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Awards Watch: Kershaw dominating NL Cy Young race; Sale leads in AL

In this week's edition of Awards Watch, Cliff Corcoran checks in on the Cy Young races to find Clayton Kershaw dominating the NL and unlikely contenders in the AL.

Awards Watch turns its attention to the battle for the American and National League Cy Young awards this week to find very disparate races. The NL is well stocked with outstanding performances from the sort of pitchers you would expect to be in the running but has a clear and dominant front runner. The AL, meanwhile, is a far more compelling race, but it's one without established stars, resulting in more surprising names making my top five and far less certainty that most of those pitchers will still be on the list when I revisit these races three weeks from now.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, May 25. 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. This year, I'm including Baseball Prospectus’s new Deserved Run Average (DRA) statistic in their stat lines. DRA is the most advanced attempt thus far to isolate a pitcher’s performance from his environment, adjusting for everything from park and defense to the catcher, umpire and weather. The resulting statistic is comparable to ERA but represents how many runs (not just earned runs) per nine innings the pitcher in question “deserved” to give up given his actual performance to this point in the season. More on DRA can be found here and here.

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 7–1, 1.48 ERA, 0.66 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 19.00 K/BB, 7.9 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 1.81 DRA, 253 ERA+

Kershaw clearly had no patience for the suggestion that Jake Arrieta might be the best pitcher in baseball, responding to headlines like this one with the best month of his remarkable career. In his five starts in May, Kershaw has gone 5–0 with a 0.64 ERA, 0.52 WHIP, 11.8 strikeouts per nine and a 27.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Three of those starts have been shutouts in which he has allowed exactly three base runners. His worst start of the month saw him allow two runs on eight hits over seven innings, striking out 10. In 42 innings on the month—an average of better than 8 1/3 innings per start—he has walked just two men and not allowed a home run. Perhaps most remarkably, Kershaw has faced just 16 men more than the minimum over those five starts, or an average of just 3.2 batters more than the minimum per start.

As otherworldly as Arrieta’s performance was from last July through this April, he never had a month as dominant as Kershaw’s May has been. All of that said, Kershaw does have one start remaining this month, in New York against the Mets on Sunday, though at this point it seems as if his only real competition is himself.

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2. Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets (3)
Season Stats: 5–2, 1.94 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 8.44 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 2.18 DRA, 197 ERA+

Baseball fans in New York should make plans to get to a game in Queens this weekend. The day before Kershaw looks to put a capper on the best month of his career, Syndergaard will take the mound coming off a pair dominant home starts in which he struck out 21 in 14 innings, walked no one and allowed just one unearned run. The sophomore with the 101-mph fastball and low-90s slider has eight quality starts in nine turns thus far this season, allowing two or fewer runs in seven of those and completing at least seven innings in five of them.

3. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs (2)
Season Stats: 90, 1.72 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 3.19 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 3.14 DRA, 232 ERA+

Arrieta has come back to earth since capping his streak of 24 consecutive quality starts with his second no-hitter on April 21. Just three of his six starts since then have been quality, and while his 2.43 ERA over that span is impressive, it’s impressive on a human scale. On the season as a whole, Arrieta's walk rate is up, his strikeout rate has fallen, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is way down even relative to his 2014 numbers.

Instead of dominating hitters, Arrieta is getting a lot of help from the Cubs' outstanding defense, which Deserved Run Average factors out above. The question now is if he will continue to regress or if this is just a breather before another string of dominant starts.

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4. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Giants
Season Stats: 7–1, 2.38 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 5.58 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 3.58 DRA, 162 ERA+

I give a lot of weight to innings pitched when considering pitchers in my rankings. To me, an ace is a pitcher who prevents runs and eats innings, not only giving his offense an opportunity to win but also keeping his bullpen fresh to support the rest of the rotation. In that way, an ace can have an impact beyond the games in which he starts. Kershaw leads the majors in both innings pitched and innings per start this season. In second place on both counts is Cueto, who has completed at least seven innings in nine of his ten starts this season. Three times he has pitched into the ninth inning without allowing a run, twice completing the shutout. On three other occasions, he has completed seven innings and allowed just one run. Since his only start to fall short of seven innings on May 2—curiously, his first start against the Reds (in Cincinnati no less) since being traded by them last July—Cueto has posted a 0.81 ERA in four turns, averaging 8 1/3 innings per start. He will enter his next turn, on Sunday in Colorado, coming off consecutive complete games in which he allowed total of one run.

That’s dominance, but Deserved Run Average points out that it has come largely against weak competition. Of his ten starts, three have come against the Padres, one was against the Brewers and one came against the Reds. That means half of his starts have been against teams that are below league average in runs scored per game this season. He has also made two starts against the Dodgers, who have had a league-average offense to this point. Of his three starts against teams with above-average offenses (the Diamondbacks twice and the Rockies once), two have come at home in pitching-friendly AT&T Park. That's particularly significant in the case of Colorado, which has always struggled to score outside of Coors Field (and this year has been no exception).

5. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
Season Stats: 8–0, 2.79 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 4.78 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 2.53 DRA, 147 ERA+

Strasburg has two non-quality starts this season. In both, he allowed exactly four runs in a minimum of seven innings and recorded double-digit strikeout totals. Those were also his only two no-decisions this season, both of which came in games the Nationals ultimately won, making Washington a perfect 10–0 in his starts on the season. His other eight starts have all been quality start wins; three featured double-digit strikeout totals, including his last two, both of which came against the division rival Mets.

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American League

1. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (2)
Season Stats: 91, 2.26 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.93 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 2.61 DRA, 171 ERA+

Sale was lit up by Cleveland on Tuesday, giving up six runs in just 3 1/3 innings, but had been dominant prior to that. My preseason favorite for this award went 9–0 with a 1.58 ERA through his first nine starts. He completed seven innings in eight of those, held his opposition to one run or fewer in five, and has thrown three complete games, including his last two prior to Tuesday’s stinker. Curiously, in a season in which has intentionally backed off his strikeout rate, Sale got seven of his ten outs in Tuesday’s game via the K. It will be interesting to see how he rebounds from that outing on Sunday against the Royals, a team that rarely strikes out to begin with.

2. Jose Quintana, LHP, White Sox (1)
Season Stats: 5–4, 2.22 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS, 2.94 DRA, 175 ERA+

Quintana had a fantastic five-start run from late April into early May in which he allowed just four runs, posting a 1.03 ERA and completing at least seven innings in four of those five starts. He has been more ordinary over his last two, however, allowing seven runs in 12 1/3 innings against the division rival Royals and Indians. He and Sale were in a virtual tie when I first checked in on this race two weeks ago. Now, with both having experienced some correction, Sale’s advantages in innings and DRA carry the day.

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3. Rich Hill, LHP, Athletics
Season Stats: 7–3, 2.18 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 3.10 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS, 2.66 DRA, 183 ERA+

How’s this for a story: A fourth-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan in 2002, Hill established himself in the Cubs’ rotation at the age of 26 in '06 and struck out 183 men with a 118 ERA+ in '07, but lost the ability to throw strikes the next season. Then came the injuries: Labrum surgery in 2009, Tommy John in '11. Sold to the Orioles in February 2009, Hill changed organizations nine times in seven years and seemed resigned to a career as journeyman reliever. Then, last June, stuck in a Triple A bullpen, he opted out of his contract with the Nationals and signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League with the intention of reestablishing himself as a starter.

As a matchup reliever coming off a pair of arm surgeries, Hill had become a side-arm pitcher, but with the Ducks he started throwing over the top again, creating more downward break on his curveball, which has always been his best pitch. After just two starts for Long Island, he was signed by the Red Sox, who had employed him twice before as a reliever. The Sox moved Hill to the third base side of the rubber and watched him peel off four straight quality starts for Triple A Pawtucket. By mid-September, he was in the Red Sox' depleted rotation, dominating Boston’s AL East rivals.

In four starts for Boston last September, Hill posted a 1.55 ERA with 36 strikeouts against just five walks in 29 innings against the Rays, Jays, Orioles and Yankees, shutting out Baltimore on two hits and a walk and striking out ten. In November, the A’s signed him to a $6 million contract and assured him a place in their rotation. Now, a 36-year-old who had thrown a total of 182 major league innings over the last eight seasons with a 91 ERA+ and 5.6 walks per nine innings is leading the AL in ERA and is third in my Cy Young rankings at the end of May. I have no idea if Hill—who has gone 6–1 with a 1.61 ERA over his last seven starts—can keep this up, but what he has already accomplished has been amazing.

4. Danny Salazar, RHP, Indians
Season Stats: 4–3, 2.32 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 11.1 K/9, 2.58 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS, 2.68 DRA, 188 ERA+

Hill is a great story, but he wouldn’t crack the top five in the NL. Salazar wouldn’t even come close. Just five of his nine starts have been quality, and he has walked 4.3 men per nine innings, but he is leading the league in ERA+, and DRA suggests that there’s hasn’t been an excess of luck in his performance. This is where the AL Cy Young race gets soft.

5. Steven Wright, RHP, Red Sox
Season Stats: 4–4, 2.52 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 2.57 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 2 CG, 3.50 DRA, 175 ERA+

All hail the late-blooming knuckleballer. The 31-year-old Wright throws the pitch about 85% of the time and has finally gotten a chance to show what he can do with it with an extended look in a major league rotation. Included in Boston’s Opening Day rotation out of necessity, he has been the most effective starter on the AL’s best team (though David Price has arguably pitched better with far worse results). In his first six starts this season, he posted a 1.52 ERA, a run capped by a complete-game win over the Yankees. He has pitched closer to his true level of ability since, recovering from a disaster outing against the Astros by posting a 3.00 ERA over 15 innings in a pair of starts against the Royals (a complete-game loss) and the Rockies (in Boston).