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Shields, Halladay lead respective leagues in crowded Cy Young race

The major league average ERA hasn't been below 4.00 over a full season in nearly 20 years. The last time it happened was 1992, when the league mark was 3.75. Thus far this season, it's 3.80. For all the talk about last year being a "year of the pitcher," this year has been even more so. As a result, the pitching leader boards are crowded, making the task of paring that crowd down to just five top Cy Young candidates in each league surprisingly difficult. Six men are tied for the major league lead in wins, and just two of those six appear below. A dozen pitchers have ERAs below 2.40, but two of the three qualifiers with marks below 2.00 have spent time on the disabled list, further confusing the matter.

Neither league has a runaway favorite, but both lists below generally break down to a top three followed by two chosen from a far larger crowd of similarly deserving candidates. Coin flips were not used to determine the final spots on these lists, but they were considered.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, May 29; 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. James Shields, RHP, Rays (3)

Season Stats: 5-3, 2.15 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.50 K/BB, 3 CG, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.40 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 11.1 K/9, 6.17 K/BB, 1 SHO

Shield's only non-quality start of the season came in his second turn back on April 8. In nine starts since then, he has posted a 1.66 ERA while averaging nearly eight innings per start (a league-leading 7.8 IP/GS to be exact). His best start of the season came two turns ago in Miami, when he shutout the cross-state Marlins on a walk and three singles while striking out a career-high 13 men. Shields is tied with defending AL Cy Young award winner Felix Hernandez for the league lead in strikeouts (81 in one fewer inning in and one fewer start than Hernandez), leads the league in quality starts (10, tied with Jered Weaver and Justin Verlander) and quality start percentage, is fourth in the league in ERA, and second in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (1)

Season Stats: 6-4, 2.10 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 3.85 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 0-2, 2.57 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.14 K/BB

Weaver, who started the season 6-0, hasn't won a game since April. That's hardly his fault. Four of his six May starts were quality, yet the Angels lost three of those outings, with the loss twice being hung on Weaver himself. In his last three starts, he posted a 1.64 ERA, yet went 0-1. In two of his last three starts the Angels didn't score at all, and in his last turn, Weaver threw nine scoreless innings against the Twins in Minnesota only to watch the Angels lose 1-0 in the tenth. On the season, Weaver has received just 3.23 runs of support per game, yet he's still second in the league in wins. He's also third in ERA, strikeouts (77) and innings pitched (85 2/3), and fifth in WHIP.

3. Dan Haren, RHP, Angels (2)

Season Stats: 5-3, 2.29 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 5.29 K/BB, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 1-1, 3.14 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 3.00 K/BB

The field behind Shields and Weaver is crowded, but Haren stands out from the pack for leading the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio and ranking just a third of an inning behind Verlander for the league lead in innings pitched. One of Haren's 86 1/3 innings came in relief (and earned him a win), but that only speaks to his added value as a workhorse. Amazingly, given the rest of his numbers, Haren's win against the Twins on Sunday was his first since April 17. In his seven starts between wins, Haren posted a 2.74 ERA and averaged more than seven innings per start, yet the Angels scored more than three runs in only one of those seven games, going 2-5 overall and handing Haren three losses and four no-decisions.

4. Josh Beckett, RHP, Red Sox (N/A)

Season Stats: 4-2, 1.80 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 2.52 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.46 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 1.92 K/BB

By allowing two runs in six innings to the Tigers on Sunday night, Beckett doubled his run allowance for the month. He opened May with 18 1/3 scoreless frames across three-plus starts (one of them shortened by rain), then allowed just one run in each of his next two starts before the dam burst for that deuce on Sunday. In fact, in 11 starts this season, Beckett has allowed more than one run in just four of them and more than two runs just twice. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have scored more than four runs in a game he started just once all year, handing him five no-decisions and a loss on Sunday night, when they failed to score at all.

5. Alexi Ogando, RHP, Rangers (N/A)

Season Stats: 5-0, 2.33 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 3.13 K/BB, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-0, 2.54 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 3.33 K/BB, 1 SHO

With apologies to the A's Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez and Mariners rookie Michael Piñeda, among others, Ogando gets the last spot here. Pressed into action as a starter when Tommy Hunter pulled his hamstring during the final days of spring training, Ogando has yet to throw fewer than six innings in any of his ten starts and has only twice allowed more than two runs in a game. He has been extremely lucky, not only because he has avoided the loss in both of his clunkers, the second of which occurred Sunday night against the Royals, but because his opponents have hit just .209 on balls in play. He also missed an early-May start against the Yankees due to a blister. Still, he has a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Cahill and Gonzalez, both of whom pitch in much more forgiving ballpark, and a lower ERA than Piñeda even after Sunday's stinker. He's also the only one of the four starters with a complete game and he averages more innings per start than any of the other three.

