Justin Verlander has become part of the American League Most Valuable Player discussion, a clear sign that he's pulling away in the AL Cy Young award race. However, over in the National League, the competition for the Cy Young is as wide open as ever. This week, the NL race has a new leader, who finds himself in that top spot for the first time this season, while the other four contenders from last week have shuffled spots behind him, and the Diamondbacks' Ian Kennedy and his 17-4 record are stuck on the outside looking in. That gives the NL six legitimate contenders, and major league ERA leader Johnny Cueto is not among them.
Verlander is starting to lengthen his lead in this race. His ERA is just a tenth of a run worse than Jered Weaver's, and he has Weaver beat hands down in nearly every other category. The Detroit ace leads the majors in wins, WHIP, strikeouts, quality starts (26 of 29) and innings pitched (215 2/3), threw a no-hitter in early May, and is 11-1 in a dozen starts against teams in his own division for a first-place club. Some of those things matter more than others, but they're all likely to sway voters to his side. So is his performance over his last 18 starts, which forms the core of his Cy Young case. Since May 29, Verlander has gone 16-2, with a 1.78 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, and 5.37 K/BB. Talk of him being a serious contender for the AL MVP
Just two of Weaver's first 24 starts this season failed to meet the standards of a quality start (minimum 6 IP, maximum 3 ER), and in both of those he missed by just one run. However, two of his last four starts have been full-on disasters in which he had more runs allowed than innings pitched. Weaver gave up eight runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays on August 13, and, starting on short rest Sunday night in an attempt to help his club cut its deficit in the AL West in half, he gave up seven runs in six innings against the Rangers, thus helping Texas increase its lead in the AL West to three games.
Weaver allowed five home runs in those two duds, compared to just nine homers allowed in his other 26 starts this season. Both of those disaster starts came on the road in homer-happy ballparks, bad environments for an extreme fly-ball pitcher like Weaver. Angel Stadium, however, with its deep leftfield gap and high wall in the right-field power alley (not to mention Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout patrolling the pastures for years to come), eats up the fly balls Weaver gives up, which is a large part of the reason that his home ERA (1.38) is less than half of his road mark (3.03) this season, as it was last season (1.86 to 4.14), and very nearly the year before (4.78 to 2.90). Since the start of the 2009 season, Weaver has given up 29 home runs on the road against just eight at home.
Shields' major-league-leading 10 complete games equals CC Sabathia's 2008 total for the most this millennium. Shields had just four complete games in his five previous major league seasons. In August alone, he has completed three games, including a shutout of the Royals, a 3-1 loss to the Red Sox in Boston, and a 12-strikeout domination of the Blue Jays at hitting-friendly the Rogers Centre. However, his Cy Young candidacy has been hurt by the fact that every so often he'll go out and get bombed, as he did two turns ago when he somehow gave up seven runs to the Mariners despite striking out seven men against one walk, or in his final start in July, when he gave up 10 runs in four innings to the punchless A's. The Rays have team-friendly options on Shields for the next three seasons, but don't be surprised if they pick up the first then look to trade him this offseason. Shields' trade value will likely never be higher given his combination of performance and contract, and the Rays, as always seems to be the case, have plenty of young arms ready to replace him in the rotation next year.
Sabathia's last four starts, summarized above, followed an outstanding run of eight starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed, which vaulted him onto this list. Over the last four, he has continued to dominate in the strike zone (29 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings against just three walks), but has had some bad luck on balls in play (.372 BABIP), as well as one fluky game in which he gave up five solo home runs to the Rays, but didn't allow another run in eight innings of work. It could be that he's throwing too many strikes, or catching too much of the heart of the plate, or it could have just been a hiccup. Since that five homer game, Sabathia has turned in two quality starts in which he allowed just one home run, that being a wind-blown shot by Coco Crisp at the homer-happy Yankee Stadium. His big test comes Tuesday night, when he makes his fifth start of the year against the Red Sox. Sabathia has yet to turn in a quality start against the Red Sox this season and has allowed at least six runs in each of his last three starts against Boston, resulting in an 8.84 ERA over those three outings.
Beckett is more a place-holder than a real contender in this race. One could argue for Toronto's Rickey Romero or Cleveland's Justin Masterson in this spot without much argument from me. Beckett's season has been built on the lowest opponents' batting average on balls in play in the majors among qualified starters this season (.235), though it's worth noting that Verlander, Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson, Romero and Weaver are the next four on that list. However, only Hellickson has thrown fewer innings this season, and attendance is part of what undermines Beckett's candidacy. Though he only had one start skipped, Beckett has taken four fewer turns and thrown more than 50 fewer innings than Verlander, which alone keeps him several lengths off the lead in this race.
