Monday August 16th, 2010

In our latest check of the Cy Young races, National League hurlers are showing just how fleeting success can be while in the American League one pitcher is putting up some historic numbers.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, August 15; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

1. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (1)

Season Stats: 17-6, 1.99 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 3.76 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.25 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.67 K/BB

"Quality start" doesn't do Wainwright's positive outings justice. In his last 11 turns, Wainwright has had two disaster outings (more runs allowed than innings pitched), and nine quality starts in which he allowed a total of two earned runs in 66 1/3 innings for a 0.27 ERA. Wainwright is now the last qualifying pitcher with an ERA below 2.00, making him the most effective run preventer in a season in which runs have been especially hard to come by.

2. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (3)

Season Stats: 15-8, 2.24 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 7.95 K/BB, 8 CG, 3 SHO

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 2.03 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 17.50 K/BB, CG

Halladay is the National League's version of Cliff Lee. He has an absurdly low walk rate (just one per nine innings), which has given him an absurdly high strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.95), he's averaging better than 7 2/3 innings per start, and despite being traded to a team known for its offense, he's having trouble getting much run support (just 4.38 runs per game thus far with the Phillies scoring four or fewer runs in 15 of his 25 starts). That last has picked up of late, as the Phillies have scored 5.83 runs per game in Halladay's last six starts, resulting in a 5-1 record for Doc over that stretch. Halladay has resembled Wainwright in that his quality starts have been so much more than that of late (Halladay has allowed a total of three runs in his last seven quality starts). The odd thing about Doc is that he does get lit up every so often. He has allowed five or more runs five times this season and has not strung together more than four consecutive quality starts at any point this season. That can be frustrating for a team trying to climb back into the playoff picture, but the second-place Phillies wouldn't even be in postseason contention without Halladay, who, incidentally, has allowed just one run in two complete game victories against the first-place Braves this season.

3. Tim Hudson, RHP, Braves (N/A)

Season Stats: 14-5, 2.13 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 4.9 K/9, 1.65 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.61 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 3.67 K/BB

Hudson has had the best post-A's career of any of Billy Beane's three former aces, but he hasn't received a Cy Young vote since being traded to the Braves nearly six years ago. Hudson is having his finest season at age 35 two years after having Tommy John surgery, though luck (.235 BABIP) is certainly playing a part. Hudson has allowed more than three runs in a start just twice all season and has failed to complete six innings just twice. He is also getting ground balls, groundouts, and double plays at career-high rates, which makes one wonder if it's more than a coincidence that Hudson has gone on a tear since Alex Gonzalez took over for Yunel Escobar at shortstop for the Braves in mid July. Hudson's worst outing of the year was his first with Gonzalez behind him, when he allowed six earned runs in 6 2/3 IP on July 17, but since then he's gone 5-0 with a 0.49 ERA (two runs allowed in 36 2/3 innings) to propel himself onto this list.

4. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (4)

Season Stats: 17-3, 2.59 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 2.35 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.86 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 3.30 K/BB

It's a striking lesson about the fragile art of pitching that a slight and common mechanical flaw, collapsing his back leg too much too soon and thus causing his front shoulder to fly open, derailed Jimenez's historically dominant season (13-1, 1.15 ERA after 14 starts) to such a degree that he became, in fact, one of the worst starters in the majors for about a month (7.64 ERA over six starts). Jimenez seems to have fixed the flaw and has his season back on track as evidenced by his performance in his last four starts listed above. However, his struggles with his mechanics, even if they're behind him, may have put the Cy Young award that he seemed to have sewn up in June out of his reach.

5. Josh Johnson, RHP, Marlins (2)

Season Stats: 10-5, 2.27 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.11 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 0-2, 5.92 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 5.5 K/9, 1.67 K/BB

Johnson allowed as many as two runs just once in a 13-start stretch from May 13 to July 22, but since then he has allowed as few as two runs just once in four starts, the results of which can be seen above. Despite the fact that two of those four starts were actually strong, quality starts, Johnson's ERA has increased more than half a run in that time. That mostly speaks to just how dominant he had been for the majority of the season, but it has nonetheless put the brakes on his pursuit of the Cy Young award given the performances of the men above him on this list.

