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Riding historic scoreless streak, Zac Gallen has shot at NL Cy Young Award

Jesse Friedman Avatar
September 11, 2022

Two months ago, calling Zac Gallen an NL Cy Young Award candidate would have been like calling the Diamondbacks a Wild Card contender earlier this week. Fun to dream about, but out of touch with reality.

After struggling to the tune of a 7.31 ERA in three starts from late June to early July, Gallen had a 3.62 ERA on the season. That is more than respectable, but it wasn’t the type of performance that would warrant Cy Young votes — or All-Star votes, for that matter.

When reflecting on Gallen’s first half, pitching coach Brent Strom knew there was more in the tank.

“It’s above-average. It’s good,” Strom said. “I don’t think it’s where he thinks he should be or where I think he should be.

“This guy is an elite starting pitcher, and I think he will show that in the second half.”

Gallen has done that and more. Since the All-Star break, the D-backs righty is 7-0 in nine starts with a 0.61 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and .138 opponent batting average. If he’d started the first half that way, he might have been the front-runner to start the All-Star Game for the NL.

Of course, Gallen’s strong second half has been highlighted by a still-active streak of 41 ⅓ consecutive scoreless innings. That is one way to insert oneself to the Cy Young conversation.

As the final weeks of the season play on, the NL Cy Young field is still wide open. At the moment, I can comfortably say the winner will be one of these five: Gallen, the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara, the Giants’ Carlos Rodón, the Braves’ Max Fried and the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes. Here they are, ordered by the right-most WAR column (a straight average between fWAR and bWAR), with their 2022 stats entering Saturday:

Sandy Alcantara196.22.431.013.0623.
Max Fried163.12.481.022.4923.
Carlos Rodon162.22.931.052.3232.
Zac Gallen152.22.420.923.0825.
Corbin Burnes172.02.930.983.1531.
Zac Gallen is one of Friedman’s five candidates for NL Cy Young Award

Gallen’s case is more compelling than his fourth-place WAR ranking lets on. The reason is simple: He leads the field in both ERA and WHIP. Recent history tells us that ERA is still king when it comes to Cy Young voting. (Yes, I can feel like the baseball analytics movement — myself included — breaking out in hives as I say this.)

Since 2017, every Cy Young Award winner has either ranked first or second among qualified starters in their league in ERA. Moreover, seven out of 10 winners ranked first. If Gallen leads the league in ERA by the end of the season, his case will hold weight.

To be fair, Gallen actually does not lead all NL pitchers in ERA currently. That honor belongs to Dodgers lefty Julio Urias, who is 15-7 with a 2.29 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP. At first glance, he appears to have a worthy case.

Urias has several things working against him, though. First, he trails the rest of the pack with just 145.2 innings — trailing Alcantara’s 196.2 by more than 50 frames — and his 3.62 FIP suggests significant over-performance. The innings disparity will make it hard for Urias to attract first-place votes from traditionalists, and his non-elite peripherals essentially rule out any first-place votes from more statistically-minded voters. Urias entered Saturday just 14th among NL pitchers in fWAR.

From an innings standpoint, Gallen is in a similar position. His total of 152.2 innings is only seven more than Urias, and is still the lowest of anyone in the top five named above. Unlike Urias, however, Gallen’s peripherals hold up well compared to his actual stats. The difference between them is relatively small, but if voters were pressed to pick between them, Gallen’s case figures to hold up better.

Nonetheless, the similarities between Gallen and Urias reveal Gallen’s greatest flaw: he has thrown 43 fewer innings than Alcantara. If voting were held tomorrow, Gallen wouldn’t stand a chance. His ERA being 0.01 point lower than Alcantara’s wouldn’t stand a chance of overcoming the chasmic innings disparity that separates them. Alcantara has had an incredible season, and there’s a reason he’s been the favorite to win the award for several months. 

What Gallen does have on his side is momentum. Since his scoreless innings streak began on Aug. 8, Alcantara has gone 2-3 in six starts with a 4.70 ERA and an opponent slash line of .277/.313/.452. Alcantara’s ERA has risen from 1.88 to 2.43 in that span, while Gallen’s has lowered from 3.12 to 2.42. If those trends continue, it’s not impossible that Gallen’s ERA could be significantly lower by the end of the year.

Right now, it’s hard to bet against Gallen doing exactly that. With a scoreless first inning at Coors Field on Sunday, he would break Brandon Webb’s record for the longest scoreless streak in franchise history. If he manages to get here, more history could follow. The longest scoreless streak in the Live Ball Era belongs to Orel Hershiser, who lasted 59 innings in 1988. Hershiser won the Cy Young award that year. If Gallen could find a way to beat that streak, he probably would, too.

Of course, there are other candidates in his way other than Alcantara. Fried’s 2.48 ERA is slightly higher than Gallen’s 2.42 mark, but he has thrown roughly 10 more innings and has stronger peripherals. Fried has remained stellar late into the season, tossing five no-hit innings in his most recent start before being removed due to an extensive rain delay.

Burnes and Rodón have big strikeout numbers but also higher ERAs than Gallen, Alcantara and Fried. Those strikeout numbers could prove attractive in a field of pitchers that is relatively light on swing-and-miss, but both would need to finish strong to warrant first-place consideration. Rodón has the better case of the two, sporting the best FIP among qualified NL starters.

Whether Gallen wins or not, the fact that he is in the conversation signals remarkable progress over the last two months. It’s been nearly 15 years since the Diamondbacks have had a top-three finisher in Cy Young voting. The last one was Webb, who finished runner-up in 2008.

Follow Jesse Friedman on Twitter

Top photo: Zac Gallen delivers a pitch at Chase Field (Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY Sports)

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