Monday June 20th, 2011

Whenever hype reaches a fever pitch, such as that surrounding the Phillies "four aces" coming into this season, there is going to be backlash. Doubters will try to shout down the din, experts will attempt to separate themselves from the great unwashed by taking contrarian points of view, and fans who would otherwise be thrilled by the great thing being promised begin to actively root against it. Such was the case with the Phillies, but here we are on June 20, and they not only have the best record and biggest division lead in baseball, but three of those four aces have forced their way into out top-five list of National League Cy Young candidates.

It's telling that the NL list has become Phillies-heavy just as the pretenders in the Cy Young races have begun to fade. Three weeks ago, there were a dozen pitchers with ERAs below 2.40 on the season, but at the end of Sunday's action, just three remained (four if you want to include James Shields at 2.40 exactly). Big names such as Tim Lincecum (0-2, 7.59 ERA in his last four starts), Dan Haren (2-2, 5.87 in his last four starts), and Josh Johnson (now not expected back from the disabled list until mid-July) have fallen out of the top five in their respective leagues, but the names that have replaced them are just as big: a popular pre-season favorite in the American League, that league's top rookie, and two of those Phillies aces, who join repeating NL leader Roy Halladay for the first time this season.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, June 19; 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. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (1)

Season Stats: 9-3, 2.56 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 8.14 K/BB, 4 CG

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 3.21 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 28.00 K/BB

2. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies (N/A)

Season Stats: 9-3, 2.51 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 5.42 K/BB, 1 CG

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.23 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 6.25 K/BB

3. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Braves (2)

Season Stats: 9-3, 2.11 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 2.94 K/BB, 1 CG

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 3.75 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 2.14 K/BB

Though the results of the last two years have proven that the award voters are finally looking past pitchers' records to determine who really was the best in a given season, won-loss records and ERA are still the first places any Cy Young evaluator is going to look, and on those two categories alone, Jurrjens is the clear leader here. However, all three of these pitchers have identical records, so, really, the only argument for listing Jurrjens ahead of Halladay and Hamels is his advantage in ERA. That advantage is significant, but when you take into account the fact that Jurrjens has thrown 14 1/3 fewer innings than Hamels and 22 2/3 fewer innings than Halladay, the argument is weakened. Give Jurrjens another 22 2/3 innings with a league-average ERA (currently 3.78 in the NL), which is effectively the difference between 114 1/3 innings of Halladay and 89 1/3 innings of Jurrjens plus 22 2/3 of a replacement starter plus the Braves' bullpen, and his season ERA jumps up to 2.45. At 2.45, Jurrjens' advantage in ERA doesn't seem like enough to discount Doc's advantage in strikeouts, walks, complete games, and walks, not to mention the fact that Halladay has had below-average luck on balls in play, while Jurrjens has had above-average luck.

The battle between Jurrjens and Hamels is tighter given that Hamels has no advantage in complete games and has actually had even greater luck on balls in play than Jurrjens. But given how similar Hamels' line is to Halladay's, and given the fact that the Philly southpaw still has a two-start lead on Jurrjens, who opened the year on the disabled list, he passes Jurrjens by drafting behind his teammate. Hamels is the newcomer to this list but he was lurking just beyond the top five for much of the season and has been red-hot of late, going 5-1 with a 1.79 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and 6.71 K/BB in his last seven starts. He is tied with Halladay for the NL lead in quality starts with 12, one ahead of Jurrjens, naturally.

4. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies (N/A)

Season Stats: 7-5, 3.12 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 4.63 K/BB, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.15 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 3.13 K/BB, 1 SHO

The Braves' Tommy Hanson would have been the fourth here had he not hit the disabled list with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder after striking out 14 Astros on June 12. That left a three-way battle between veteran lefty, and former AL winner, Cliff Lee and young right-handers Jhoulys Chacin and Ian Kennedy, both of whom are in just their second full big-league seasons at the ages of 23 and 26, respectively, and both of whom have better ERAs and WHIP than Lee does. Ultimately, I decided to go with the veteran, who has pitched better than on the whole,has been lingering just beyond the top five all season and is coming off his best stretch of the season, having allowed just one run in three June starts (3-0, 0.38 ERA), and shut out the Marlins on two hits and two walks in his most recent turn. Lee has struck out 10 men in a game six times this season, the most in the majors and twice as many as the men in second place in the NL (Hanson and the Giants' Tim Lincecum with three each). He is second in the majors in strikeouts, second in the NL in innings, third in the NL strikeout-to-walk ratio, and tied with Jurrjens for third in quality starts, trailing only his teammates Halladay and Hamels in all four categories. He's also fourth in the NL, and first on the Phillies, in strikeouts per nine innings.

5. Ian Kennedy, RHP, Diamondbacks (N/A)

Season Stats: 7-2, 2.98 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.14 K/BB, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 1-1, 2.89 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.25 K/BB

In deciding between Kennedy and Chacin, who have very similar season lines, I went with Kennedy because of his superior walk rate (2.4 to Chacin's 3.3), his superior road ERA (2.40 to Chacin's 3.48), his less extreme luck on balls in play (.254 BABIP to Chacin's .224), and his advantage in innings (102 2/3 to Chacin's 93). Of course, in doing so I left out the pitcher who, among Kennedy, Lee and himself, the most wins and the lowest ERA and who also pitches in the most extreme hitter's park. Chacin has also allowed just two runs in three June starts while Kennedy hasn't had consecutive quality starts since early May. Quick, let's end this thing before I change my mind.

