Will Arrieta repeat as NL Cy Young Award winner?

Don’t look now, but Jake Arrieta is suddenly right back in the middle of the National League Cy Young Award discussion.

Arrieta won the award in 2015 after a historically dominant performance, especially in the second half. Though this year’s performance isn’t on par with last year’s, Arrieta is still having a great season. He currently leads the NL in wins with 16, while his 2.62 ERA is good for fourth in the league. Coming off a strong outing last time out against the Padres, Arrieta now is in first place in ESPN’s NL Cy Young Award Predictor, by a pretty wide margin.

So, with a little over a month left of the regular season, what are Arrieta’s chances of successfully defending his title as best pitcher in the National League? Here are a few factors that will determine whether he wins the award:

A crowded field: Last year, Arrieta, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw ran away from the rest of the league, and voters basically had to choose from these three. This year, it’s much more jumbled.

Kershaw was running away from the pack before his injury back in June. Amazingly, he still leads NL pitchers in Wins Above Replacement despite not pitching in almost two months. So with him still sidelined, it’s a wide open race. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is actually second in ESPN’s Predictor, with two other closers, Jeurys Familia and Mark Melancon, also in the top ten. None of them have a real chance to win it, but Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, and Arrieta’s Cubs teammate Jon Lester also have a good case.

And let’s not forget the current major league ERA leader, another Cub, Kyle Hendricks, who only recently cracked ESPN’s top ten. For some reason, Hendricks hasn’t even been in the Cy Young discussion nationally. He picked up his 12th win on Wednesday against the Padres, so he’s not exactly lacking in this all-important stat either. His lack of experience, his being overshadowed by bigger names on his own team, and his reputation as less of a strikeout pitcher than the other Cy Young candidates all seem to be working against him. I’d like to think that if he continues pitching this well, Hendricks could crack the top five in final voting after the season.

Anyway, to this point the fact that we don’t yet have a runaway candidate has helped Arrieta, despite his struggles earlier this year and his troubles with walks he’s had at times throughout the season. That also means he’ll likely have to pitch to the best of his ability down the stretch to separate himself from the field.

Value to his team: Last year, Jason Hammel was awful in the second half, Hendricks’ inexperience showed at times, Lester was decent but not great, and the Cubs lacked a reliable fifth starter for much of the season. This year, the starting rotation one through five has been outstanding, save for a short stretch right before the All-Star Break. In 2015, Arrieta carried the pitching staff and was clearly the leader of the group. This may have been a reason why voters chose him over Dodger teammates Kershaw and Greinke.

This year, Arrieta is just one of several great pitchers the Cubs have had. Not to mention, the team is 81-45 and running away with the NL Central, meaning the Cubs have a great team overall, not just on the pitching side. This may decrease Arrieta’s perceived “value” to his team.

Rest down the stretch: Last year, Arrieta put the whole team on his back and carried them to the postseason. Because he was throwing so well, and because the Cubs were trying to lock down a Wild Card spot and stay in the hunt for the division title, Joe Maddon pushed him pretty hard. Since the Cubs have a massive division lead this year, Maddon figures to shorten Arrieta up in September in order to avoid the fatigue he apparently suffered in the postseason last year. This may give him less of a chance to improve his statistics.

Meanwhile, many of the other candidates are on teams that still have a lot of work to do to reach the playoffs. The Giants’ Bumgarner and Cueto, in particular, figure to be pushed hard down the stretch as the Giants try to at least claim a Wild Card spot, if not the NL West title. If either of them dominate in September, it will help their narrative of carrying their team to the playoffs, much like with Arrieta last year.

Of course, Cubs fans everywhere care first and foremost about getting ready for the playoffs. But the NL Cy Young Award race figures to also be interesting.

Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.