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Is White Sox lefty Chris Sale the most dominant pitcher in MLB?
1:25 | MLB
Is White Sox lefty Chris Sale the most dominant pitcher in MLB?
Thursday July 2nd, 2015

Awards Watch’s latest look at the Cy Young races can double as a ranking of the potential All-Star Game starters. In the National League, Max Scherzer is pulling away from the pack for both honors, but in the AL, Dallas Keuchel and Sonny Gray have traded the top two spots. Whoever takes the ball on July 14 in Cincinnati will be determined by what happens over their next two starts before the break.

Note: All stats are through Wed., July 1. 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. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros (2)
Season Stats: 10–3, 2.03 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 3.29 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 192 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 3–1, 2.43 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.29 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Keuchel is the only qualified American Leaguer to complete at least six innings in every one of his starts this season, and he leads the majors in innings pitched by 13 2/3 frames over Cleveland’s Corey Kluber. He also tops the AL in ERA and ERA+. It’s tough to beat that combination, given that the first job for any pitcher is to eat innings and prevent runs.

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As if that weren't enough, Keuchel has been steadily improving his strikeout rate while maintaining his ground-ball and walk rates, making him all the more difficult to score against. One of the most extreme ground-ball pitchers in baseball, Keuchel struck out just 49 men in his first 10 starts at a rate of 6.1 per nine innings. However, in his last seven starts, he has struck out another 53 men in 51 2/3 innings—a rate of 9.2 per nine. Included in that total are his 11 whiffs in a May 30 shutout of the White Sox and a career-high 12 punchouts in a June 25 blanking of the Yankees.

2. Sonny Gray, RHP, Athletics (1)
Season Stats: 9–3, 2.09 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 3.73 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 184 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 2–0, 3.66 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 4.50 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS

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Gray missed his scheduled start on Tuesday due to gastroenteritis, so he has pitched just three times since we last checked in on this race compared to four times for the other men on this list. Those three starts were a mixed bag: one good (7 2/3 IP, 1 unearned run, 9 K), followed by one bad (6 IP, 6 R, 2 K) and then one in between (6 IP, 3 R, 7 K). By Game Score, the lesser two of those starts rank among Gray’s four worst of the season. That’s a testament to just how good he’s been, but it also suggests that he needs a quick recovery from both his illness and that downswing in his performance to remain near the front of this race.

3. Chris Archer, RHP, Rays (3)
Season Stats: 9–5, 2.31 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 5.32 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 168 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 2–1, 3.81 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS

Fortunately for Gray, he wasn’t the only frontrunner to have a disappointing three weeks. Just one of Archer’s last three starts was quality, and on Sunday, he gave up as many home runs to the Red Sox in six innings (three) as he had over his previous 10 starts combined, tying his season high with five runs allowed.

4. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox
Season Stats: 6–4, 2.87 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 12.3 K/9, 6.41 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 130 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 0–2, 2.45 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 14.7 K/9, 9.60 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS

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Sale has struck out 10 or more men in each of his last eight starts, tying Pedro Martinez in 1999 for the longest single-season streak of that kind since 1914 (which is as far back as the game data goes). Despite missing his first start of the year due to a broken foot, Sale is on pace to be the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002 to strike out 300 men in a season. Thanks in large part to all those strikeouts—which have been essential to succeeding in front of the White Sox' abysmal defense—Sale has arguably been the best pitcher in the league since early May. Compare his last 10 starts, nine of which have seen him reach double-digits in strikeouts, to Keuchel’s last 10:

player era whip k/9 k/bb ip/gs cg sho
Sale 1.78 0.74 13.6 9.58 7.6 0 0
Keuchel 2.48 1.03 8.1 4.06 7.2 3 2

In fact, if not for a single disaster start against the Twins on April 3 (3 IP, 9 R, 8 ER), Sale might be leading this race already, and as that start continues to shrink in weight relative to the rest of his season, he seems likely to continue to rise toward the top.

5. David Price, LHP, Tigers
Season Stats: 7–2, 2.62 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 4.76 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 150 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 2–0, 2.36 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 26.00 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 1 SHO

In the two starts that bookended my last look at the Cy Young races, Price turned in back-to-back complete games, allowing one run and striking out 11 in the first and shutting out Cleveland while striking out eight against no walks in the second. Those two outings are primarily responsible for lifting him into the top five this time around, though poor showings from Seattle's Felix Hernandez (1–2, 5.14 ERA due largely to his worst major league start) and Kluber (0–2, 4.26 ERA in three starts) helped.

Off the list: Felix Hernandez (4), Corey Kluber (5)

Derik Hamilton/AP

National League

1. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals (1)
Season Stats: 9–5, 1.79 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 9.29 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 212 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 3–0, 0.69 ERA, 0.27 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 33.00 K/BB, 8.7 IP/GS, 2 SHO

Due to a quirk of timing, Scherzer has made just three starts over the last three weeks rather than the usual four (he pitched the day before my last look at the Cy Young races and will take the mound tonight). Two of those, however, were arguably the best back-to-back starts any pitcher has made in the last 100 years.

