A year ago, in the supposed Year of the Pitcher, there were 4.38 runs scored per game in the major leagues. Thus far this year, there have been just 4.24 runs scored per game in the majors. As a result, there have been an abundance of strong individual pitching performances which have made the Cy Young races particularly difficult to call. Things are starting to shake out a bit as we come into the home stretch, however. The American League race is coming down to a pair of pitchers who had an eventful duel in Detroit a week before Sunday, while the NL race is dominated by the starting rotation of the team that, as a result, has the best record in baseball. Still, at the top, both races remain close enough that even predicting who would win the vote -- if it were held right now -- is difficult to do.
As great as Justin Verlander has been this season, if he and Jered Weaver had the same run support and luck on balls in play -- two things beyond the pitcher's control -- this race wouldn't be close, and it would be Weaver who would be way out in front. Instead, Verlander sneaks past Weaver because he has the major league leads in wins, strikeouts, innings and WHIP (not necessarily in that order), threw a no-hitter in May (another example of his good fortune on balls in play, as he struck out just four men in that game), had a spectacular run from the end of June into early July of nine straight starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed (something which has been done just 19 times since 1919, not counting a handful of multi-season streaks), and beat Weaver head-to-head on the final day of July in a game in which Weaver was ejected for head-hunting before Verlander gave up a hit.
Twice this season, Weaver has thrown nine scoreless innings without getting a win, a complete game, or a shutout. His first such start came in Minneapolis on May 28, when he allowed just four baserunners, only one of whom reached second base (that coming on Weaver's own throwing error), only to see his team lose 1-0 in the tenth. The second came last Friday at home against the Mariners, when he allowed twice as many men to reach base, but again only one got as far as second base (forced there by a walk). On the latter occasion, the Angels won in the tenth, but all Weaver has to show for that start was that tiny ERA, which, were it to remain that tiny for seven more weeks, would be the lowest qualifying ERA since Pedro Martinez's 1.74 ERA in 2000. That was also the last time that any qualifying American Leaguer finished with an ERA below 2.00. The last National Leaguer to do it was Roger Clemens for the eventual pennant-winning Astros in 2005. As for Weaver, after 24 starts, his only non-quality outings were consecutive starts in early May in which he allowed four runs in six innings. In his other 22 starts, he has averaged 7.5 innings per game and posted a 1.48 ERA.
Sabathia fell just one start shy of matching Verlander's streak of nine straight games with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed when his streak of eight such games was snapped Saturday. But the way his streak was broken delivered a considerable blow to his Cy Young candidacy. With the Yankees having taken a lead in the AL East for the first time in a month the night before, Sabathia surrendered seven runs to the Red Sox on Saturday to give that lead back. That marked the third time in as many starts against Boston that Sabathia allowed six or more runs. On the season, Sabathia is 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA in four starts against the Red Sox, which both hurts his overall numbers (in his other 21 starts, he is 16-2 with a 2.11 ERA) as well as his perceived value. The Cy Young is not the "Most Valuable Pitcher" award. Felix Hernandez overcame a poor record against the division-winning Rangers to win the award last year. However, with Verlander and Weaver having such remarkable seasons, Sabathia can't afford any such a dark mark on his record, and with at most two more starts against the Sox remaining this season, Sabathia's struggles against Boston loom large over an otherwise outstanding season.
No qualified pitcher has had more luck on balls in play this season than Beckett, whose opponents have hit just .216 on fair balls that stayed in the park. He has also averaged just shy of 6 2/3 innings per start while the other four men on this list, as well as the man he bumped from the list this week, James Shields, have all averaged more than seven frames per start. That's not to say that Beckett isn't among the best pitchers in the league, but if you judge Beckett by his ERA alone, you're overrating him.
Haren posted a 1.74 ERA in his first 10 starts this season, a 4.52 ERA in his next 11, and has since allowed just three runs in 24 2/3 innings (1.09 ERA) over his last three starts. Fluctuations in balls in play have contributed to those shifts in performance, but Haren hasn't hurt himself. In his last 14 starts, he has walked 12 men and allowed just eight home runs, and on the season, he has allowed two home runs in a game just once. As a result, his defense-independent ERA is a half-run lower than Beckett's.
Halladay's lead here is slim, which creates an opening for those voters who prefer to spread the hardware around, but there's really no good reason not to favor Halladay. Halladay leads the NL in wins, innings, and complete games, and is once again in a whole other league in terms of his walk rate (1.1 BB/9IP, matching his rate from his Cy Young season last year). He leads the majors in the strikeout-to-walk ratio (a career-best figure from a player who has led his league in K/BB rate each of the last three seasons) as well. Halladay also leads the majors in Defense Independent Pitching (DIPS) and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), two competing statistics which adjust a pitcher's ERA to reflect only those aspects of the game they can control (strikeouts, walks, home runs, hit-batsmen).
Hamels' career-best season has owed something to the same sort of luck on balls in play that he enjoyed in his previous best season in 2008, but there has been far more behind his success this year than good fortune. Specifically, Hamels is getting more ground balls and cutting down on extra-base hits, particularly home runs, as a result. Mix in a reduced walk rate, and the result could well be a more permanent place among the best pitchers in the major leagues. Hamels leads the NL in quality starts and the only two qualified pitchers in the league who have lower ERAs also have more than 50 fewer innings pitched.
Kershaw continues to climb in this race, having gone 7-2 with a 2.01 ERA over his last 10 starts dating back to mid-June, averaging nearly 7 2/3 innings per start and well over a strikeout per inning over that stretch. The 23-year-old lefty leads the NL in strikeouts with 184 and, having dropped his walk rate by more than a walk per nine innings for the second year in a row, seems likely to be a regular on this list for years to come -- as long as the Dodgers are smart about the workload they place on his still-developing arm. Indeed, outside of his reduced walk rate, what Kershaw's doing this year is actually right in line with his previous two seasons (combined 2.85 ERA and 9.5 K/9).
Kershaw and Lee are both having terrific seasons, but both have suffered from a lack of consistency. Lee followed a dominant June (5-0, 3 SHO, one run allowed on the month) with a rough July (1-2, 4.91 ERA, 2-for-5 in quality starts), then came right back with a shutout of the defending world champions to start August. Even in that poor July, Lee struck out 40 men in 33 innings, three times striking out nine or more in a game, while walking just five on the month. Still, he and Kershaw have each made four starts this season in which they have allowed as many or more runs than innings pitched (leaving off thirds of an inning). Hamels has had just two such starts. Halladay has had one.
Lincecum had three rough starts in a row to kick off June. Prior to those, he posted a 2.22 ERA in 11 starts and since, he has a 1.67 ERA in 10 starts. On Sunday, he helped the Giants to just their second win in their last 10 games and snapped the Phillies' nine-game winning streak. He was also the winning pitcher in the Phillies' last victory before that streak and picked up the win in two of his own team's last three wins. Lincecum has been a bit wild by his own standards and, as a result, inefficient, and you can't erase those three duds in early June, but there's no denying that he remains one of the top stoppers in the league.