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Verlander lurking outside top five as Cy Young races take shape

The last week brought the first two no-hitters of the 2011 season, but, as far as Awards Watch is concerned, neither performance was enough to put its author among the top five Cy Young candidates in his league. The no-no by Minnesota's Francisco Liriano against the White Sox last Tuesday night almost seemed like a fluke in what has otherwise been a disastrous season and was itself weak as far as no-hitters go. Liriano walked six and struck out just two and only improved his overall season line from brutal to awful (his ERA dropped from 9.13 to 6.61, his record boosted from 1-4 to 2-4), and actually broke a tie between his season totals in walks and strikeouts in favor of the former. The performance by the Tigers' Justin Verlander on Saturday in Toronto was far more impressive. Though his four strikeouts matched his season low, he allowed just one baserunner, that coming on a one-out walk in the eighth after he had retired the first 22 batters in order, and erased that one runner via a subsequent double-play.

Though he's outside the top five, Verlander is still a contender for the award by virtue of his consistency this season, the likelihood of his sustaining or improving on that performance going forward, and the fact that his 27-batter no-hitter could break ties in his favor when the baseball writers fill out their ballots at the end of September. Verlander is the only pitcher in the majors to have turned in eight quality starts thus far this season (doing so in as many turns), is just two outs off the major league lead in innings pitched (he's averaged more than seven frames per start thus far) and boasts strong peripherals (0.98 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 3.06 K/BB). However, he is just 22nd in the AL in ERA (3.16), a tick behind rotation-mate Max Scherzer and more than a run behind my actual fifth-place pick in the AL, and has benefitted from a his opponents hitting just .224 on balls in play, a figure that suggests he's been a bit lucky thus far.

Still, even without Liriano or Verlander, my list of AL Cy Young contenders has three new faces compared to my previous list from three weeks ago. The NL has seen far less turnover, but both leagues have tight and compelling races developing between their top-two contenders.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, May 8; 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 (HM stands for honorable mention).

1. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (2)

Season Stats:6-2, 1.87 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.23 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.40 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

2. Dan Haren, RHP, Angels (1)

Season Stats: 4-2, 1.87 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 7.00 K/BB, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 0-2, 2.70 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 4.83 K/BB

Weaver and Haren, the top two men in the Angels rotation, have thrown the exact same number of innings -- 57 2/3 -- with extremely similar results. Both have made seven quality starts in eight turns, one of them a shutout, allowing a total of 12 earned runs while hitting one batter and throwing two wild pitches. Neither has allowed more than four runs, earned or otherwise, or failed to complete six innings in any of their eight starts. Haren has allowed two more unearned runs and two more hits. Weaver has walked five more men and struck out one less, but also thrown one more complete game.

Game-by-game, however, their results have been quite different. Weaver won his first six starts before losing his last two, and all but his most recent have been quality starts. Haren has two no-decisions in games in which he pitched seven innings and allowed just one run, and had a third no-decision on Sunday night after allowing just two runs in 6 2/3 frames. However, he also picked up a win in relief between his second and third starts. The Angels aren't really scoring much for either pitcher -- Weaver has received just 4.24 runs per game of support -- but Haren has been especially unlucky, receiving just 2.84 runs per game of support. The argument could be made that Haren has pitched better thus far, but Weaver's dominance has been easier to see, and strength of his first six starts put him in exclusive company with a number of previous Cy Young award winners.

3. James Shields, RHP, Rays (N/A)

Season Stats: 3-1, 2.01 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 3.67 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 0.81 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 4.71 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Like Haren, Shields fell off the radar a bit last year due more to bad luck on balls in play than any deficiency in his own performance. Haren had a .341 BABIP with the Diamondbacks in 2010; Shields had a .344 BABIP, resulting in a career-worst ERA despite a career-best strikeout rate. In the early going this year, things have swung in the opposite direction for both (.245 for Haren, .238 for Shields), and lo and behold, here they are among the league's top contenders for the Cy Young award. Shields has thrown at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs in all but one of his seven starts and had a tremendous three-start run at the end of April. That run began with a complete game on April 19 in which Shields held the White Sox to one run on four hits and a walk while striking out nine. In his next turn, he shut out the Blue Jays on 95 pitches. Then on April 30, he struck out 12 Angels while walking just one and allowing just one run in eight frames.

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

Season Stats: 4-1, 2.33 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 3.07 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 1.33 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 3.22 K/BB

Lester has made a habit of poor starts, but this year, it was literally just one poor start. Toss out his season debut, in which he allowed five runs in 5 1/3 innings while striking out no one, and Lester's season line over his last six starts, all quality, improves to this:

4-1, 1.54 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 3.29 K/BB

Lester allowed three home runs to the Rangers in his first start and has allowed just two in 41 innings since while holding his opponents to a .208/.278/.292 line. Last year, he went 19-9 with 225 strikeouts, thanks to a league-leading 9.7 K/9, and a 3.25 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. He should be a regular on this list as the season progresses.

