Masahiro Tanaka, Johnny Cueto comfortably ahead in Cy Young races

Thursday June 5th, 2014

Masahiro Tanaka has been as good as advertised in his first major league season.
Frank Franklin II/AP

There's little debate or surprise to be had regarding the leaders in the two Cy Young award races at this point in the season. There is, however a fair amount of jostling in the spaces behind them, as well as one tremendously surprising contender in the American League.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, June 4. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

American League

1. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees (1)

Season Stats: 8-1, 2.06 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 7.33 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 196 ERA+ (11 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 1.74 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 4.40 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS (3 GS)

In addition to leading the American League in ERA, WHIP and innings per start, Tanaka is just one point off the league lead in ERA+ and second in the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio (behind the Rays' David Price, who is having a frustrating season). On top of that, Tanaka has turned in a quality start every time he has taken the mound in the major leagues, heading into his Thursday afternoon outing against the A's. Also worth noting: Since allowing seven home runs in his first six major league starts, Tanaka hasn't allowed another in his last five and will take a 39-inning homerless streak into his start against Oakland.

2. Mark Buehrle, LHP, Blue Jays (4)

Season Stats: 10-1, 2.10 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 5.1 K/9, 2.30 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 197 ERA+ (12 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 2.22 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 4.8 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS

Buehrle, a four-time All-Star with 196 career wins, a no-hitter, a perfect game and a fifth-place Cy Young finish to his name, is having a career year at the age of 35 that is extremely difficult to explain. Buehrle has always been a good pitcher, but he's never been this good. He has allowed just two round-trippers in 81⅓ innings and thus has the lowest home run rate among qualified major league pitchers this season. Given that his groundball rate hasn't budged, that would seem to suggest that his numbers this season are a fluke. Looking at his pitch selection, however, there appears to be something more concrete going on, as he has increased the use of his curveball and backed off his cutter, a clear response to the relative effectiveness of those two pitches. There's still a correction coming, but it may not be as severe as previously expected.

3. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners

Season Stats: 8-1, 2.57 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 5.69 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 146 ERA+ (13 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 4-0, 1.71 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 7.75 K/BB, 7.9 IP/GS

Like Buehrle, Hernandez has had good luck with regard to home runs, allowing just three in his AL-leading 91 innings pitched and none in his last 57⅔ frames. However, unlike Buehrle, who has struck out just 3.9 men per nine innings in his last 11 starts, Hernandez's other peripherals are so strong that Fielding Independent Pitching actually thinks his ERA is too high. Hernandez's strikeout-to-walk ratio has been increasing steadily since 2008 thanks to both a rising strikeout rate (he struck out more than a man per inning for the first time last season and is right on that mark his year) and a shrinking walk rate. His walk rate this season is a career-low 1.6 per nine innings and his K/BB ratio is a career high. Yes, believe it or not, King Felix just keeps getting better.

4. Yu Darvish, RHP, Rangers

Season Stats: 5-2, 2.08 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 3.95 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 194 ERA+ (10 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 1.57 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 11.3 K/BB, 3.63 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS (3 GS)

Darvish's rate stats suggest he should be second on this list, but he has been scratched from two starts this season due to a stiff neck and has thus made three fewer starts and thrown 21⅔ fewer innings than Hernandez. No matter how effective Darvish has been in his 10 starts, it's difficult to rank him ahead of a pitcher as good as Hernandez when he has barely pitched three-quarters as many innings on the season. The good news is that Darvish returned to the hill on Sunday and twirled a gem, holding the Nationals scoreless for eight innings while striking out 12.

5. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros

Season Stats: 6-3, 2.70 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 4.27 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 152 ERA+ (11 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 1.90 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 4.25 K/BB, 7.9 IP/GS, 1 CG (3 GS)

Here's a pitcher you likely weren't expecting to see on this list in 2014 -- or any other year. Keuchel entered this season as a 26-year-old with a 5.20 career ERA in 38 starts and nine relief appearances So far this season, that ERA is much improved thanks to a dramatic increase in his groundball rate and a corresponding decrease in home runs. He's also decreased his walk rate significantly and his line drives while increasing his strikeout rate and inducing more pop-ups.