Off the list: Mat Latos (5)

1. David Price, LHP, Rays (1)

Season Stats: 15-5, 2.84 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.25 K/9

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 2.84 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 2.50 K/9

Price went 9-2 with a 2.23 ERA in his first dozen starts this season, and has gone 6-3 with a 3.60 ERA in 10 starts since, but he has actually pitched better in the later sample than in the former. Over those first dozen starts, Price struck out just 6.4 men per nine innings, 1.78 men per every walk, and got just eight percent of his strikes on swings and misses. In his last 10 starts, he has struck out 10.5 men per nine innings, 2.81 men for every walk, and 11 percent of his strikes have come on swings and misses. The balancing factor has been his opponents' batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In the first sample, his BABIP was a well-below-average .245. In the more recent sample, it has actually been above average at .329. That difference is the impact of luck and team defense. Price's ability to survive that correction in his BABIP signals the 24-year-old lefty's arrival an ace. This award could make it official.

2. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox (2)

Season Stats: 13-7, 2.80 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.00 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.13 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 3.14 K/BB

In his last two starts, Lester held the first place Yankees and Rangers scoreless for a combined 14 1/3 innings. The Yankees and Rangers have two of the top four offenses in baseball, and in five starts against them Lester has a 2.36 ERA. He also threw six shutout innings in his last outing against the Rays (the third-best offense and the second-best team in the majors by record). That's an ace. Since opening the season with three weak outings, Lester has gone 13-5 with a 2.17 ERA and more than a strike out per inning in his last 21 starts. No other pitcher in the American League has been as good for as long this season.

3. Cliff Lee, LHP, Rangers (4)

Season Stats: 10-5, 2.57 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 15.22 K/BB, 7 CG

Last Four Starts: 1-1, 2.59 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 18.00 K/BB

Lee's Cy Young candidacy was supposed to get a big boost from his trade to the first-place Rangers, but in his first seven starts for Texas, he has received surprisingly poor run support. After getting 4.85 runs of support per game from the weak-hitting Mariners, Lee has received an average of just two runs per game in his first five starts for Texas and just three runs per game overall from his new teammates in seven starts. Still, despite that poor support, Lee has only twice failed to pick up a win in a game in which he pitched well enough to do so. On both occasions, he allowed less than three runs in nine innings for the Rangers in games that were decided in extra innings.

Despite his poor run support and the abdominal injury that cost him most of April, Lee is having a historic season. In the first inning of his next start, Lee will surpass 162 innings pitched for the season, the minimum to qualify for the ERA title, and his rate of 0.50 walks per nine innings on the season is higher than only Carlos Silva's 2005 record 0.43 BB/9 IP. Silva, who allowed just nine bases on balls -- two intentional -- that entire season, avoided walks that year by pitching to contact, striking out just 3.4 men per nine innings. Lee is missing bats as well as avoiding walks. In fact, Lee's strikeout-to-walk ratio is well in excess of Brett Saberhagen's record 11.00 mark from 1994. No other pitcher has ever struck out 10 times as many men as he's walked, and with 137 K's against just nine walks (two of which were intentional) Lee is well ahead of that pace. Finally, Lee has averaged 8.07 innings pitched per start thus far this season. The last pitcher to average more than eight innings per start in a season in which he made 20 or more starts was Greg Maddux, who averaged 8.08 innings in 25 starts in the strike-shortened 1994 season.

4. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees (3)

Season Stats: 15-5, 3.14 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 2.31 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.97 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 4.5 K/9, 1.67 K/BB

Since June 3, Sabathia has gone 11-2 with a 2.44 ERA while averaging 7 1/3 innings per start. Over those 14 outings -- all of which were quality starts -- Sabathia has failed to complete seven innings just twice, has never pitched fewer than 6 1/3 innings, and has not allowed more than three earned runs. He hasn't been as dominant as Lester or Lee, but that sort of high-level consistency and bullpen-saving workload is what makes Sabathia an ace and one of the best pitchers in baseball. Also significant: After allowing 12 home runs over a nine-start stretch from late April to early June, Sabathia has allowed just one more home run in his last 13 starts covering 96 1/3 innings.

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

Season Stats: 13-5, 2.49 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 1.79 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.48 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 2.86 K/BB

Buchholz went 7-1 with a 1.62 ERA in eight starts before landing on the disabled list after pulling a hamstring while running the bases in the second inning of his June 26 start. His first start after being activated in late July was a dud in which he allowed five earned runs in six innings of a loss to Oakland, but he has snapped right back into his-pre-injury shape in his four outings since then. Even with that one misstep mixed in, Buchholz has gone 10-2 with a 1.98 ERA in his last 14 starts.

Off the list: Carl Pavano (5)

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.