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New leader in AL Cy Young race while NL award looks all locked up

Every week I will rank the top five candidates in each league for one of baseball's three major awards. This week I revisit the Cy Young award races, which I first examined three weeks ago. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list (HM stands for honorable mention).

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, June 6; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.

1. David Price, LHP, Rays (2)

Season Stats:8-2, 2.29 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 1.96 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.77 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 4.8 K/9, 1.40 K/BB

With Phil Hughes' candidacy handicapped by an impending innings limit (see No. 5 below), another 24-year-old becomes the Cy Young favorite in the American League. Price leads the AL in wins and ERA, but the latter stat owes a great deal to four starts in which he didn't allow an earned run but did allow four unearned runs. If we shift our attention to Run Average (RA), which counts earned and unearned runs, Price drops to seventh in the AL, albeit at a still-solid 2.89 R/9IP (Hughes, who hasn't allowed an unearned run all season, leads the AL in RA at 2.54). Of greater concern is the fact that Price's strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio are pedestrian (the latter being league average, the former being below average) and seem to be trending down rather than up, all of which is evidence that Price hasn't been as dominant as his league-leading win and ERA marks suggest.

2. Andy Pettitte, LHP, Yankees (5)

Season Stats: 7-1, 2.47 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 2.43 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 3.58 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 4.40 K/BB

Pettitte has allowed one or no runs in six of his 11 starts this season and has allowed more than two runs just twice. Seven of the 21 runs he has allowed on the season came in a single bad start against the Rays on May 20. Throw that start out, and Pettitte's ERA drops to 1.85, and his record rounds up to a perfect 7-0. Not bad for a guy who is a dozen years older than the next-oldest pitcher in my AL top five this week. The big difference for Pettitte this year has been his ability to induce double plays. The last two years, Pettitte enabled his defense to turn two in just nine percent of double play situations. This year, he's up to 24 percent, a career high and more than twice the major league average rate. Incidentally, Pettitte's highest Cy Young finish came in his sophomore season of 1996, when he won 21 games and finished second to the Blue Jays' Pat Hentgen. If Pettitte wins 21 this year (he's a third of the way there a third of the way into the season), he'll reach 250 for his career.

3. Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox (N/A)

Season Stats:8-3, 2.39 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 1.69 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.90 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 3.00 K/BB

Buchholz and Hughes have followed similar paths to this year's Cy Young award race. Both were first-round draft picks (Hughes out of high school in 2004, Buchholz in the supplemental round out of college in 2005). Both were elite prospects. Both made their major league debuts in 2007. Neither allowed a hit in his second career start (Hughes pulled a hamstring in the seventh inning and departed, Buchholz pitched all nine frames). Both opened 2008 in their team's rotation but didn't last (Hughes again due to injury, Buchholz due to poor performance and short leash). Both opened 2009 in the minors but finished as key major league contributors (Hughes as a set-up man for the World Series champions, Buchholz as a Division Series starter). The key difference is that Buchholz threw 191 innings between the majors and minors last year, allowing him to shoulder a full workload this year which will allow him to pitch more innings this season than Hughes will, and that difference moves him ahead of Hughes on this list.

Go back five starts and Buchholz is 5-0 with a 0.99 ERA. That's one reason that the Red Sox have turned their season around, but Buchholz was the one Boston starter that was good when they were bad, posting a 2.19 ERA in April (albeit with the benefit of five unearned runs that were swept under the ERA rug). More recently, Buchholz hasn't allowed a run, earned or otherwise, in his last 18 1/3 innings.

4. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox (N/A)

Season Stats: 7-2, 2.73 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 2.31 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.64 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 2.25 K/BB

When Lester, a popular preseason Cy Young pick, started the season by posting an 8.44 ERA in his first three starts, all Red Sox losses, there were a number of "what's wrong with Lester" stories in the Boston press and beyond. The authors of those concerns clearly forgot about how Lester began the last two seasons. In 2008, he had a 5.40 ERA after six starts then went 15-4 with a 2.82 ERA the rest of the way. In 2009, his ERA was 6.07 as late as May 30. He then went 12-3 with a 2.31 ERA the remainder of the season. This year, he turned things around far earlier, going 7-0 with a 1.29 ERA in his last nine starts dating back to April 23 and hasn't allowed a run (earned or otherwise) in four of those nine starts. That, combined with the inferior peripherals of the pitchers above him on this list, suggests that he could very well live up to that pre-season hype. Incidentally, the Sox have gone 27-15 (.643) since Lester's first good start of the year, with 30 percent of those wins coming in games Lester has started.