Keuchel has also changed his repertoire. He scrapped his curveball and has been having more success with his sinker, changeup and slider, generating groundballs with the first two and missing bats with the last. A lot of that success stems from his command. Keuchel's primary target is the bottom of the strike zone, and when he misses, he misses low, usually on purpose. The result has been one of the best groundball rates of the last decade and one of the best pitching performances in the AL through the first two months of the season.

Off the list: Max Scherzer, Scott Kazmir, Jon Lester

Johnny Cueto, now in his seventh season, is having a career-year across the board.
David E. Klutho/SI

National League

1. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (1)

Season Stats: 5-4, 1.68 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.38 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 220 ERA+ (12 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 2-2, 2.25 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 4.80 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Cueto allowed just 10 runs through his first nine starts this season -- aided by a .160 BABIP -- but then allowed 12 more runs (though just seven were earned) in his next two outings. That rough patch appears to have been a fluke, as Cueto returned to his previous form in his last start, throwing 7⅓ shutout innings against the Diamondbacks with seven strikeouts against one walk and five hits. Fun fact: With the exception of his won-loss record, which has been undermined by poor run support, the statistics listed in Cueto's season line above that are not major league-leading totals are still career highs.

2. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (4)

Season Stats: 8-3, 2.31 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.68 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 157 ERA+ (13 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 2.76 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 8.25 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Wainwright's May was bookended by a pair of disaster starts that inflated his ERA, but he has been so good in his other 11 starts this season, 10 of which have seem him hold his opponents to two or fewer runs in seven or more innings, that I have very little problem ranking him above pitchers with better run-prevention stats. Wainwright has a 1.18 ERA in those 11 starts; by comparison, Tim Hudson, who skipped a start due to a hip flexor strain in mid-May, has made only 11 starts all season.

3. Tim Hudson, RHP, Giants (3)

Season Stats: 6-2, 1.75 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 5.8 K/9, 6.25 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 1 CG, 189 ERA+ (11 GS)

Last Three Weeks: 2-0, 0.53 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 5 2/3 IP/GS

Hudson's first start after missing the one mentioned above was cut short after three innings by rain. Strike that rain-shortened outing from his record and he has averaged 7.4 innings per start, second only to Cueto among qualified pitchers in either league. Hudson also ranks second in the major leagues behind Cueto in unadjusted ERA and WHIP. He just isn't letting batters reach base this season, thanks to the major league's best walk rate (0.9 BB/9) and a favorable, but not entirely unsustainable .240 BABIP. Both are career bests, but the walk rate is actually the larger outlier in Hudson's career. He has had three previous seasons with a BABIP below .260, but his lowest walk rate prior to this season was 2.1 in 2007.

4. Julio Teheran, RHP, Braves

Season Stats: 5-3, 1.83 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.30 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 200 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 0.81 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Teheran hasn't necessarily been pitching better this year that he did in 2013, when he finished fifth in a very competitive NL Rookie of the Year vote, but he is pitching in better luck thanks to a .221 BABIP. Over his last nine starts Teheran has posted a 1.53 ERA while benefiting from a .191 BABIP; in his three starts prior to that, he posted a 2.84 ERA with a .300 BABIP. Look for his numbers to trend closer to that last pair as the season continues.

5. Kyle Lohse, RHP, Brewers

Season Stats: 7-1, 2.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 142 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 2.35 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 21.00 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Lohse's presence on this list should no longer comes as a shock to anyone. Not only is he enjoying a strong season as evidenced by his above line, but he has posted a 3.12 ERA (121 ERA+) since the start of the 2011 season and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting in 2012. Lohse's late-career surge remains remarkable (he had a 4.79 ERA and 93 ERA+ in his career prior to '11), but it is well past the point at which anyone might consider it a fluke.

This season, the 35-year-old fly-ball pitcher has posted career-best strikeout and walk rates (1.4 BB/9) and he lands on this list after having shutout the Cubs on three hits while walking no one and throwing just 93 pitches last Sunday. Over his last eight starts, he has walked only three men in 56 innings and he enters his next outing with a streak of 30 innings since his last free pass.

Off the list: Jeff Samardzija, Wily Peralta

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