Close Cy Young race in AL, but Kershaw running away with NL honor

Thursday August 15th, 2013

Felix Hernandez is bidding for his second AL Cy Young award in the past four years.
Elaine Thompson/AP

The three-man race for the National League Cy Young award is losing its steam as Clayton Kershaw, echoing the performance of his team, is pulling away from the pack. In the American League, however, things have tightened up to such a degree that a solid argument could be made for any of the top four candidates below, potentially steering us toward yet another ideological battle involving a Detroit Tiger, a major player award and the old-school/new-school statistical schism.

Note: All statistics are through Wednesday, Aug. 14. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

American League

1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (1)

Season Stats: 12-5, 2.28 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 5.39 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 161 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-1, 1.55 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 5.17 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS

Hernandez held the Twins to one run over nine innings while striking out 11 men against no walks in his final start of July, but the one run he gave up allowed the Twins to tie the game in the ninth, sending it into extra innings. As a result, he still hasn't officially completed a game this season, prompting me to wonder if a starting pitcher had ever won a Cy Young award without registering a complete game in the season in question.

It has happened, but only three times by two pitchers. Jake Peavy was the last in 2007, winning the National League's pitching triple crown (wins, strikeouts and ERA) but never pitching past the seventh inning. The only other man to do it was Roger Clemens, who did so as a Yankee in 2001 and an Astro in 2004, pitching into the eighth just once in the latter season. Clemens, though, didn't deserve either award. In 2001 his rotation-mate Mike Mussina was the best pitcher in the AL but went 17-11 and lost the award to the 20-3 Clemens. In 2004, Randy Johnson, in his last great season, was the best pitcher in the NL but went 16-14 and lost the award to the 18-4 Clemens.

Such record-based voting seemed to be a thing of the past when Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke won the 2009 awards with 15-7 and 16-8 records, respectively, and Hernandez won in 2010 with a 13-12 record, but it proved not quite dead last year when the 20-5 David Price beat a clearly superior, but 17-8, Justin Verlander. That debate looks likely to rage again this year. To my eye, Hernandez has clearly been the best pitcher in the American League to this point, but popular opinion is starting to coalesce around the 17-1 Max Scherzer (more on him below).

Incidentally, in addition to Peavy and Clemens, just three other Cy Young award winners have won the award for season in which they failed to throw a shutout, all three being AL pitchers from last decade: Barry Zito in 2002, Bartolo Colon in 2005 and Johan Santana in 2006. Those three did all pitch complete games, however. Scherzer, like Hernandez, has neither a complete game nor a shutout this season.

2. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (2)

Season Stats: 8-11, 2.73 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 4.77 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 4 CG, 1 SHO, 158 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-2, 2.37 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS, 2 CG

Nope, not Scherzer, not yet. That's how close this race is. Sale is the only one of this week's top five AL contenders to post an ERA above 1.61 over his last four starts, but he also threw more complete games in those four starts (two) than the other four contenders have combined for all season long. Sale's innings eating (he has completed at least seven frames 17 times in 22 starts this season and leads the AL in innings pitched per start) and superior run prevention are what have him just ahead of Scherzer on my ballot for now.

3. Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers (4)

Season Stats: 17-1, 2.85 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 4.76 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 148 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 1.35 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 3.43 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS

If the voting were held today, Scherzer would probably win this award, and though I have him ranked third here, he's far from undeserving. In an odd way, his 17-1 record does as much to mask how good he has been as it does to accentuate it. He's ranked third here largely because he comes up short in run prevention relative to Hernandez and Sale, but he leads the league in WHIP, is third in strikeout rate and fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and has posted a 2.29 ERA over his last 16 starts dating back to mid-May.

4. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers (5)

Season Stats: 12-5, 2.64 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 12.1 K/9 (207 K), 4.06 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 161 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-1, 1.61 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 14.8 K/9, 5.75 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

As impressive as Scherzer's 17-1 record is to those who still find meaning in pitchers' won-loss marks, Darvish's strikeouts this season are as historic and far more meaningful given that they are purely the result of his pitching and are in no way influenced by the fielding, hitting or relief pitching of his teammates. Darvish's current rate of strikeouts per nine innings would rank seventh among qualified pitchers in major league history and the six spots ahead of him are occupied by just three pitchers: Pedro Martinez (in 1999), Kerry Wood (in 1998) and Randy Johnson (four times, including the current record 13.4 K/9 in 2001).

