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Awards Watch: NL Cy Young race now between Kershaw, Cueto, Wainwright

Awards Watch: NL Cy Young race now between Kershaw, Cueto, Wainwright Photo:

As we turn into the final third of the 2014 season, the battle for the National League Cy Young Award has boiled down to a three-man race, while the American League Award is Felix Hernandez’s to lose.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, August 6. 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 (2)

Season Stats: 13-6, 2.04 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 3.82 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 179 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 1.61 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 3.10 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 1 CG

The leader in this race for most of the first half, Cueto vaulted back into the top spot by allowing just three runs in 23 innings over his last three starts and going the distance against Cleveland on Tuesday for his first complete game since May. On the season, he has turned in an NL-best 21 quality starts in 24 games and is second only to Clayton Kershaw in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP. Cueto also leads the league in innings pitched by 8 1/3 innings over Julio Teheran, who has also made 24 starts.

2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (3)

Season Stats: 13-2, 1.82 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 9.24 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 5 CG, 2 SHO, 194 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-0, 1.97 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 7.75 K/BB, 8.0 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO

On a per-game basis, Kershaw has clearly been the most dominant pitcher in the National League this year, but he has started six fewer games and thrown 43 1/3 fewer innings than Cueto. Put another way, Cueto has thrown a third-more innings than Kershaw this season. Kershaw has been better than Cueto in those innings, but the difference in innings is still greater than the difference in performance between the two.

A starting pitcher’s top priorities, in order, are to prevent runs and eat innings, and because of the back injury that prevented him from throwing a single pitch in April, Kershaw still falls too short on the second measure to top this list. However, it now seems feasible that he could close that gap enough over the next two months to take the award.

3. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (1)

Season Stats: 13-6, 2.26 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 3.43 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS 3 CG, 2 SHO, 161 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-2, 5.82 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 1.20 K/BB, 5.7 IP/GS

Wainwright has had an all-or-nothing season. In 16 of his 22 starts, he has allowed two or fewer runs in seven or more innings pitched, but in four others, he has allowed six or more runs in fewer than six innings pitched. Of Wainwright’s last three starts, one saw him hold his opponent scoreless for seven innings, the tenth time this season he has had a scoreless outing of at least seven frames, but the other two were disasters in which he allowed a total of 13 runs in ten innings.

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4. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies

Season Stats: 6-6, 2.42 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 3.48 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 154 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-1, 0.60 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 16.50 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS

Another ace who missed time in April, Hamels didn’t make his 2014 debut until April 23 due to biceps tendinitis and had a 4.43 ERA at the end of May. He has been outstanding ever since, posting a 1.46 ERA in 13 starts since June 1, 11 of them lasting seven innings or more. In his last four starts, he has allowed just three runs (two earned) in 30 innings with 33 strikeouts against just two walks and no home runs. He also has nine more innings pitched than Kershaw in two more starts.

5. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers (5)

Season Stats: 12-7, 2.71 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 5.45 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 131 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-2, 2.60 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 4.43 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS

As good as Greinke has been this season, it’s hard to stake a claim to being the best pitcher in your league when you’re not even the best pitcher in your own rotation. Greinke, who did have one start shortened by rain in May, has thrown just 18 more innings than Kershaw on the season.

Off the list: Julio Teheran

Photo:

American League

1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (1)

Season Stats: 12-3, 1.97 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 5.81 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 190 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-1, 1.24 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 4.57 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS

Hernandez’s season is now all about The Streak. Dating back to May 18, he has made 15 consecutive starts in which he has thrown at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs, a modern major league record. The second-longest streak since 1900 belongs to Tom Seaver, who accomplished that in 1971; Seaver’s lasted 13 games. Hernandez has left him in the dust. He also had three other starts in April that met the same description (minimum seven innings, maximum two runs), giving him 18 such starts on the season. The last pitcher with more in a season: Felix himself, who had 20 in 2012, and there are two months left in this season. There is no one close to him in this race.

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2. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (3)

Season Stats: 10-2, 2.14 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 6.27 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 2 CG, 186 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 2.33 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 12.0 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS

Sale missed a month with a flexor strain in his pitching elbow early this season and the White Sox extended his rest over the All-Star break as well, leaving him with fewer innings pitched than any other pitcher on these lists, including Kershaw. Still, he has clearly been the second-best pitcher in the American League this season, as the gap between his performance and that of the next man on this list is large enough to compensate for his deficit in innings.

3. Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians

Season Stats: 12-6, 2.55 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 5.06 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 147 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 0.79 ERA, 0.62 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 11.67 K/BB, 8.5 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Acquired from the Padres in the three-way trade that sent Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals at the 2010 non-waiver deadline, Kluber was nothing special when he joined the Indians, but he developed a good sinker in 2012, established himself as a legitimate major league pitcher in 2013, and now, at the age of 28, has emerged as one of the best pitchers in the league. In each of the last two seasons, Kluber has increased his strikeouts while reducing his walks and home runs, and after two years of bad luck on balls in play, his .309 BABIP this season represents a big improvement.

Kluber is about to head into uncharted territory in terms of innings, but he has been in the 170-180 inning range for the last two years and, again, is 28, not 23, so he should handle the workload fine. As it stands, he has only gotten better as the season has progressed. Over his last ten starts, he has posted a 1.57 ERA, and in five July starts, he pitched into the ninth inning four times. Cleveland has its ace.

4. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees (2)

Season Stats: 12-4, 2.51 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 7.11 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 156 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: N/A

Tanaka may have been on the disabled list for the last month, but he has still thrown 7 1/3 more innings than Sale this season and was so good when he was healthy that he still holds a spot on this list. He’s also throwing again, playing catch on Monday and making 50 throws on flat ground on Tuesday. He’s a long way from a return, and could yet wind up having Tommy John surgery on his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, but as it stands, he’s out of neither sight nor mind.

5. Garrett Richards, RHP, Angels

Season Stats: 12-4, 2.58 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 3.17 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 144 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-2, 2.70 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS, 1 SHO

There’s a cluster of pitchers who could stake claim to this final spot, including Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, Scott Kazmir, and even David Price, who has dominated in every way except in run prevention (which is kind of important). I give Richards the edge here in part because he has thrown more innings and posted a lower WHIP than the rest. It doesn’t hurt that he threw his first career shutout in his last start, blanking the cross-town Dodgers on five singles and a pair of walks while striking out nine.

Off the list: Scott Kazmir, Jon Lester

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