Monday July 18th, 2011

After taking last week off due to the All-Star break, Awards Watch returns with a look at the Cy Young chase, the toughest race to call of the three major player awards. There are strong arguments to be made for either of the top two American League contenders and any of the top three National League challengers. In fact, these rankings are far from immutable, and seem likely to change with each subsequent start by the pitchers in question.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, July 17; 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. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (2)

Season Stats: 12-5, 2.29 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.64 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Last Five Starts: 3-2, 1.49 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 6.14 K/BB

Verlander's dud against the White Sox on Friday was just his second non-quality start of the season. In the space between his previous non-quality start, against the Rays in late May, and that one, Verlander went 8-1 with a 0.75 ERA in nine starts, the one loss coming in a 1-0 game against the Angels in which Dan Haren threw a shutout. During that stretch, Verlander threw as few as seven innings just once and allowed as many as two runs just once. No other pitcher this season, in either league, has gone more than six consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed in each. Verlander is the only one of the 10 pitchers listed in this week's Awards Watch not to lead his league in one of the categories listed above, but he does lead the majors in innings and quality starts.

2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (1)

Season Stats: 12-4, 1.90 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.73 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Last Five Starts: 4-0, 1.43 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 3.86 K/BB, 1 CG

Weaver went 6-1 with a 1.39 ERA in his first seven starts. He then turned in two consecutive starts in which he allowed four runs in six innings, taking the loss in both. Those remain his only non-quality starts of the season, and in 11 turns since then, he has gone 6-1 with a 1.62 ERA. Since his last loss, on May 18, he has gone 6-0 with a 1.40 ERA in 10 starts. Weaver doesn't have Verlander's no-hitter, and his best nine-start run doesn't quite measure up to Verlander's recent stretch of dominance (Weaver went 5-0 with a 1.27 ERA, lasting at least seven innings each time out and only once allowing three runs over a nine-start stretch from May 23 to July 7), but a very strong argument could be made that despite Verlander's recent surge, Weaver should still be the favorite for this award.

3. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees (N/A)

Season Stats: 14-4, 2.64 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 3.53 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Five Starts: 5-0, 0.45 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 5.55 K/BB, 1 SHO

Sabathia's performance over the last five starts, detailed above, is why he's on this list. Not that he wasn't having a fine season before that run, but over those last five starts he has been close to untouchable. Sabathia has struck out eight or more men in each outing and tied a career high by striking out 13 Brewers on June 30. Even more impressive, he has allowed just two runs in that time and had a 23 2/3-inning scoreless streak in the middle three games against the Brewers, Indians and Rays. Over his career, Sabathia has been a better second-half pitcher, dropping his ERA by more than a third of a run relative to his first-half performance, and August and September have been his best months. Mix in the fact that Sabathia has finished in the top five in his league's Cy Young voting in each of the last four seasons, winning once, and he seems unlikely to fall off this list any time soon.

4. James Shields, RHP, Rays (3)

Season Stats: 8-8, 2.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 3.92 K/BB, 7 CG, 3 SHO

Last Five Starts: 1-4, 3.25 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.70 K/BB, 2 CG

Shields has lost his last four starts, but only pitched poorly in one of them, his last, and even in that game he struck out eight Red Sox in six innings. The start before that, Shields throw a complete game against the Yankees and didn't allow an earned run but still took the loss because Sabathia threw a shutout and the Yankees won 1-0 on a run that scored with the help of two throwing errors (one of which, admittedly, was Shields'). Prior to his current losing streak, Shields threw three consecutive complete games, all wins, allowing a total of just two runs, one earned, in those three contests.

To put Shields' seven complete games in context, Roy Halladay has led the majors in that category four times, including the last two years, and the AL two other times but has never had more than nine complete games in a season. The last pitcher to have double-digit complete games was Sabathia in 2008, when threw seven down the stretch for the Brewers after recording three in the first half for the Indians. The last league leader with double-digit complete games was Randy Johnson, who had 12 for the Diamondbacks in 1999. The last American Leaguer with double-digits was Scott Erickson, who had 11 for the Orioles in 1998.

