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Familiar face leads AL Cy Young field while NL is full of surprises

With the weather getting warmer, run scoring around the major leagues is up, helping to create some separation in the Cy Young races. Through the end of April, the average major league team scored just 4.16 runs per game. Thus far in May, the average team has scored 4.35 runs per game, and over the last two weeks, that rate has been up to 4.43 runs per game.

When I last visited the Cy Young races three weeks ago, just three of the 10 candidates I listed had ERAs above 2.00. This week, just one of the 10 has an ERA below 2.00. Still, the National League field remains extremely tight. In the American League, however, a clear leader is emerging, aided by a recent injury to his primary rival. You might recognize the name.

NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, May 30. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (5)

Season Stats: 5-3, 2.55 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 5.13 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.40 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 10.2 K/BB, 6.80 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO

With the exception of his losses and shutouts, which are an exact match, Verlander has better numbers after 11 starts this year than he had at the same point of last season, and his ERA is nearly a full run lower (it was 3.42 after 11 starts last year). It was at this point of last season that Verlander went on the run that locked down the Cy Young award, going 8-1 with a 0.75 ERA in starts 12 through 20.

It's extremely unlikely that Verlander will have a similar stretch this season, but he may not need to. He's already leading the majors in WHIP, strikeouts (82), complete games, innings (81 1/3) and innings pitched per start (a new stat I'm adding to the pitchers' lines in this column to reflect the importance of going deep into games, eating innings, and keeping the ball out of the hands of lesser relievers in the sixth and seventh innings). Verlander is also second in the AL in ERA to the White Sox Chris Sale, who has thrown only 70 percent as many innings (thus Sale's absence from this list), and is third in the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (2)

Season Stats: 6-1, 2.61 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 3.80 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 1-1, 5.40 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 4.9 K/9, 1.67 K/BB, 4.6 IP/GS

Weaver faced just three Yankees Monday night before a lower back strain forced him out of the game and to the disabled list. Prior to that, he had averaged 6.9 innings per start. The Angels are hoping Weaver won't miss more than a month due to the injury, but neither player nor team have any real idea when to expect his return. Weaver is sure to fall off this list while on the shelf, but these rankings are based on the games that have been played only. Weaver's place here, echoing his finish in last year's AL Cy Young voting (second behind Verlander), serves as a reminder of what the Angels have lost just as they're finally starting to turn their season around. Weaver's next start would have come this Sunday against the AL West-leading Rangers.

3. Jake Peavy, RHP, White Sox (1)

Season Stats: 6-1, 3.07 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 5.04 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.17 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

Peavy's ERA is 30 or more points higher than that of each of the next two men on this list, but he leads them both in the ballpark-adjusted ERA+ because he pitches half of his games in homer-happy U.S. Cellular Field. Indeed, Peavy is 3-0 with a 1.75 ERA on the road, but has given up five of his six home runs at home, including two in each of his two last home starts, both disaster outings (more runs allowed than innings pitched) against division rivals Detroit and Cleveland, teams he had previously thrown quality starts against on the road. That Peavy is still on this list despite those two outings tells you just how well he has pitched otherwise. Even with the two disasters, he's second in the majors in WHIP and complete games (to Verlander), third in strikeout-to-walk ratio and tied for fourth in innings per start.

4. David Price, LHP, Rays (N/A)

Season Stats: 6-3, 2.71 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 2.71 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 1-2, 3.21 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.44 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

Just one of Price's first three starts this season was quality, but he shutout the Angels in his fourth, and in his last seven starts dating back to that one, he has had only one start that wasn't quality, posting a 2.28 ERA over that span while averaging 7 1/3 innings per start.

5. C.J. Wilson, LHP, Angels (N/A)

Season Stats: 6-4, 2.77 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.03 K/BB, 5.9 IP/GS

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.54 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 1.46 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS

Like his injured teammate Weaver, Wilson's innings pitched per games started figure is deceiving. He faced just five batters on May 11 before being forced out of that game by a rain delay. He then came back the next day and threw a solid 5 2/3 innings in an Angels win over the Rangers. That rain-interrupted outing also skewed his ERA as the bases were loaded when the rains came, and Jerome Williams, who replaced him after the delay, allowed all three men to score. If you want to be really generous, you could even blame that irregularity in his schedule on his rough outing his next time out (3 2/3 IP, 4 R, 6 BB). In terms of his longevity, if we treat those consecutive games as one start and his IP/GS jumps up to 6.5. Wilson left his last start after just 88 pitches due to a blister but turned in a quality start before departing and has successfully rebounded from blisters in the past. He's still scheduled to pitch against Texas this weekend.