5. Phil Hughes, RHP, Yankees (1)

Season Stats: 7-1, 2.54 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 3.20 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 4.38 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.17 K/BB

Based on his performance alone, Hughes should still be at the top of this list, but now that he is no longer leading the league in wins, ERA, and WHIP (as he was three weeks ago), his candidacy has to face the reality of his innings limit. Hughes has never thrown more than 146 innings in a season at any level, and because of injury in 2008 and his relief assignment last year, he hasn't thrown more than 106 total innings since 2007. The Yankees thus intend to impose a limit on Hughes' workload this year, believed to be about 170 innings. They already skipped him the first time through the rotation in April, and with Javier Vazquez seemingly straightened out, they might start looking for occasions to skip more of Hughes' starts over the next few months in order to have him fully available for the stretch run. That will hurt Hughes' Cy Young candidacy, in part because it will suppress his counting stats (especially strikeouts, a particular area of strength for Hughes relative to some of his competition, and those all-important wins), but also because, as we saw with Chris Carpenter in last year's National League Cy Young voting, a failure to reach 200 innings can undermine a Cy Young candidacy. In fact, no starting pitcher has ever won a Cy Young award in a non-strike year without having thrown at least 200 total innings that season. I don't imagine Hughes will become the first, but as long as he's one of the five best pitchers in the league, I'll keep him on this list.

Off the list:Matt Garza (3), Jered Weaver (4)

1. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (1)

Season Stats:11-1, 0.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 2.69 K/BB, 2 CG, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.58 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 3.00 K/BB

Jimenez made his 12th start this season on Sunday, June 6. Last year, eventual AL Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke went 8-1 with a 0.84 ERA through his first 10 starts, but by his 12th start, on June 5, his ERA was up to 1.55. He finished the year 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA. In 1968, Bob Gibson set a live-ball-era record with a 1.12 ERA. Pitching in a five-man rotation, Gibson also made his 12th start on June 6. His season stats after that start paled next to Jimenez's (5-5, 1.52 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 2.88 K/BB). Gibson completed eight of his first 12 starts in 1968, three of which went into extra innings, while Jimenez has finished just two this year, but both of Jimenez's complete games have been shutouts, one of them a no-hitter, while Gibson had just one shutout at the same point in 1968. However, that one shutout came in Gibson's June 6 start and was the first of five in a row for Gibson and one of 13 shutouts in his final 23 starts of the season. The chances are almost nil that Jimenez can continue to rival Gibson, but what he's done already this season has been nearly as unlikely. If it's possible to wrap up an award this early, as Greinke appeared to do in the AL last year, Jimenez has done it.

2. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (2)

Season Stats: 8-3, 2.03, 1.03 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 5.92 K/BB, 5 CG, 3 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.93 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 6.25 K/BB, 1 perfect game

Three weeks ago, I reported that no pitcher had thrown a no-hitter and won his league's Cy Young award in the same season since Mike Scott in 1986. Well, the only pitcher to throw a perfect game and win his league's Cy Young award in the same season was Sandy Koufax in 1965. Between Jimenez and Halladay, one of those bits of trivia will likely have to be updated this November, but Koufax's achievement seems safe for now.

3. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (N/A)

Season Stats: 8-3, 2.05 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 3.86 K/BB, 3 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 1.20 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 5.14 K/BB

The Cardinals have three starters worthy of Cy Young consideration at this point in the season. Rookie Jaime Garcia (5-2, 1.47 ERA) got the nod over Wainwright on my list three weeks ago, and Chris Carpenter (7-1, 2.76 ERA) just missed making the list this week. Carpenter and Wainwright finished second and third in last year's voting, respectively, and each is as important to the Cardinals' postseason aspirations as perennial MVP Albert Pujols. Wainwright has come on strong in the last three weeks and is actually tied with Jimenez for the major league lead in quality starts and quality start percentage, both turning the trick 11 times in 12 starts. Wainwright is also one of three pitchers in this week's rankings to deliver on his promise as a starting pitching prospect after working high-leverage relief innings for a pennant winner, Price and Hughes being the other two.

4. Mike Pelfrey, RHP, Mets (N/A)

Season Stats: 8-1, 2.39 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 1.86 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 1.26 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 1.91 K/BB

Pelfrey is the only man on this list with a save, which he earned by pitching the bottom of the 20th inning in St. Louis back on April 17. That relief outing came in the middle of three scoreless April starts, but an early-May hiccup kept him off my previous list. As the above stats show, he's since rediscovered his early-April form. The six-foot-seven Pelfrey was the ninth-overall pick in the 2005 draft and is now in his third full season in the Mets' rotation at the age of 26. His success in the early going this year has come from the introduction of an effective split-finger fastball to compliment his low-90s sinker. That new pitch has contributed to small improvements in a variety of areas, including strikeout rate, home run rate, infield pop-up rate, and perhaps most importantly, ground-ball rate, that last boosting his double-play rate to a Pettitte-like 21 percent.

5. Josh Johnson, RHP, Marlins (N/A)

Season Stats: 6-2, 2.10 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 3.21 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 0.33 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 2.88 K/BB

Since returning from Tommy John surgery around just before the 2008 All-Star break, Johnson has gone 28-8 with a 3.09 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, and 3.17 K/BB to establish himself as one of the National League's best starters. This year, he hasn't allowed more than three runs in a start since Opening Day (when he allowed four) and has limited the competition to one or none in seven of his 12 starts including each of his last five (0.53 ERA, 3.75 K/BB). Amazingly, Johnson won just three of those last five starts. In the other two, he took one no-decision (in a game the Marlins won 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth) and one loss. In the latter, he had the bad luck of being the opposing pitcher in Halladay's perfect game, which the Phillies won 1-0 on an unearned run.

Off the list:Tim Lincecum (3), Barry Zito (4), Jaime Garcia (5)

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