5. Dan Haren, RHP, Angels (N/A)

Season Stats: 10-6, 2.75 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 5.85 K/BB, 2 CG, 2 SHO

Last Five Starts: 4-1, 2.17 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 7.00 K/BB, 1 SHO

Haren's 4-1 record over his last five starts isn't an indication that the Angels are scoring any more runs for him. He has still received just 3.12 runs of support per 27 outs on the season. In fact, two of those last four wins were 1-0 games, both tense pitchers' duels. In the first, the Angels scored only an unearned run against the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann, and in his next start, Haren finished the job himself, shutting out the Tigers for a 1-0 win over Verlander, who lasted 7 1/3 frames. The Angels have scored just one run for Haren eight times this season and those two games were the first of those eight that he or the team won.

Off the list: Josh Beckett, Michael Pineda

1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (1)

Season Stats: 11-3, 2.45 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 8.12 K/BB, 6 CG

Last Five Starts: 2-0, 2.61, 0.92 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 10.67 K/BB, 2 CG

The Phillies are 16-3 in Halladay's starts this season and have won his last 10 in a row. Halladay, meanwhile, has failed to complete seven innings just three times, has never lasted fewer than six innings in any of his 19 starts, and has just three non-quality starts, two of which were near-misses in which he allowed four runs in seven innings. He hasn't made first post-break start yet, so his last five starts in the line above reach slightly further back than for the other pitchers on this list and, as a result, include one of those non-quality starts.

2. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies (2)

Season Stats: 11-5, 2.71 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 4.43 K/BB, 1 CG

Last Five Starts: 2-2, 3.34 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 2.33 K/BB

Hamels has made 20 starts this season. In the first and last, he allowed 13 runs in just seven innings. In between, he went 11-3 with a 1.95 ERA. In that interior 18, he failed to complete seven innings just three times and the only time he failed to finish six innings was when he was hit in the glove hand with a comebacker after four scoreless frames against the Red Sox. Hamels' two disaster starts both came against the Mets, one at home and one on the road, but in between he had a dominant outing in Citi Field, striking out 10 against no walks in seven innings, so it seems there's little to be learned from those two duds.

3. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Braves (3)

Season Stats: 12-3, 2.26 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 5.5 K/9, 2.63 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Five Starts: 4-0, 2.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 2.00 K/BB, 1 SHO

See Hamels' numbers from his middle 18 starts above? Well, Jurrjens, who started the year on the disabled list, has only made 17 starts all season. That's the primary reason why he's still looking up at those two Phillies. Additionally, Jurrjens has been less effective in the strike zone, less effective at keeping runners off base, and pitches in a friendlier home ballpark. That's meant not to diminish the outstanding season he's having but to explain why the league leader in ERA and wins isn't leading the Cy Young race.

4. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies (4)

Season Stats: 9-6, 2.82 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.72 K/BB, 4 CG, 4 SHO

Last Five Starts: 3-1, 1.49 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 4.29 K/BB, 3 SHO

Like Halladay, Lee has yet to make his first post-break start, so those last five starts above extend a few days further back than they do for the other men on this list, which allows that line to include each of Lee's three consecutive shutouts from his final three starts in June. Lee allowed just one run in that entire month, going 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA in 42 innings, crowning that performance by shutting out the Red Sox. In his first start of July, Lee snapped a 34-inning scoreless streak by giving up seven runs (six earned) in Toronto, but he got right back on the horse with eight dominant innings against the Braves in his final start before the break and struck out 18 men against just two walks in 15 1/3 innings in those two starts combined.

5. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (N/A)

Season Stats: 10-4, 2.88 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 4.19 K/BB, 3 CG, 2 SHO

Last Five Starts: 4-1, 1.85 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 8.17 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Kershaw has been hanging around the periphery of this list all season, finally cracking the top five this week after posting a 1.76 ERA over his last six starts. Like Lee, Kershaw has lacked the consistency you'd like to see from a Cy Young award winner. In fact, he has allowed six earned runs in a start three times since the beginning of June. Still, only Lee has more 10-strikeout games this season than Kershaw's five, and statistics that attempt to filter team defense out of a pitcher's ERA (such as DIPS, Baseball Prospectus's Fair Run Average, and FanGraphs' xFIP) all list Kershaw in the top four, if not top two, qualified starters in all of baseball.

Off the list: Ian Kennedy

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