9 mph exit velocity when it was put in play, a mark that was the ninth-best of 174 starters who had a minimum of 50 four-seamers in play.
There's some evidence, based on past trends, that Kershaw's advantage in wins and ERA may win him the vote; his 2.31 ERA was the lowest in the NL and his 4.4 percent walk rate was the second-lowest in the NL. However, Scherzer's edge in xwOBA and innings (200 2/3 to 175) give him a strong case for voters who look beyond the surface numbers.
There's no wrong answer here, obviously, and while Strasburg won't win, he more than deserves to be in the conversation. Another good way to show that is to look at only pitches that were in the strike zone, so eliminating anything outside the zone -- the kind of pitches that pitchers want a hitter to go after. On those pitches, Scherzer's .210 Expected Batting Average was the best in baseball, of 213 starting pitchers with 100 such plate appearances. Kershaw's .234 was sixth; Strasburg's .241 was ninth. If you can throw the ball in the zone and still know hitters aren't able to do much with it, you know you're doing something right. All three of these aces are, obviously.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.