Every week I will rank the top five candidates in each league for one of baseball's three major awards. Last week, I examined the MVP races in each league and next week, I'll take my first look at the Rookie of the Year contenders. This week, I'm turning my attention to the early-season leaders for the Cy Young awards.
With the amateur draft just three weeks away and the Nationals' perhaps on the verge of promoting last year's No. 1 overall selection, Stephen Strasburg, it's interesting to note that of the 10 pitchers listed below, seven of them are former first-round draft picks and an eighth (Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez) wasn't even eligible for the draft. Some of them -- such as Phil Hughes of the Yankees and David Price of the Rays -- were brought along slowly (in the opinions of some, too slowly), while others, such as the Giants' Tim Lincecum had relatively brief apprenticeships before becoming mainstays in a big league rotation.
The question of how to handle young pitchers is one that has no definitive answer. The only thing known for sure is that each of the pitchers below has been outstanding to date.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, May 16; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
1. Phil Hughes, RHP, Yankees
Season stats:5-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 2.79 K/BB
Last four starts: 3-0, 1.01 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 3.29 K/BB
After injuries scuttled his first two major league seasons, Hughes, the 23rd pick in the 2004 draft, slipped into the Yankees bullpen in 2009 and played a key role in their championship run by posting a 1.40 ERA and 11.4 K/9 as a reliever in the regular season. But he still had to beat out Joba Chamberlain in camp to become the Yankees' fifth starter this year and actually opened the season in extended spring training because the Yankees didn't need a fifth starter until the season's second week. In his second start, he threw 7 1/3 no-hit innings against the A's, and in his last three, he has posted this line: 21 IP, 16 H, 2 R, 0 HR, 3 BB, 21 K. Hughes' opponents have hit just .223 on balls in play (a figure that is likely to regress to the league average of around .300), and just two percent of his fly balls allowed have become home runs (against a league average of about 7.5 percent), so some correction is coming, but the strikeouts are still there, and his stuff is as good as it's ever been.
2. David Price, LHP, Rays
Season Stats:5-1, 2.03 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.29 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.24 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 2.44 K/BB
This is how it was supposed to go for Joba Chamberlain. The first pick in the 2007 draft, Price arrived in the majors in late 2008 and dominated out of the bullpen as the Rays surged to their first pennant. He then opened 2009 in Triple-A to limit his innings and returned to the majors in late-May as a starter. After some growing pains in '09, Price seems to have arrived as a dominant ace this year. However, the big difference between his 2009 and 2010 performances, like Hughes, has been some good fortune on balls in play and fly balls staying in the park, both of which could regress as the season progresses. Still, Price has Cy Young stuff and pitches for the team with the best record in baseball, so don't be surprised if he sticks around on this list.
3. Matt Garza, RHP, Rays
Season Stats:5-1, 2.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 2.82 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 2-0, 2.60 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.83 K/BB
One could make an argument for Rays starters James Shields and Jeff Niemann as well, which should give some explanation as to why the Rays have been the best team in baseball thus far. The top four men in their rotation are a combined 17-3 with a 2.44 ERA and 24 quality starts in 30 appearances. Shields has the best peripherals of that quartet, Niemann the second-lowest ERA after Price, but Garza has a better overall line than either of those two as well as share of the AL lead in wins, the category that seems to speak the loudest to awards voters.
4. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels
Season Stats: 4-2, 2.47 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 4.92 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.16 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, 4.57 K/BB
Weaver leads the AL in strikeouts with 59 and has struck out at least six men each of his eight starts. He's also the only one of the five pitchers on this list that doesn't have any wacky peripherals that suggest a correction is coming his way. True, that strikeout rate is unprecedented for Weaver (his career rate was 7.3 K/9 coming into this season), but at 26, it's entirely possible that Weaver is still maturing (his extreme home/road split from 2009 seems to be a thing of the past), which means he just might be the ace to replace John Lackey in Anaheim after all.
5. Andy Pettitte, LHP, Yankees
Season Stats:5-0, 1.79 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 5.8 K/9, 1.81 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 3-0, 2.13 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 2.14 K/BB
Pettitte claimed this final spot by beating Minnesota's Francisco Liriano head-to-head in the Bronx on Saturday. In that game, Liriano struck out seven men in six innings against no walks, while Pettitte walked three against just two Ks, but Pettitte also held the Twins to just two hits and no runs as the Yankees remained a perfect 7-0 in his starts on the season. Pettitte has allowed more than one run in a start just twice, more than two runs just once, and is off to the best start of his very impressive 16-year career. Of the five ALers to have won five games this season, only Pettitte and Hughes have ERAs under 2.00, and of the 13 major leaguers with five or more wins only Pettitte, Hughes, and the Giants' Tim Lincecum have not registered a loss.
1. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies
Season Stats:7-1, 1.12 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 2.57 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 3-1, 1.29 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.22 K/BB
The last pitcher to throw a no-hitter and win the Cy Young in the same season was Houston's Mike Scott in his infamous 1986 season. Jimenez is well on pace to repeat that feat having no-hit the Braves in his third start of the year, though the competition for the award in the NL is much stiffer than that in the AL. After eight starts, Jimenez has allowed as many as two runs just twice, never allowed more, and prior to giving up a pair of runs in eight innings on Saturday had an ERA below 1.00 (!). He's also averaging more than seven innings per start. As with most of the pitchers on these lists, luck on balls in play and fly balls have played a part, but just because Jimenez won't be Bob Gibson doesn't mean he won't win the Cy Young.
2. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies
Season Stats: 6-1, 1.59 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 5.78 K/BB, 3 CG, 2 SHO
Last Four Starts: 2-1, 2.45 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 1 SHO
When the Phillies traded 2009 postseason ace Cliff Lee to restock their farm system after sending three top prospects to the Blue Jays for Halladay, many skeptics wondered if it was worth all of that for the small upgrade from one ace to another. Halladay has given them their answer by leading the majors in complete games, shutouts, and innings pitched (averaging more than 7 2/3 innings per start), posting a typically absurd major league leading 5.78 K/BB ratio, allowing more than two earned runs in just one of his first eight starts, and going at least seven full innings in his first seven turns. Take out his one loss, which took place in San Francisco at the end of April and saw him go seven innings and walk no one, and his ERA drops to 0.98. That one start, included in his last four above, is the difference between him and Jimenez right now.
3. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants
Season Stats: 5-0, 1.76 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 4.60 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 1-0, 2.45 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 4.11 K/BB
The major league strikeout leader with 69, Lincecum remains a strong possibility to win his third straight Cy Young award despite the hot starts by Jimenez and Halladay. Only Greg Maddux (1992-95) and Randy Johnson (1999-2002) -- who each won four in a row -- have ever accomplished that feat. All eight of Lincecum's outings have been quality starts as he has averaged more than seven innings per start and just once allowed as many as three runs in a game. Lincecum has actually had great run support this season and has never left a game without a lead, but three of those leads were blown by his bullpen. Nonetheless, the Giants are 7-1 when Lincecum takes the hill.
4. Barry Zito, LHP, Giants
Season Stats: 6-1, 2.15 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 1.70 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 3-1, 3.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 5.0 K/9, 0.80 K/BB
There is a huge gap between the top three men on this list and the rest of the National League. Zito has won more games than any man in the American League, and the home run Carlos Lee hit off him on Sunday was the first he'd allowed in eight starts, but there's reason to doubt his ability to keep it up. Zito posted a 2.83 ERA after the All-Star Break last year, but also struck out 7.7 men per nine innings over that stretch. The decline of Zito's strikeout rate with the A's was the primary red flag that convinced everyone except San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean that his Giants contract would be a bust. Zito is doing his best to vindicate Sabean, but his current 5.6 K/9 isn't encouraging, particularly given the fact that 10 of his 34 strikeouts came in a single start against the Cardinals. At the same time, the fact that he has walked more men than he has struck out over his last four starts is largely the result of a fluky seven walks in a single start against the Padres, his lone loss on the season.
5. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals
Season Stats: 4-2, 1.42 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.25 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 3-1, 1.42 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.00 K/BB
A relatively poor outing by Adam Wainwright on Saturday allowed the rookie Garcia to leap-frog his teammate onto this list. Garcia has not allowed more than two earned runs or lasted fewer than six innings in any of his seven starts, and the home run Cincinnati's Drew Stubbs hit off him on Friday was the first and still only dinger Garcia has allowed on the season. Lefties have hit just .097 (3-for-31) against the Mexican southpaw thus far, and while the Cardinals have lost three of the games he has started, they scored a total of just two runs in those three contests.
NOTE: Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard is not on this list despite being tied with Jimenez for the major league lead in wins because despite his 7-1 record, 2.05 ERA, and 10.3 K/9, he also leads the major leagues in blown saves with five. Four of his seven wins have been vultured, meaning they came in games in which Clippard blew a save then picked up the win when his offense bailed him out. Relief wins are fluky to start with, but in Clippard's case they are as much a result of his pitching poorly as his pitching well. The leading Cy Young candidate among relievers right now is not Clippard but Nats closer Matt Capps, who in addition to his 0.93 ERA and major league leading 14 saves, leads the majors in Baseball Prospectus's adjusted win-expectancy statistic, a relievers-only stat in which Clippard ranks 40th.