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Awards Watch: Wainwright, Hernandez tighten up Cy Young races

Felix Hernandez's 2.24 ERA is second only to Masahiro Tanaka in the American League, and his 0.96 WHIP is the third-best mark in all of baseball. Photo: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Felix Hernandez's 2.24 ERA is second only to Masahiro Tanaka in the American League, and his 0.96 WHIP is the third-best mark in all of baseball.

Awards Watch’s latest check on the Cy Young races finds the same leaders in place in both leagues, but both races have tightened up significantly, at least at the top.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, June 25. 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.

National League

1. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (1)

Season Stats: 7-5, 1.86 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.41 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 197 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 2.52 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 4.50 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

Since completing at least seven innings in each of his first ten starts this season, Cueto has pitched that deep into a game just twice in his last seven starts. Indeed, from this perspective, we can see a clear bifurcation of his season as follows:

  ERA WHIP BABIP IP/GS CG
First 10 GS 1.25 0.71 .160 8.0 3
Last 7 GS 2.86 1.07 .298 6.3 0

It's easy to see what changed. As good as Cueto was over those first ten starts — and he was excellent, striking out 9.5 men per nine innings with a 4.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio, both career bests — his numbers were goosed to the point of absurdity by an unsustainable batting average on balls in play. Indeed, Cueto didn’t allow more than five hits in any of his first ten starts. Since May 20, however, his luck on balls in play has evened out and the result has been a performance not unlike his 2012 season, when he posted a 2.78 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

I left out Cueto’s defense-independent peripherals above to point out that, despite Cueto reducing his home run and walk rates over his last seven starts, he has also hit six batters with pitches. If you add those hit batsmen to his walk total, he is giving hitters first base more often than he was over those first ten starts while also striking men out less often (23 percent of batters faced compared to 28). Cuteo is still leading the majors in several key categories, but he is opening the door for his challengers.

2. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (2)

Season Stats: 10-3, 2.08 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 4.67 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 177 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-0, 0.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 4.50 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS

Wainwright is the man most likely to walk through the door Cueto has opened, but he wasn’t able to do it in the last three weeks due to elbow tendinitis, which cost him a start. He returned from that skipped start to hold the Phillies to one run over eight innings while striking out seven and walking none on Saturday and is scheduled to start Thursday night’s game in Dodger Stadium. The Cardinals need him healthy now more than ever given that they just put Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia on the disabled list with shoulder injuries.

3. Julio Teheran, RHP, Braves (4)

Season Stats: 6-5, 2.41 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 4.09 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 152 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-2, 4.13 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 9.33 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

Teheran has failed to record a quality start just twice in 16 outings this season, but both of the exceptions were doozies. On May 14, he gave up five runs (four earned) in a mere 3 1/3 innings, and on June 11, he gave up seven runs in 6 1/3 innings. The latter start is why his ERA from the last three weeks is so high despite otherwise strong peripherals.

4. Jason Hammel, RHP, Cubs

Season Stats: 6-5, 2.99 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 4.55 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 130 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 0-2, 3.60 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 5.80 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

The Cubs have received some outstanding performances in their rotation this year from the likes of Jeff Samardzija, Hammel, and Jake Arrieta; all three are former top-100 prospects who took a while to deliver on that promise. At 31, Hammel is the oldest and most well-traveled of the bunch, as he is now with his fourth organization and third team in the last four years. However, to this point in the season, Hammel has also been the best, replicating the success he had with the Orioles in 2012 but with significantly fewer walks and, thus far, better health.

Hammel takes this spot over Samardzija and the MarlinsHenderson Alvarez because of his superior peripherals and all of the unearned runs the other two pitchers have allowed. Using Run Average, which treats all runs allowed equally, Hammel, who had not allowed an unearned run this season, is at 2.99. Alvarez, who has allowed eight unearned runs and pitches in a far friendlier home ballpark, is at 3.03, and Samardzija, who has allowed nine unearned runs, is at 3.32.

5. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants

Season Stats: 9-4, 2.63 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 4.44 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 1 CG, 129 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 2.10 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 3.71 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS

It feels like Bumgarner has been around forever, given that he started in the World Series four years ago, but he won’t be 25 until August, and in the wake of the collapses of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, he has emerged as the staff ace of a team once known for its rotation. It’s no fault of Bumgarner’s that that rotation isn't what it used to be, nor is it his fault that he pitches in a pitcher-friendly ballpark that causes his numbers to be devalued by advanced statistics.