What's more, Darvish's five games with 14 or more strikeouts, two of which have come this month, are already tied for the sixth-most ever in a single season (with four Johnson seasons and Sam McDowell's 1968). The only pitchers to have more are Johnson (twice), Nolan Ryan (twice) and Martinez in 1999. Those are some of the greatest strikeout pitchers of all-time, and Darvish is comfortably in their company this season. He's also neck-and-neck with the top two men on this list in terms of run prevention.

5. Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Yankees

Season Stats: 11-7, 2.33 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 3.79 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 174 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 0.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 5.50 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS

Kuroda has left the mound without allowing a run in five of his last seven starts, with four of those five lasting at least seven innings. Over that stretch, he has posted a 0.94 ERA and lowered his overall season mark by nearly two-thirds of a run, foisting himself onto this list and to the top of the adjusted ERA+ leaderboard. Kuroda's eight scoreless starts of at least seven innings this season lead the majors. No one else has seven.

Off the list: Bartolo Colon

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)

Season Stats: 11-7, 1.88 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.46 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 190 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 1.20 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 6.50 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS

Kershaw has allowed three runs in a game just once in his last nine starts, all of which were quality. In the exception, he struck out 10 men. His ERA over that stretch, dating back to June, has been 1.57, his WHIP 0.67. In his two loses and one no-decision over that stretch, the Dodgers have scored a total of just one run. He is the only pitcher in baseball with 85 or more innings pitched and an ERA below 2.23. He has thrown 182 1/3 innings and his ERA is 35 points below that mark. This race is no longer close.

2. Matt Harvey, RHP, Mets (3)

Season Stats: 9-4, 2.23 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 5.84 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 162 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-2, 2.20 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 8.00 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Harvey threw his first career shutout last Wednesday, but it was the second time this season that he had thrown nine scoreless innings in a start, having previously done so in one of the most dominant pitching performances of the season back on May 7. Neither of his other two starts this month was quality, however, though both were near misses.

3. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (2)

Season Stats: 13-7, 2.71 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 6.75 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 134 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 0-2, 4.18 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 3.57 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

Wainwright continues to be a workhorse for the Cardinals. He leads the majors in innings pitched and innings pitched per start and has completed at least seven innings in each of his last five starts and in 14 of his last 16. He's been less effective, though, at keeping runs off the board of late. In fact, over his last eight starts he has been merely average, posting a 3.79 ERA compared to the league average of 3.73. His two starts this month, both of which have seen him allow three runs in seven innings (which translates to a 3.86 ERA), were his first consecutive quality starts since June.

4. Patrick Corbin, LHP, Diamondbacks (4)

Season Stats: 12-3, 2.48 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 3.33 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 CG, 154 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 0-2, 3.33 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 4.17 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS

Corbin's start against the Orioles on Wednesday night was his first non-quality outing since July 2, breaking a streak of six straight quality starts, but it was still an impressive showing for a 24-year-old in his first full season in the majors. Corbin gave up four runs in the second inning on three singles and a home run by Manny Machado, but twirled five more scoreless frames thereafter and finished his night with seven strikeouts against just one walk across seven innings.

5. Mike Minor, LHP, Braves

Season Stats: 12-5, 2.87 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 4.47 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS, 1 CG, 135 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 2.33 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS

Minor went 7-4 with a 2.21 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 4.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final 15 starts in 2012. That performance was buoyed by a .223 opponents' average on balls in play, but Minor has survived some correction in that department this year. His BABIP is a still-favorable .273 in 2013, and while that has inflated his ERA and WHIP relative to those last 15 starts of last season, his strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved and he has emerged, late in his age-25 season, as a legitimate Cy Young candidate. Well, he would have if Clayton Kershaw was in the other league.

Off the list: Cliff Lee

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