5. Justin Masterson, RHP, Indians (N/A)

Season Stats: 5-0, 2.11 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 2.62 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-0, 2.70 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.44 K/BB

Masterson's peripherals aren't particularly impressive, he hasn't done much in his career to suggest that he can sustain such a low ERA, and lefties are still having their way with him, but unlike Verlander, Masterson hasn't been hit-lucky (.299 BABIP). He has, however, turned in a quality start in all seven of his appearances this season, four times allowing just one run and only once allowing more than two earned runs. That earned the 26-year-old sidearmer the nod here over league ERA leader Trevor Cahill, who has a matching record and similar peripherals but also a couple of sub-quality starts on the season. Masterson is a large part of the reason that the Indians have the best record in baseball (tied with the Phillies) and a 4 ½-game lead in the AL Central. I'm not convinced that either performance can be sustained for another five months, but both pitcher and team deserve recognition for what they've accomplished so far.

Off the list: Josh Beckett (3), Ricky Romero (4), Gio Gonzalez (5)

1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (1)

Season Line:5-1, 2.19 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 8.14 K/BB, 2 CG

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.87 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 8.75 K/BB, CG

2. Josh Johnson, RHP, Marlins (2)

Season Stats: 3-1, 1.68 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.07 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 1-1, 1.91 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 2.80 K/BB

Halladay and Johnson have both completed at least six innings in all seven of their starts this season and allowed two or fewer earned runs in all but one of those outings. Take away the worst start of each and here are their lines from the other six starts:

Halladay: 5-0, 1.35 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 10.8 K/BB, 7.78 IP/GS

Johnson: 3-0, 0.88 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.54 K/BB, 6.83 IP/GS

These two are really Nos. 1 and 1a on this list, and you could legitimately put them in either order. I'll take the extra inning per start and absurd peripherals from defending NL Cy Young winner Halladay over the relative luck (.173 opponents' average on balls in play in those top six starts) of the somewhat fragile Johnson, who has made 30 starts just once in his career, but won't begrudge those who favor Johnson and his half-run advantage in ERA.

3. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals (4)

Season Stats: 4-0, 1.99 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-0, 2.49 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, SHO

Garcia's first seven starts were bookended by a pair of shutouts, the first against the Padres (4 H, 2 BB, 9 Ks), the second and more impressive against the Brewers (2 H, 1 BB, 8 Ks). His middle five starts have been more, well, middling (3.29 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, just 5.47 IP/GS). However, Garcia's strikeout rate has remained right around one per inning throughout, he has yet to walk more than two men in a start, and the cumulative result has been one of the best overall pitching performances in the league from a 24-year-old sophomore who was sixth in the majors in ERA a year ago.

4. Shaun Marcum, RHP, Brewers (N/A)

Season Stats: 3-1, 2.06 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 3.50 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 1-0, 1.73 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 6.75 K/BB

As a soft-tossing 29-year-old righty who has never thrown 200 innings in a season, Marcum might seem a bit out of place on this list, but his performance in the early going this season isn't completely out of line with his track record. Though Tommy John surgery cost him the 2009 season, in the two that bookended that, he posted a 3.53 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 3.10 K/BB while striking out 7.5 men per nine innings. That performance included 10 poor pre-surgery starts that were likely made with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Take that pitcher out of the AL East, where Marcum had pitched with the Blue Jays until being traded to Milwaukee last offseason, and put him into the NL Central, and the above performance can't be considered shocking. Then again, his season line above is a bit skewed by a rough NL debut. In his last six starts, Marcum has gone 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 5.00 K/9, lasting at least six innings in each and never walking more than two men in a game, numbers which do seem a bit more out of place.

5. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants (3)

Season Stats: 3-3, 2.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 3.56 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 2.92 K/BB

Compare those season rate stats above to these combined rates from Lincecum's two Cy Young award-winning seasons of 2008 and 2009:

2.55 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 3.46 K/BB

Same guy, same performance, right? Well, actually, offense is down a bit thus far this season, so Lincecum's 2.47 ERA below only translates to a 156 ERA+ (meaning it's 56 percent better than league average after ballpark adjustments), whereas the 2.55 in '08 and '09 translated to a 171 ERA+. Still, that's close to splitting hairs with roughly 25 starts left in his season. The point is that Tim Lincecum is pitching like the Tim Lincecum that won back-to-back Cy Youngs just a couple years ago, and there's no way I'm leaving that pitcher off this list.

Off the list: Matt Cain (5)

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