The 2011 American League Cy Young Award voters had it easy, really. It's a pretty good rule of thumb that if a starting pitcher is a worthy candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award, he probably ought to win the Cy Young Award. Justin Verlander was the obvious choice. He had the most wins, the lowest ERA, the most innings pitched, the most strikeouts and the lowest WHIP. He received each and every one of the 28 first-place votes cast. If you're expecting a similar consensus here in 2012, well, don't hold your breath.
This year, the AL Cy Young Award race is a convoluted one that could come down to split hairs or gut feelings. And it could mark the first time in seven years that a reliever garners first-place votes. Here are the top combatants for the AL Cy Young Award: David Price, Rays: Price is probably the clubhouse leader, given that he led the league in ERA (2.56) and tied for the league lead in wins (20). Price, though, was eighth in innings pitched (211), sixth in strikeouts (with 205, he trailed, among others, teammate James Shields) and tied for third in WHIP (1.10). So although he has a strong argument, he might not be viewed as the total package, the way Verlander was a year ago.
Fernando Rodney, Rays: Now, here's where it gets interesting. Because if a starter doesn't blow away the field, it would be understandable for the voters to go the relief route. Much like the MVP going to a pitcher, it takes a special season for a reliever to get first-place consideration for the Cy Young Award. Eric Gagne was the last reliever to win it, in 2003, and Dennis Eckersley was the last AL reliever to win it, in 1992. But Rodney just had that special of a season. He became just the second reliever in history to notch 40 saves or more with an ERA under 1.00 (Eckersley was the first, but in 1990, not his Cy Young season in '92). Rodney finished with 50 saves and an absurd 0.60 ERA and 0.78 WHIP in 74 2/3 innings over 76 appearances. Jim Johnson and Rafael Soriano also had strong relief seasons, but Rodney's was the best of the bunch, by far.
Verlander, Tigers: That Verlander was not as dominant in 2012 as he was in '11 hardly qualifies as a surprise. However, he did finish with a flurry, going 5-1 with a 1.93 ERA over his final six starts. Overall, Verlander went 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA (second behind Price in the league) in 33 starts, while racking up a league-leading 238 1/3 innings. His 239 strikeouts also led the league. Baseball-reference.com assigns Verlander 6.8 Wins Above Replacement, tops among all Major League pitchers. While his resume may not be a slam dunk like it was a year ago, garnering the AL Cy Young hardware for the second straight year is nonetheless a distinct possibility.
Jered Weaver, Angels: Weaver was the runner-up to Verlander a year ago, and he posted another strong season, ranking third in ERA (2.81) and tied for first in wins (20). He also had the lowest WHIP (1.02) in the league. But thanks in part to a late bout with biceps tendinitis, Weaver worked just 188 2/3 innings over 30 starts. He also had a 6.14 ERA in a five-start stretch from Aug. 12-Sept. 2 but submitted a strong September, going 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts. The voting for this award can get nitpicky, and Weaver's workload, relative to the other starters, could hurt him.
Chris Sale, White Sox: If a reliever can get Cy Young Award consideration, so, too, can a former reliever. Suffice to say, Sale's transition from relief work went splendidly for Chicago, as he finished 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA in 30 outings, including 29 starts. But because he was in the first year of that transition, the White Sox were careful with his workload, and that could affect his standing for the Cy Young Award. Sale went more than six innings in just two of his final seven starts and posted a September ERA of 4.11. That could hurt his chances.
Matt Harrison, Rangers: With an 18-11 record, Harrison finished behind just Price and Weaver for the league lead in wins. But his 3.29 ERA in 213 1/3 innings is probably not Cy Young Award material.
Felix Hernandez, Mariners: When King Felix finished off his perfect game in mid-August, he seemed to be trending toward his second Cy Young Award. He kept the trend going by allowing one run in 7 2/3 innings against the Indians on Aug. 21 and by shutting out the Twins on Aug. 27. But he gave up at least five earned runs in three of his final five starts and posted a September ERA of 5.70. On the year, Hernandez went 13-9 with a 3.06 ERA in 232 innings.