Six weeks ago, Kershaw reappeared on this list at number five. Three weeks ago he was at number three. Now he's on top for the first time all season. Here's why: In his last 13 starts, dating back to mid June, Kershaw has gone 10-2 with a 1.65 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 105 strikeouts in 98 innings against just 19 walks. He has averaged more than 7 1/3 innings per start over that stretch, not allowed an earned run in six of those 13 starts, struck out nine or more men in six of them, and finished three of them, including a shutout of the AL Central-leading Tigers back in late June.
Those 13 starts account for nearly half of his season (27 starts total), and the other half was hardly lacking. Kershaw was 6-3 with a 2.62 ERA at the end of May with nine quality starts in 12 turns including four in which he did not allow a run and four in which he struck out nine or more. Two duds in hitters' parks (Cincinnati and Colorado) separated those 12 starts from his last 13, a reminder that he has had more success in his friendly home stadium. That's true of the majority of the pitchers on these lists, though, including Beckett and the three Phillies below, all of whom pitch in parks that typically favor hitters.
As great as Kershaw has been over his last 13 starts, Halladay is still right there with him in this race. Given that, it's tempting to give Halladay the edge because he pitches in a less-friendly home ballpark. However, Halladay has been a better pitcher at home than on the road this season, posting a higher strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, allowing far fewer home runs, and posting an ERA more than a half-run lower in Philadelphia, suggesting that he's not succeeding despite his home park but in some way has turned that ballpark into an advantage. That's to his credit, to be sure, but makes it seem less necessary to correct for his supposed disadvantage as a result. Also, because two of his last three starts were postponed by rain, Halladay no longer has his usual advantage in innings pitched. In fact, he and Kershaw have both thrown exactly 189 2/3 innings this season, which is second in the NL behind the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter and ninth in the majors behind Carpenter, four of the five men on my AL list, and three others. Halladay will take his next turn on Tuesday on eight-days' rest.
Lee allowed one run in 42 innings in June, going 5-0 on the month, then posted a 4.91 ERA in five starts in July. You'd think he would have found some middle ground in August, but he's actually been nearly as dominant in August as he was in June. Lee has allowed a run in just one of his four August starts, and allowed just two tallies in that game. He has also struck out 32 men in his 31 innings on the month (an average of more than 7 2/3 innings per start). You can see his cumulative August results in the "last four starts" line above as he, like Halladay, has had two of his last three starts delayed by rain and will also take his next turn on eight-days' rest (on Wednesday). Throw those last three months together and you get a Kershaw-like 10-2 record and 1.78 ERA with 101 strikeouts in 106 innings against just 20 walks. Oh, and he, too, has been much better at home this season, going 10-2 with a 2.13 ERA in the City of Brotherly love and just 4-5 with a 3.54 ERA on the road.
June was a magical month for NL Cy Young candidates. Lincecum followed Kershaw's lead that month with what has now stretched into a 13-start run of dominance. Over that span, Lincecum has gone 7-5 with a 1.45 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings, while the Giants have scored a total of just five runs in Lincecum's five losses, two of which were 1-0 games, and one of which was a 2-1 defeat. Still, Lincecum has had his own problems, specifically wildness. He has walked four men per nine innings over that stretch, which has contributed to an inefficiency that has limited him to "just" 6 2/3 innings per start in that time, a fine number by any standard other than that of the men ahead of him on this list. Fortunately, he has been able to limit the damage those walks might have otherwise caused, in part by allowing just three home runs over those 13 starts, one of the many benefits of his posting a career-high ground ball rate this season.
Since I last visited the Cy Young races three weeks ago, Hamels has made just one start, the results of which are listed above. Hamels' velocity was down in that game against the Nationals, and he left it complaining of a dead arm and shoulder stiffness. After a subsequent MRI showed mild inflammation in his pitching shoulder, he had one start skipped, then was placed on the disabled list retroactive to August 13. He's due to come off the DL Monday night to open the Phillies series against the Reds, and is in no way out of this race, but the Phillies will surely be careful with him from here on out. Their primary concern at this point is getting Hamels healthy for the postseason, so the odds are against him winning this award.
Speaking of the Reds, no, Johnny Cueto, who leads the major leagues with a 2.05 ERA, has not thrown enough innings this season to make this list. Putting aside closers, strike-shortened seasons, and Rick Sutcliffe, who only threw 150 1/3 innings in the NL the year he won that league's Cy Young award (he also threw 94 1/3 in the AL before a midseason trade from the Indians to the Cubs), no pitcher has ever won a Cy Young award with less than 200 innings pitched. After Sunday night's start, Cueto has thrown 140 1/3 innings this season. If he starts every fifth game the rest of the way, he'll make five more starts. Thus, even if he threw a complete game every time out, he'd only get to 185 1/3 innings, a figure five of the 10 men above (Beckett, Lincecum, and Hamels being the exceptions) have already surpassed, as has Ian Kennedy, who would be the sixth man on my NL list. Then again, if Cueto actually does throw five straight complete games in September, some voters might make an exception, but anything short of that likely won't be enough.