Off the list: Jon Lester (4), Justin Masterson (5)

1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (1)

Season Stats: 6-3, 2.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 6.62 K/BB, 4 CG

Last Four Starts: 1-2, 2.61 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 4.83 K/BB, 2 CG

Halladay has struck out 200 or more men four times in his career, including in each of the last three seasons, but no one would ever call him a strikeout pitcher. He has never topped eight strikeouts per nine innings in a season in which he has qualified for the ERA title. Rather, all those Ks have been partially a product of all those innings (he has averaged 250 1/3 innings in those four 200-strikeout seasons). Yet, Halladay has increased his strikeout rate, however slightly, in each of the last three seasons, and this year he is striking out more than a man per inning. Last year was the first of his career in which he struck out ten or more in three starts, and this year he already has two such starts, one of which saw him tie his career high with 14 punchouts. Dating back to that start against the Padres on April 24, Halladay has struck out 61 men in 55 2/3 innings, a rate of 9.9 K/9. Meanwhile, he's leading the league in fewest walks per nine for the third year in a row. He's the best pitcher in baseball. Period.

2. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Braves (N/A)

Season Stats:7-1, 1.51 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 3.45 K/BB, 1 CG

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 1.52 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 5.5 K/9, 3.60 K/BB

An oblique strain delayed the start of Jurrjens' season until April 16, but he set the tone for his season immediately upon his return by holding the Mets to just two hits and a walk across seven scoreless innings. Jurrjens has nine quality starts in as many opportunities this season, and has yet to throw fewer than six innings or allow more than two runs in a game. The 25-year-old is in a six-way tie for the major league lead in wins, but leads both leagues in ERA by a considerable margin. He doesn't strike out many men, but has compensated by being even stingier with walks and home runs, handing out just 1.5 free passes per nine innings and allowing just three taters in 65 2/3 frames. He trails Halladay largely because Halladay has thrown 20 more innings and a lot can change over such a span, but Jurrjens is averaging just a third of an inning less per start (7 1/3 to Halladay's 7 2/3). The only other National Leaguer with more than nine starts who is averaging more innings per start than Jurrjens is the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse, and the difference is minuscule (7.303 to Jurrjens' 7.296).

3. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants (5)

Season Stats: 5-4, 2.22 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.29 K/BB, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.82 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 2.75 K/BB, 1 SHO

Lincecum didn't allow a run in three of his five May starts, striking out 12 Mets in seven scoreless innings on May 4, twirling eight scoreless in a 1-0 win against the Diamondbacks his next time out and shutting out the cross-bay A's on three singles and no walks two turns ago. Overall, he posted a 1.47 ERA on the month and fell one out shy of posting five quality starts in five opportunities. He has done all of that despite the continued erosion of his strikeout rate, which has declined in each of the last three seasons. Lincecum has struck out just 13 men in 21 2/3 innings over his last three starts, a rate of 5.4 per nine innings. That might just be a random dip, but it bears watching. His last three-start stretch with a strikeout rate that low came late last July. He then went winless with a 7.82 ERA in August.

4. Kyle Lohse, RHP, Cardinals (N/A)

Season Stats:7-2, 2.13 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 3.13 K/BB, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.93 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 5.8 K/9, 3.60 K/BB

Lohse takes the fourth spot here against my better instincts. He has been extremely lucky on balls in play thus far this season, with opponents hitting just .224 on fair balls that don't leave the park. Combine that with his low strikeout rate and the 4.79 career ERA he has compiled over his ten previous big-league seasons, and Lohse's success doesn't seem sustainable. Still, a third of the way through the schedule, I have to evaluate him based on his performance more than his projection. Sorry, Clayton Kershaw. Beyond luck, or perhaps good team defense, which has certainly contributed, Lohse has, like Jurrjens, limited walks and home runs, but the latter seems like luck as well, as he lacks Jurrjens track record for keeping the ball in the park.

5. Josh Johnson, RHP, Marlins (2)

Season Stats: 3-1, 1.64 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 2.80 K/BB

Last Three Weeks: 0-0, 1.50 ERA, 2 GS, on DL with inflammation in right shoulder May 17.

In giving Roy Halladay the edge over him on this list three weeks ago, I referred to the Marlins' ace as "the somewhat fragile Johnson, who has made 30 starts just once in his career." Johnson hit the disabled list with inflammation in his pitching shoulder two starts later. He's expected back next Monday after missing just three starts, an absence brief enough not to force him out of this race, but the same shoulder issue ended his season a month early last year, and such an early reoccurrence suggests there's a larger underlying problem with the joint. I'm not optimistic about Johnson's ability to rediscover and maintain his pre-injury dominance over another twenty starts, but given that he has thrown just 5 1/3 fewer innings than Jurrjens, it's too soon to drop him from the list entirely.

Off the list: Jaime Garcia (3), Shaun Marcum (4)

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