Monday April 18th, 2011

When Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young award last year with a 13-12 record, it changed the conventional wisdom of what a Cy Young award-winning season looks like. Previously, the book on the award was that voters looked at wins first, losses second, and every other statistic a distant third. As a result, the award for the best pitcher in each league was frequently given to someone who didn't fit that description. However, the Cy Young voters' last egregious error came back in 2005, when Bartolo Colon won the AL award over a clearly more-deserving Johan Santana. In 2009, Zack Greinke won the AL award with 16 wins, and Tim Lincecum won the National League trophy with 15 wins, both record lows for starting pitchers in non-strike seasons. Hernandez's award, then, can be seen less as an isolated event than as evidence of an enlightened electorate no longer chained to wins and losses, statistics which tell us very little about how well a pitcher actually pitched due to the twin influences of run and bullpen support, or the lack thereof.

The rankings in this column, which, again, are less about who most deserves each award than who is most likely to actually win it, will reflect that change, as they did at the end of last season when I became convinced that Hernandez would win the award despite his record. With no pitcher having made more than four starts thus far this season, and 20 men boasting ERAs below 2.00 in the early going, the rankings below, like those in my MVP column last week, list the pitchers who seem most likely to build their impressive starts into legitimate Cy Young-worthy seasons.

Note: All stats through Sunday, April 17.

1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies

Season Stats: 2-0, 1.23 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 7.33 K/BB, 1 CG

The defending NL Cy Young award winner is right back at it again. From 2008 to 2010, Halladay led the majors in innings (757 2/3), ERA (2.63)*, ERA+ (161)*, complete games (28), shutouts (10), WHIP (1.07)*, strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.12)*, walks per nine innings (1.3)*, and wins (60). He finished second in the American League Cy Young voting in 2008 and fifth in '09 and won the National League award last year, throwing a regular-season perfect game and just the second postseason no-hitter in major league history along the way. He has admittedly faced weak competition thus far this season (the Astros, Mets, and Nationals), but has allowed just three runs in 22 innings while striking out 22. In his one non-decision, he threw six innings of one-run ball without walking a batter. In his last start, he went the distance, holding the Nationals to two runs and striking out nine.

*minimum 400 innings pitched

2. Josh Johnson, RHP, Marlins

Season Stats: 2-0, 1.35 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 3.60 K/BB

Johnson led the National League in ERA last year, but inflammation in his pitching shoulder ended his season, and thus his Cy Young candidacy, after just one September start. After having the offseason to rest his aching wing, Johnson opened the 2011 season with six no-hit innings against the Mets on Opening Day, then carried a no-hitter through 7 1/3 innings against the Braves in his third start. In between, he allowed just one earned run in six innings and didn't walk a batter, but two unearned runs and poor run support left him with a no-decision. On the season, he has allowed just eight hits in 20 innings while allowing just three earned runs.

3. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants

Season Stats: 1-1, 1.86 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 5.50 K/BB

Though he led the NL in strikeouts for the third consecutive year, Lincecum's 2010 season wasn't up to the standards of his back-to-back Cy Young award campaigns in 2008 and 2009. However, if you take out his five-start hiccup in August and replace it with his five strong postseason starts, you get a line that looks a lot like those two award-winning seasons: 20-6, 2.78 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 246 Ks, 3.42 K/BB. That's why Lincecum was second on my pre-season NL Cy Young list, and why I list him here above some other pitchers with marginally better numbers after three starts. Lincecum allowed just one earned run in 14 innings over his first two starts and struck out 13 Padres in seven innings in the second. In a rematch against the Dodgers his last time out, he was less impressive, falling two outs short of a quality start.

4. Jamie Garcia, LHP, Cardinals

Season Stats: 2-0, 1.35 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 1 SHO

As a rookie last year, Garcia carried a sub-2.00 ERA through his first 14 starts and had a 2.35 mark after 26 starts. Though that figure swelled a bit before the Cardinals shut him down for the season due to an innings limit, he still had the sixth-best ERA in the majors. So far this year, the 24-year-old lefty has been better across the board, increasing his strikeout rate, lowering his walk rate, shutting out the Padres on four hits in his season debut, and striking out nine giants in six innings in his second start only to take a no-decision when Ryan Franklin blew the save in the ninth. Like Lincecum, his third start, also against the Dodgers, was less impressive, falling an inning shy of a quality start and including just two strikeouts.

5. Matt Cain, RHP, Giants

Season Stats: 2-0, 1.42 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 4.7 K/9, 2.50 K/BB

Cain has allowed just three runs in 19 innings, has turned in a quality start in each of this three turns and his one no-decision came in a duel with Garcia. He has been a bit lucky thus far, but that's the continuation of a trend for him. Over the last two seasons, Cain has posted a 3.02 ERA thanks in large part to his opponents hitting just .261 on balls in play. That's a particularly bizarre result for a fly ball pitcher like Cain, and one that would seem impossible to maintain if defensive question marks Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff continue manning the outfield corners behind him, but thus far this year, Cain has turned himself into a ground-ball pitcher. That seems unlikely to last, but he's a better bet to stay in this spot than the Padres' Aaron Harang or the Brewers' Chris Narveson.

