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Tanaka, Scherzer duel for AL Cy Young, but NL belongs to Cueto

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Max Scherzer's 2.04 ERA, 209 ERA+ and 11.2 strikeouts per nine are all tops in the American League.

Awards Watch's first in-depth look at the Cy Young award races finds a compelling battle in the American League between last year's winner and this year's top rookie. But the best pitcher in the majors thus far this season pitches in the National League and has an easy lead over what remains an impressively deep field despite injuries to three of last year's top four finishers (Clayton Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, and Matt Harvey), the latter two of whom won't pitch again until next year.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, May 14. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

American League

1. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees

Season Stats: 6-0, 2.17 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 9.43 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 190 ERA+

The only rookie ever to win the Cy Young award was the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela in the strike-shortened 1981 season. It has never been done in the American League, nor in a full 162-game season. But Tanaka, who vaulted himself to the top of this list by shutting out the Mets on Wednesday night, has an excellent chance to change that. The first eight starts of Tanaka's major league career have been quality, none consisting of fewer than 6 1/3 innings. He has struck out fewer than seven men in a game only once. After giving up seven home runs in his first six starts, he has not allowed a home run in his last two and now has a streak of 18 1/3 innings without having allowed a home run.

On top of all that, Tanaka's splitter is the most unhittable pitch in baseball. As pointed out by Grantland's Shane Ryan last week, that splitter is the only pitch to have been thrown 100 or more times this season that has gotten a whiff on over half of the swings against it. After Wednesday night's shutout, Tanaka's opponents have swung and missed on 69 of 136 splitters. What's scary about Tanaka is that his slider has been nearly as effective, getting batters to miss on 34 of their 72 swings, or 47 percent.

2. Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers (2)

Season Stats: 5-1, 2.04 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 11.2 K/9, 4.13 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 209 ERA+

Scherzer leads the AL in ERA, ERA+, and strikeout rate, but he has thrown five fewer innings than Tanaka in the same number of starts while walking more than twice as many batters. Scherzer has been every bit as good this season as he was in his Cy Young campaign last year, but Tanaka has simply been better. Incidentally, it took Tanaka just eight major league starts to throw his first complete game. Scherzer has yet to complete a game after 173 starts, a major league record.

3. Scott Kazmir, LHP, Athletics (3)

Season Stats: 5-1, 2.28 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 4.67 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 167 ERA+

Just six of Kazmir's eight starts this season have been quality, but the two exceptions missed by just one inning and one run, respectively. That keeps Kazmir ahead of Mark Buehrle in my book, as Buehrle, who is also 6-for-8 in quality starts, had a full-blown disaster outing against the Red Sox at the end of April. Kazmir also has a significant advantage over Buehrle in WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and strikeout rate. For those who still pay attention to wins, both pitchers' teams are 7-1 in their starts, and Kazmir allowed just three runs (two earned) in 14 innings in his two no-decisions.

4. Mark Buehrle, LHP, Blue Jays

Season Stats: 7-1, 2.04 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 1.82 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 207 ERA+

Buehrle is striking out fewer men and walking more than he did last year, with his current 2.9 walks per nine innings ranking as his highest rate in the last 14 years. He's having a bit more luck on balls in play, but not a ton, with his current .289 BABIP sitting just four points below his career mark. So why is his ERA more than two runs lower than it was a year ago? The primary answer appears to be that he's not giving up home runs. Buehrle gave up 24 homers in 33 starts last year, a rate of 1.1 per nine innings, or just a tick above league average. This year, however, he has allowed just one home run through his first eight starts (53 innings), a feat matched by only the Angels' Garrett Richards and the Tigers' Justin Verlander this season, the latter of whom gave up a second home run in his ninth start on Wednesday.

Buehrle's lack of homers appears to be largely the result of luck, as just 1.1 percent of flyballs hit off him have left the park, compared to his career rate of 7.1 percent and the major league average of 7.7 percent. Given that Buehrle is inducing fewer ground balls and fewer infield pop-ups than he did last year, that percentage seems sure to correct itself. As for those major league leading seven wins, among qualified starters who don't pitch for the Rockies, only Kazmir and the Angels' C.J. Wilson have received more run support than Buehrle's 6.1 runs per game.

5. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox

Season Stats: 4-4, 2.75 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 5.08 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 153 ERA+

Jon Lester and James Shields have both had strong starts that fail to grade out well in wins above replacement due largely to an excess of unearned runs allowed. Lester has allowed seven unearned runs, Shields eight, putting their run averages (ERA using all runs allowed) at 3.88 and 3.73, respectively. Both men allowed the bulk of those unearned runs in a single disaster start (five unearned runs for Lester on April 22, six for Shields on April 12). Looking back at those games, I'm more willing to accept Lester's runs as being unearned, which is one reason that he takes the final spot on this list. Four of Lester's unearned runs came with two outs in an inning following an error on what should have been the third out, while a fifth came after an A.J. Pierzynski passed ball and throwing error moved a runner from first to third with less than two outs. By comparison, six of Shields' unearned runs came following his own fielding error, with one coming with no outs in that inning and three more coming on a home run in that same frame.

Lester edges A's starters Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez here due to his superior peripherals, and Yu Darvish and Royals rookie Yordano Ventura due to his significant advantage in innings pitched (9 1/3 more than Darvish, 13 1/3 more than Ventura). Only Tanaka and David Price have thrown more innings per start than Lester in the American League this season.

Off the list: Chavez

Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

No qualified starter in baseball has a better ERA than Johnny Cueto, who is at 1.43 through eight starts.

National League

1. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (1)

Season Stats: 3-2, 1.43 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 4.25 K/BB, 7.9 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 258 ERA+

Cueto's stats will likely have changed by the time you read this, as his Wednesday night start was rained out and rescheduled for 12:35 p.m. ET Thursday afternoon. Nonetheless, through his first eight starts, he has been far and away the best pitcher in the major leagues. Never mind going eight-for-eight in quality starts (six or more innings pitched with three or fewer earned runs allowed); Cueto has thrown at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs in each of his first eight starts this season and has completed eight or more innings in his last five starts. Only Adam Wainwright has thrown more innings than him in either league, and it took Wainwright an extra start to gain his one-inning advantage over Cueto in that department.

2. Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Cubs

Season Stats: 0-3, 1.45 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.81 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 265 ERA+

Anyone who can look at Samardzija's season line or gamelog and still claim that wins are the most significant pitching statistic is being willfully ignorant. In his last two starts, Samardzija allowed just one unearned run in 15 innings but still doesn't have a win this season because the Cubs scored a total of one run in those two games. In the first of those, Samardzija completed nine innings, allowing just the one unearned run on three hits and a pair of walks, but was not credited with a complete game because the game went into extra innings, where the Cubs lost 3-1.

Samardzija has completed seven or more innings in each of his first five starts this season, allowing three runs just once and never allowing more than two earned runs, and went 0-2 with three no decisions in those games. The Cubs didn't score a single run in a game Samardzija started until his third start of the season, and they are 1-7 in his starts, having averaged just 1.9 runs in those games. Among qualified starters, only the Braves' Alex Wood, who has since been bounced to the Atlanta bullpen, has received less run support.

3. Tim Hudson, RHP, Giants

Season Stats: 4-2, 2.09 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 9.50 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS, 1 CG, 156 ERA+

Hudson completed seven or more innings in each of his first seven starts this season, and his only non-quality start was a game in which he pitched 7 1/3 innings and allowed four runs without walking a batter. Speaking of which, Hudson didn't walk his first hitter this year until his fifth start and has walked just four men all season, fewer than every other pitcher with 25 or more innings pitched this season.

4. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (2)

Season Stats: 6-2, 2.11 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 3.73 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 172 ERA+

Wainwright leads the majors in innings pitched with 64, though he has had nine starts to compile that total. In seven of those nine starts, he completed at least seven innings. In four of those seven starts, he didn't allow a run. He falls behind Hudson here largely due to his disaster start against the Cubs two turns ago (5 IP, 6 R). Curiously, Wainwright's three worst starts this season have all come against the lowly Cubs, the same team that can't get Jeff Samardzija a win. Wainwright's only other non-quality start thus far saw him allow four runs in seven innings vs. Chicago, and his only other start of fewer then seven innings was his last, which saw him allow two runs in six frames against, you guessed it, the Cubs. Wainwright is 1-1 with a 6.00 ERA in three starts against the Cubs (two in St. Louis, the disaster in Wrigley Field), and 5-1 with a 0.59 ERA in his other six starts, in which he has allowed a total of three runs.

5. Wily Peralta, RHP, Brewers

Season Stats: 4-2, 2.05 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 3.90 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 180 ERA+

An underappreciated part of the first-place Brewers' success thus far this season, the 25-year-old sophomore has turned in seven straight quality starts since a rough season debut in which he allowed five runs (three unearned) in five innings against the Red Sox. Peralta, who ranks fifth in the majors in average fastball velocity according to FanGraphs, has posted a 1.88 ERA and 4.13 K/BB over those seven starts and has allowed just three runs in 21 innings over his last three turns. It's time to start paying attention.

Off the list: Jose Fernandez

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