I'd save myself a lot of grief if I just started listing the top six American League Cy Young contenders, rather than the top five, because there are six pitchers with a real shot at the award. Of course, if I did that, you'd have to find someone else at whom to direct your angry e-mails and tweets. So, really, I'm being selfless by keeping the list to five. That AL race is a real thriller and looks like it will go right down to the wire. The National League race is less compelling almost by default, but it's not due to a lack of strong pitching performances. Rather it's due to the somewhat fractured nature of the race and the presence once again of a clear leader on whom old-school and new-school voters seem likely to agree.
NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, August 22. 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 (1)
Season Stats: 12-7, 2.53 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 6 CG, 1 SHO, 165 ERA+
Last Three Starts: 1-0, 1.71 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 12.0 K/9, 5.60 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS
David Price leads the league in wins and ERA, but Verlander leads the league in innings per start and ERA+, and to me the latter two stats are more significant than the former two. Pitching wins and losses tell us nothing about how a pitcher pitched, and ERA needs context, which the league-and-ballpark-adjusted ERA+ provides. ERA+ is not a precision instrument, few sabermetric statistics are, but it effectively has Verlander and Price (who is at 164) tied, which allows Verlander's advantage in innings and superior peripherals to push him out front. As close as this race is (three weeks ago it was Jered Weaver, who is in the unpublished sixth spot this week, who led the league in wins and ERA), I've had last year's winner Verlander in the top spot since the end of May.
Verlander has made just three starts, not the usual four, since my last look at this race due simply due to timing. His fourth start is Thursday afternoon at home against the Blue Jays.
2. David Price, LHP, Rays (N/A)
Season Stats: 16-4, 2.28 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 3.34 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 164 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 2-0, 0.60 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 5.20 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS
Over his last dozen starts, all of which have been quality, Price has gone 8-0 with a 1.56 ERA, completing at least seven innings every time out and striking out 89 men in 86 1/3 innings. Of the four August starts summarized above he has only allowed a run in one of them, twirling 23 scoreless innings in the other three. In his four no-decisions over those last dozen starts, Price has allowed a total of four runs in 30 innings, a 1.20 ERA, the last two of those games were 1-0 Rays loses in which Price went eight innings without allowing a run. That last simultaneously explains just how dominant Price has been as well as why a league-leading win total means very little.
3. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (5)
Season Stats: 12-5, 2.54 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.98 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 4 SHO, 148 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 6.50 K/BB, 8.2 IP/GS, 2 SHO
Hernandez has been as good over his last 13 starts (8-0, 1.53 ERA, 95 Ks in 100 innings) as Price has been over his last dozen, but he has been just a hair less consistent, mixing in a pair of non-quality starts, one of which lasted just 5 1/3 innings. With that exception, however, Hernandez has thrown at least seven innings in 12 of his last 13 starts and his last eight in a row. Four of Hernandez's last 11 starts have been shutouts, three of those have seen him strikeout a dozen or more men, and one of those was the 23rd perfect game in major league history, coincidentally a 1-0 victory over the Rays (but not over Price).
4. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (2)
Season Stats: 15-4, 2.65 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.17 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 CG, 163 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.79 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 11.2 K/9, 7.20 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS
As I wrote on August 12, Sale had a bit of a dead-arm period at the end of July in which his fastball velocity dropped, forcing him to rely more on his secondary pitches. As a result, he allowed five runs in each of his last two starts that month. The White Sox skipped his first August start, and his velocity was back up upon his return, allowing him to once again pitch off his fastball, resulting in the Last Four Starts line above. Concerns about his return to form being the result of facing the Royals and A's in his first three starts back in rotation were allayed by his dominance of the Yankees on Wednesday night as he held the Bombers to one run over 7 2/3 innings while striking out 13.
That one run came on a Derek Jeter home run, continuing a trend in which seven of the nine runs Sale has allowed on the month have come on solo home runs. That's simultaneously encouraging (he's only giving up home runs with the bases empty and teams are not building successful rallies against him) and troubling (he has allowed seven home runs in his last 29 innings, a rate of 2.2 HR/9, twice the league average).
5. Jake Peavy, RHP, White Sox (4)
Season Stats: 9-9, 3.11 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 4.05 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 4 CG, 1 SHO, 139 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 1-2, 2.89 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS
My argument for including Peavy over Jered Weaver (16-3, 2.74) in this final spot is the same as my argument for including Verlander over Price in the top spot. Weaver, who posted a 4.85 ERA over his last four starts due largely to a nine-run disaster two turns ago, is the obvious choice based on wins and ERA, but the two are effectively tied in ERA+ (Weaver is at 138; remember, Peavy and Sale pitch one of the major leagues' most offense-friendly ballparks) and Peavy, who next starts on Friday against the Mariners, has already thrown 20 more innings than Weaver, who started Wednesday night. Peavy also has Weaver beat in innings on a rate basis (even if you eliminate the start in which Weaver left due to a back injury before recording an out he's only at 6.7 IP/GS) and has the superior strike-zone peripherals, meaning he shoulders a larger responsibility for getting outs and keeping men off the bases than Weaver, who relies more on his excellent team defense.