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The first was a 16-strikeout shutout of the Brewers on June 14 in which the only base runners came on a broken-bat bloop single and a walk; the resulting Game Score of 100 is just the 12th nine-inning performance to reach triple digits since 1914. The second was a no-hitter against the Pirates on June 20 in which Scherzer struck out 10 and came within one out of a perfect game: Jose Tabata reached on a controversial hit-by-pitch with two outs in the ninth. Scherzer's Game Score for that outing was 97, making him the only pitcher on record to post scores of 96 or better in consecutive starts.

In his next outing, Scherzer was perfect for 5 1/3 innings against the Phillies, extending his hitless inning streak to 17. He ultimately allowed just two runs in eight innings, striking out seven against no walks. Scherzer hasn’t allowed a baserunner in the first five innings of a game since June 9. His starts are essential viewing right now.

2. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers (3)
Season Stats: 6–2, 1.58 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 4.70 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 CG, 237 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 1–1, 0.63 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 6.50 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 1 CG

Greinke’s worst start of the last three weeks was his June 13 complete game in which he allowed two runs in eight innings in a 2–1 loss to the Padres in San Diego. Since then, Greinke hasn’t allowed a run over three starts totaling 20 2/3 innings.

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On the season, Greinke has allowed multiple runs in just four of his 16 outings and, like Scherzer and Keuchel, completed a minimum of six innings every time he has taken the ball. Baseball Prospectus’s Deserved Run Average credits some of his dominance to catcher Yasmani Grandal’s outstanding pitch framing, calculating that Greinke deserves to have given up 2.14 runs per nine innings rather than his actual 1.66. But even with that adjustment, he has solidly been the second-best pitcher in the NL this year behind Scherzer (who leads the majors with a 1.45 DRA).

3. Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets (5)
Season Stats: 8–5, 2.15 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 5.56 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 175 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 1–1, 1.21 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 9.50 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS

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While we’re on the subject of pitchers who have been absolutely dominant of late, deGrom, who starts against the Cubs on Thursday afternoon, has pitched eight scoreless innings in three of his last seven starts. Over his last eight outings (58 2/3 innings), he has gone 5–1 with a 1.23 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 10.50 K/BB, more than a strikeout per inning and just one home run allowed. Luck on balls in play has played a role in that success, but last year’s NL Rookie of the Year now has a 2.47 ERA (147 ERA+), 1.05 WHIP, 4.00 K/BB and 244 strikeouts in 240 2/3 innings on his major league career. There is no question that he is the real deal.

4. Shelby Miller, RHP, Braves (4)
Season Stats: 5–4, 2.20 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.50 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 173 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 0–2, 3.38 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.29 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS

Defense-independent analysis suggests that Miller has been lucky this season, but Deserved Run Average tells us he has actually pitched even better than his ERA would suggest. Miller ranks fourth among qualified major league starters with a 2.10 DRA, and Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement ranks him third in the NL this season. Despite those credentials, Miller has looked pretty ordinary in June (3.57 ERA with quality starts in just half of his six turns), but things are close enough at this point that he can stay on this list for now based on his performance through the first two months

5. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 5–6, 3.20 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 11.8 K/9, 5.60 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 117 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 0–3, 2.70 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 13.2 K/9, 6.50 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS

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Pirates fans are surely asking: Where are Gerrit Cole (11–3, 2.20 ERA) and/or A.J. Burnett (7–3, 2.05)? DRA tells us that both have benefited significantly from pitching in favorable ballparks. Kershaw—who leads both in WHIP, K/9, K/BB and IP/GS—has been hurt by pitching in hitting-friendly parks, including Dodger Stadium, which has played like a hitter’s park this season. As a result, Kershaw has a 2.68 Deserved Run Average compared to Cole’s 3.21 and Burnett’s 3.49. A look at their game logs confirms that Burnett has pitched mostly in pitcher-friendly parks, while Kershaw has added road starts in Arizona, Milwaukee, Chicago's Wrigley Field and Denver (twice) to his work in a less-favorable home ballpark. Indeed, Kershaw’s two worst starts this season came at Arizona's Chase Field and Denver's Coors Field. Scrub those two and he has a 2.65 ERA in his other 14 turns, almost an exact match for his DRA on the season.

More significantly, Kershaw has been dominating regardless of venue over his last seven starts (1.85 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 12.4 K/9, 7.44 K/BB) with nine or more strikeouts in six of those seven outings. Never mind his slow start (which was additionally plagued by poor luck on balls in play) or the lack of run support that resulted in his suffering three straight losses for the first time in his career—the three-time Cy Young winner has remained one of the league’s elite pitchers.

Off the list: Gerrit Cole (2)

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