Off the list: Tim Lincecum (3), Kyle Lohse (4), Josh Johnson (5)

1. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (2)

Season Stats: 8-4, 2.06 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 3.69 K/BB, 3 CG, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 3.25 K/BB, SHO

Fifteen starts into his season, Jered Weaver has yet to leave a game before the final out of the sixth, only twice has he allowed as many as four runs and he has never allowed more than four runs, earned or otherwise. Consecutive six-inning, four-run outings in early May stand as his only non-quality starts on the season and his lone "rough patch," if you will. Prior to those two starts, he went 6-1 with a 1.39 ERA, and in his six starts since that speed bump, he has posted a 1.77 ERA. Weaver has held the opposition scoreless for nine innings twice in his last four turns, but was only credited with a shutout in one of those starts as the Angels failed to score for him and ultimately lost 1-0 in 10 innings in the other. Poor run support (3.25 runs per 27 outs on the season) has limited Weaver to two wins in his last nine starts, but he's still just one off the major league lead in victories, not to mention that he's also second in the majors in ERA, WHIP, shutouts, and quality starts, is fourth in the majors in complete games, sixth in the majors in innings, and fourth in the AL in strikeouts.

2. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (N/A)

Season Stats: 9-3, 2.54 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 4.23 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 1.06 ERA, 0.62 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 11.33 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Like Hamels, Verlander has been lurking just beyond the top five for most of the season. Each of his fist 10 starts were quality, and one of those was his second career no-hitter. Then came his lone clunker. Since then, he has been nearly untouchable, going 5-0 with a 0.86 ERA in his last five starts with a 0.65 WHIP. His 15 quality starts lead the majors, as does his quality start percentage (15 for 16, 94 percent). He also leads the majors in wins, WHIP and innings pitched, is second in complete games and shutouts, leads the AL in strikeouts, and is fourth in the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio. At the same time, only Josh Beckett has had better luck on balls in play among ERA qualifiers in both leagues. Verlander's opponents have hit a mere .208 on fair balls that haven't left the park thus far this year, compared to a career average of .298 prior to this season. That something beyond a pitcher's control and thus unlikely to be sustained over the remainder of the season.

3. James Shields, RHP, Rays (1)

Season Stats: 7-4, 2.40 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 5 CG, 3 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 3.10 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Sheilds has allowed just one unearned run in 18 innings over his last two starts, both complete-game wins. The first of those two was a shutout of the Red Sox, who lead the majors in runs scored per game, making Shields the only pitcher to shutout Boston on his own this season. Sheilds has now completed five of his last 10 starts, and in his last 13 starts (out of 15 total), he has posted a 2.08 ERA. Like Weaver, he has 13 quality starts in 15 tries (though his two exceptions were proper clunkers). Also like Weaver, his strong season has been undermined somewhat by poor run support (3.63 runs per 27 outs), which has left him with a loss or no-decision after a quality start six times this season, most egregiously back on April 30, when he struck out 12 of Weaver's Angel teammates in eight innings while allowing just one run, but took a no-decision in a game the Rays won 2-1 in 10 innings.

4. Josh Beckett, RHP, Red Sox (4)

Season Stats: 6-2, 1.86 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 2.63 K/BB, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 2.25 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 2.10 K/BB, 1 SHO

Since rain limited him to 4 1/3 innings on May 4, Beckett has turned in eight straight quality starts, going 4-1 with a 1.51 ERA over that stretch, the most recent being a one-hit, no-walk shoutout of the AL East rival Rays last Wednesday that only a two-out single by Tampa Bay shortstop Reid Brignac prevented from being a perfect game. As mentioned above, Beckett continues to be the most hit-lucky starter in baseball. He hasn't allowed more hits than innings pitched in a start since April in large part because his opponents have hit just .227 on balls in play over that span. At the same time, like Shields and Weaver, he has been unlucky in terms of run support, receiving just 3.72 runs per 27 outs from the major league's best offense, five times turning in a quality start without picking up a win, and receiving just four wins in the last eight of his starts that the Red Sox ultimately won.

5. Michael Piñeda, RHP, Mariners (N/A)

Season Stats: 7-4, 2.64 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.27 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 1-2, 3.20 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 2.71 K/BB

Piñeda and Texas's Alexi Ogando have nearly identical season stats across the board. Given that Piñeda's home ballpark depresses run scoring, while Ogando's fosters it, that would seem to favor Ogando for this spot, but I'm going with the big rookie over the skinny sophomore not only because Pineda has the superior road ERA (3.32 to Ogando's 3.51), but because his success has been less the product of luck (.251 BABIP to Ogando's .230), and more the product of good, old-fashioned dominance (8.6 K/9 to Ogando's 6.6). Also, Ogando has had just two quality starts in his last five turns, while Piñeda has had three quality starts in his last four.

Off the list: Dan Haren (3), Alexi Ogando (5)

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