Honorable mention here goes to the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda and Rangers' Matt Harrison, both of whom fair well in ERA+ (141 and 142, respectively) but lack the innings and peripherals to crash the party.
Off the list: Jered Weaver (3)
1. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (2)
Season Stats:16-6, 2.44 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 3.65 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 2 CG, 173 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.67 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 9.67 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS
The American League Cy Young race is a fairly straight-forward fight among six pitchers having outstanding seasons. By comparison, the NL race is somewhat segmented. There are a handful of pitchers having conventionally ace-like seasons, including the next three on this list and the Giants' Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, both of whom fell just outside my top five. There are a handful of pitchers who have been better than that group at keeping runs off the board but don't pitch as deep into games or have as strong peripherals (see the fifth spot on this list for more on that group). And then there's Johnny Cueto, who started the season as part of the latter group but has since pitched more like the former group and is once again the clear leader in this race.
Here's a quick look at Cueto's peripherals before and after June 1:
April-May: 5.8 K/9, 2.56 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP, 6.5 IP/GS
June-August: 8.1 K/9, 4.68 K/BB, 1.03 WHIP, 7.0 IP/GS
As the league leader in wins and ERA, Cueto shouldn't have much trouble garnering support from traditionalist voters, and as the league leader by a significant distance in key advanced stats such as Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement and ERA+, he should have the sabermetric crowd in his corner as well.
2. R.A. Dickey, RHP, Mets (4)
Season Stats: 15-4, 2.82 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 4.53 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 136 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 1-2, 2.79 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 4.85 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 1 CG
In his last five starts, Dickey has posted a 2.25 ERA and struck out 42 men in 36 innings. Three starts ago, he pitched a complete game against the Marlins, allowing just one run on a solo home run, walking no one, and striking out 10. Not only did that give him the NL lead in complete games, but it gave him the league lead in double-digit-strikeout games. Dickey has six. Stephen Strasburg has five. Dickey also leads the NL by one over Strasburg in games with nine or more strikeouts (9) and games with eight or more strikeouts (12)
3. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies (N/A)
Season Stats: 14-6, 2.94 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 138 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 3-1, 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 10.00 K/BB, 8.2 IP/GS, 2 SHO
Toss out 2009, when his opponents had a fluky high .321 batting average on balls in play, and here are Hamels' ERA+ figures in the other five seasons since 2007: 135, 141, 133, 138, 139. Hamels' performance over the course of this season has been less consistent. Specifically, he has hit two rough patches. In four starts from May 28 to June 13 he posted a 6.08 ERA. More recently, he posted a 4.23 ERA in his four July starts. Both times, Hamels struggled with the longball. He gave up 12 home runs in those eight starts, but has allowed just nine in his other 16 turns this season. Hamels has been excellent since the calendar flipped to August, tossing consecutive shutouts on August 7 and 13 and striking out 19 men in 14 2/3 innings in the two starts that bookended the shutouts.
4. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (N/A)
Season Stats: 11-7, 2.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.17 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 132 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.45 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 10.67 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS
In his last five starts, Kershaw has gone 4-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings against just four walks and two home runs. The first of those saw him shutout the rival Giants in San Francisco. The last of those, which came at home in Dodger Stadium on Monday night, saw him strikeout ten Giants in eight innings without allowing a walk or a home run only to lose 2-1 to Madison Bumgarner, who matched his innings, strikeouts, walks, and home run totals.
5. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP, Nationals (1)
Season Stats: 9-7, 2.54 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS, 156 ERA+
Last Four Starts: 1-1, 4.15 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 5.4 IP/GS
Zimmermann completed at least six innings in each of his first 21 starts this season, all but two of which were quality starts, but in his last four turns he completed six frames just once. That consistency was a large part of his first-place ranking three weeks ago, overcoming the fact that the Nationals won't let him pitch deep into games, never letting him work into the eighth and allowing him to throw a 100th pitch just once since June 22. With his streak broken, Zimmermann is hanging on primarily on the strength of the second best ERA and ERA+ in the league. He's also here representing comparable cases Kyle Lohse and Wade Miley (148 and 154 ERA+, respectively). Neither of those pitchers has a complete game or a strikeout rate higher than Zimmermann's, but all three have been among the best in the league at keeping runs off the board.
Off the list: Ryan Vogelsong (3), Matt Cain (5)