1. Dan Haren, RHP, Angels

Season Stats: 4-0, 1.16 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 13.5 K/BB, 1 SHO

Speaking of batting average on balls in play, Haren's 4.60 ERA in 21 starts for the Diamondbacks last year was largely due to a .341 BABIP. Credit the Angels for focusing on the fact that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 2007 to 2009 (3.18 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 4.67 K/BB) and still had strong peripherals for Arizona last year (9.0 K/9, 1.9 BB/9). After acquiring him just before the trading deadline last year, Anaheim received a 2.87 ERA over 14 starts from Haren and this year have the AL's leading Cy Young candidate in the early going. In four starts and one perfect inning of relief, Haren has allowed just four runs in 31 innings and walked just two batters, both of those coming in his one-hit shutout of the Indians last Tuesday. One of his four wins came in that relief outing, but his one no-decision as a starter came in a game in which he allowed just one run over seven innings but only received one run of support from the Angels' offense.

2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels

Season Stats: 4-0, 1.30 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 3.44 K/BB

Weaver made The Leap last year at age 27. He increased his strikeout rate by two Ks per nine innings over his previous career mark and led the majors in strikeouts while simultaneously posting his best single-season walk rate. Thus far this year, he's added nearly another strikeout per nine innings and is again leading the majors in punchouts. He and rotation-mate Haren, both fly-ball pitchers, are benefiting from the Angels' vastly improved outfield defense, which now features a pair of former Gold Glove centerfielders in the corners in Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells, and speedy, 24-year-old ballhawk Peter Bourjos in center. That alignment in place of last year's trio of the declining Hunter in center and statuesque corner men Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera (and occasionally Hideki Matsui, for crying out loud) is one of the most underrated improvements that any team made this offseason and could help keep Haren and Weaver on this list deep into the season.

3. Josh Beckett, RHP, Red Sox

Season Stats: 2-1, 1.80 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 3.29 K/BB

Josh Beckett's reputation far out-distances his actual performances because in his two best seasons, 2003 and 2007, his team made the postseason and he pitched them to a world championship. The 30-year-old righty has only made 30 starts in a season three times, has never struck out 200 men in a season, and his career ERA with Boston is 4.23. In his four postseason starts since his last one of quality in 2007, he has posted a 7.71 ERA while his team has gone 1-3 in those games. Last year, back problems limited him to 21 starts, and Boston's injury-riddled defense helped him post a 5.78 ERA via a .341 BABIP. Beckett fell an inning short of a quality start in his debut this season, walking four in five innings, but in his two starts since then, he has reminded us how good he can be. Dominating the powerful Yankee lineup a week ago and nearly repeating the feat against the Blue Jays on Saturday, Beckett combined for 19 strikeouts against just three walks and five hits in 15 innings while allowing just one run in those two starts. Thus far has been responsible for half of his team's wins this season.

4. Ricky Romero, LHP, Blue Jays

Season Stats: 1-1, 1.66 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 1 CG

There was a time when the Blue Jays selecting Ricky Romero over Troy Tulowitzki with the sixth overall pick in the 2005 draft looked like an all-time blunder. Thanks to Tulowitzki's ascension to superstardom, it still doesn't look like a smart choice, but Romero, who never pitched particularly well in the minors, helped the Jays save face by emerging as their staff ace last year in the wake of Roy Halladay's departure. Still just 26, Romero is again leading the Jays' charge this year having turned in a quality start in each of his three outings only to see his team lose 2-1 and 3-2 in the last two, the latter an eight-strikeout complete-game loss decided by an unearned run.

5. Gio Gonzalez, LHP, A's

Season Stats: 2-0, 0.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 1.17 K/BB

The key player acquired from the White Sox in the January 2008 trade of Nick Swisher, Gonzalez had a nice breakout season last year at age 24, posting a 3.23 ERA and striking out 171 men in 200 2/3 innings. It wasn't a perfect season. Gonzalez walked too many men (4.1 per nine innings) and benefited from some luck on balls in play, but it was encouraging. Thus far this year, his peripherals have been far worse. He leads the AL in walks (12 in 19 innings), his strikeout rate is down, and he has been extremely hit-lucky, but it's hard to ignore a pitcher who has allowed just one run, on a solo homer no less, in three starts. That home run came by lefty-swinging journeyman outfielder Ryan Langerhans, of all people, with one out in the second inning of Gonzalez's first start. Since then, he has thrown 17 2/3 scoreless innings, an active streak he will carry into his start against the Red Sox in Oakland on Wednesday.

Next week: Rookie of the Year

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