Those adjustments should be made, but Bumgarner has actually been far better on the road than at home this season, going 6-1 with a 1.32 ERA and eight quality starts in nine road appearances against 3-3 with a 4.57 ERA, .381 BABIP and just two quality starts in seven starts at home. That means that Bumgarner, who has gone 4-1 with a 1.64 in his last six starts, all of which lasted at least seven innings, could be enjoying some favorable correction.

Off the list: Tim HudsonKyle Lohse

​American League

1. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees (1)

Season Stats: 11-2, 2.11 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 7.00 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 190 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-1, 2.25 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 6.20 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 1 CG

Tanaka is still a perfect 15-for-15 in quality start on this season and in his major league career. Since 1914, no pitcher with 15 or more starts has ever had a season in which every one of his starts was quality. The highest quality start percentage over that sample was Greg Maddux’s 96 percent (24-for-25) in 1994. Tanaka will eventually have a non-quality start, but it's remarkable that he has gone this far without one, particularly given that this is his first year in the league. In fact, if his next start is quality, Tanaka will tie former Expos ace Steve Rogers for the longest streak of quality starts to begin a major league career since 1914. Rogers fell two outs shy of making it 17 in a row in his final start of his rookie season of 1973.

2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (3)

Season Stats: 9-2, 2.24 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 6.74 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 168 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-1, 1.23 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 12.33 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS

Great as Tanaka has been this season, Hernandez has closed in on him over the last six weeks. His last eight starts all lasted at least seven innings and saw Hernandez allow no more than two runs in any of them, as he went 5-1 with a 1.48 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 10 strikeouts per nine and strikeout-to-walk ratio of 9.7. Hernandez has put up those numbers without the benefit of any out-sized luck on balls in play; he’s just been that good. On June 8, he needed just 100 pitches to hold the Rays scoreless for seven innings while striking out 15, tying the league-wide season high for strikeouts in a game. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider that there is no record of a pitcher having struck out so many men on so few pitches since 1988.

3. Scott Kazmir, LHP, A’s

Season Stats: 9-3, 2.66 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 6.1 IP/GS, 1 CG, 142 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-1, 3.52 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.50 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS

A dozen years after the Mets made him the 15th overall pick in the 2002 draft, Scott Kazmir finally made his first major league start in Queens. It's been almost 10 years since the Mets sent Kazmir to the then-Devil Rays in an infamous swap for Victor Zambrano and Bartolome Fortunato, and on Tuesday, Kazmir returned to New York as the ace he was projected to be. He got a rude homecoming, however, as the Mets pounded Kazmir to the tune of seven runs in three innings, six of them on a trio of home runs.

That outing and his May 17 start, from which he was ejected in the second inning for arguing balls and strikes, are the only negative marks on Kazmir's season. Of his other 14 starts, 12 were quality, and the two exceptions only missed by one inning or one run, respectively. He averaged 6.7 innings per start in those 14, and heading into Tuesday’s start at Citi Field, his season ERA was a mere 2.08. The Queens catastrophe still counts, as does the ejection, but they mask just how effective Kazmir has been this season.

4. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros (5)

Season Stats: 8-5, 2.78 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 3.19 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 147 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-2, 3.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 1.73 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 CG

The foundation of Keuchel’s success this season has been the most extreme groundball rate since Brandon Webb was making lists like this one. Accordingly, Keuchel’s June 17 start in Washington was both his first, and still only, this year in which he allowed more flyballs than groundballs and, accordingly, his worst of the season. In each of the starts that bookended that one, Keuchel completed eight innings, though in the latter it was in the service of a complete game loss in which he walked four men for the second time this season and second consecutive start. Fortunately for Keuchel, his primary competitors for the last couple of spots on this list are coming off similarly rough patches.

5. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers (4)

Season Stats: 7-4, 2.62 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 3.28 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 155 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-2, 4.00 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 11.7 K/9, 2.33 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Darvish notched his first major league complete game and shutout on June 11 against the Marlins, but in the three starts that surrounded that one, one before and two since, he allowed 16 runs (12 earned) in 18 innings, walking 12 and giving up four home runs, one more than in his first ten starts on the season combined. Meanwhile, Mark Buehrle, who falls off the list this time around, went 0-2 with a 4.74 ERA in his last three starts and has allowed five home runs in his last four starts after allowing just two through his first 12.

Off the list: Mark Buehrle

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