Off the list: Felix Hernandez (3), Jason Hammel (4)

1. Gio Gonzalez, LHP, Nationals (5)

Season Stats: 7-1, 2.04 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, 3.16 K/BB, 6.1 IP/GS

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 2.52 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 13.7 K/9, 3.17 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

Gonzalez was lousy in his first start for the Nationals, but here's what he has done in his nine starts since:

7-1, 1.55 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 3.32 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS

Gonzalez has had a ton of luck on balls in play (.205 BABIP) and on fly balls staying in the ballpark (he has allowed just one home run, which translates to just two percent of his flies leaving the ballpark, compared to 6.8 percent last year). Of course, no pitcher with Gonzalez's strikeout rate is getting by on luck alone, and he is also helping himself out by getting more ground balls than in past years, more infield pop-ups (which count as fly balls) and allowing fewer line drives. Also, these rankings are based on results, not projection, so luck counts.

2. Brandon Beachy, RHP, Braves (N/A)

Season Stats: 5-3, 1.77 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.68 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.00 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 2.67 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Beachy leads the majors in ERA, but while Gonzalez hasn't allowed an unearned run all season, Beachy has allowed six. Eliminate the vagaries of official scoring, and Beachy's Run Average is 2.59, while Gonzalez stays put at 2.04. Add in Gonzalez's dominance over his last nine starts and it's easy to see why he, not Beachy, tops this list. In writing about Beachy a week ago, I mentioned that he could counteract a correction in his luck with an uptick in strikeouts. Well, over his last four starts, he has struck out eight men per nine innings, with three games of six or more strikeouts. He struck out six just twice in his first six starts this season.

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

Season Stats:8-1, 2.43 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 5.14 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 2.40 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.50 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS

Hamels is an ace-quality pitcher in a contract year, and he's pitching like it. He has thrown at least seven full innings in each of his last five starts, completed eight innings in four of his last seven starts, has allowed more than two runs in just three starts this season and is striking out more than a man per inning.

There's not much luck in his performance, either. His BABIP is .281, but his career mark is .283. His home runs per fly ball rate is below his career mark, but above the league average. Save perhaps for his run support, a surprising 5.76 runs per start from a punchless Phillies offense, a figure which only impacts his won-loss record, there's nothing in Hamels' performance which suggests a correction is coming. This is who he is. He's a 28-year-old, lefthanded stud, and he stands a very good chance of landing the richest contract ever given to a pitcher this winter.

4. James McDonald, RHP, Pirates (N/A)

Season Stats: 4-2, 2.20 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 3.32 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.57 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS

McDonald struck out seven men across his first three starts this season. In seven turns since then, he has struck out fewer at least seven men six times. Over those last seven starts, he has gone 4-1 with a 1.81 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 4.38 K/BB, and has averaged 7.1 innings per start.

The strikeouts aren't new for the 27-year-old McDonald, a legitimate former pitching prospect (rated 56th in baseball prior to the 2009 season by Baseball America) that the Dodgers gave away for less than 20 innings of relief from Octavio Dotel at the 2010 trading deadline. McDonald struck out 9.7 men per nine innings in the minors over nearly 600 innings and 8.5 per nine over 71 2/3 major league innings split between Los Angeles and Pittsburgh in 2010. What's new is his control. He has walked just 2.6 men per nine innings compared to a previous major league career mark of 4.1 BB/9. He's also getting more groundballs. Mix in the usual bits of luck (a bit on balls in play, a lot on home runs), and this late bloomer is suddenly one of the best pitchers in baseball.

5. Chris Capuano, LHP, Dodgers (N/A)

Season Stats: 7-1, 2.14 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 2.76 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.05 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.67 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS

Capuano has made eight straight quality starts over which he has gone 6-1 with a 1.53 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and averaged 6.6 innings per start. As I wrote last week, he's due for some correction, but a lot of what he's doing is legitimate as evidenced by his strong strikeout rate. However, don't expect him to persist on this list in place of rotation mate and defending NL Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw, who had a poorly-timed rough outing on Wednesday night.

Off the list: Johnny Cueto (1), Stephen Strasburg (2), Lance Lynn (3), Anibal Sanchez (4)

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