There's quite a contrast between the Cy Young races in the two leagues thus far. In the American League, the top contenders are quite easy to discern and include three former winners of the award and last year's AL runner-up.
However, in the National League there are 10 pitchers with both an ERA at or below 2.01 and a WHIP at or below 1.07, none of whom have ever finished above fifth in the Cy Young voting. As a result, my top five below has to omit half of them, not to mention several other strong candidates who don't meet those statistical benchmarks.
Jered Weaver has a lower ERA, a higher strikeout rate, a perfect record and a no-hitter. So why do I have Peavy first on my list? There are two reasons. First, all seven of Peavy's starts have been quality, while Weaver gave up five runs in six innings against the Twins in his second start of the season. Second, in his seven starts, the only above-average offenses Weaver has faced (according to runs scored per game through Wednesday's action) have been those of the Orioles and Indians. Peavy has faced both of those teams as well as the Rangers and Red Sox, the top two offenses in the American League. He has also faced Detroit twice, and while the Tigers are actually a tick below league average in run scoring right now, they've still been significantly more productive than the third-best team Weaver has faced this year.
Weaver is not on this list because he threw a no-hitter. Yes, Justin Verlander threw a no-hitter and won the Cy Young award last year, and Roy Halladay did it (with a perfect game) in 2010, but prior to that the only men to do both in same season were Mike Scott (in 1986) and Sandy Koufax (in both 1963 and 1965, the latter with a perfect game). Since the Cy Young award was created in 1956, there have been 134 other no-hitters that were not followed by Cy Young wins, and you won't see Philip Humber (1-2, 6.83 ERA after five starts, one of which was a perfect game) on this list any time soon. That doesn't mean the no-hitter didn't help, just as any other nine-strikeout shutout would have, only that the presence or absence of a single in those nine innings has little impact here.
Rather, Weaver has simply been the second-best pitcher in the American League thus far this season. He opened the season by striking out 10 Royals across eight scoreless innings, and since his lone dud (seven hits and five earned runs in six innings at Minnesota in his second start of the year on April 11), he has posted a 0.98 ERA while averaging 7 1/3 innings per start in his last five turns. The only knocks against Weaver are that one bad start and his weak competition. His next turn will come against Neftali Feliz and the Rangers on Sunday in Arlington. Circle that one on your schedule.
Thus far, Hernandez's season has looked a lot like Weaver's. He went eight strong innings in his season debut, then stumbled against a weak team in his second start (giving up six runs in 6 1/3 innings in Oakland), and has been dominant in five starts since (0.95 ERA, nearly 7 2/3 innings per start). He has also faced predominantly weak competition, including the Twins in his last start and the A's three times. As a group, his opponents have been a bit stronger than Weaver's (both faced the Indians, but Hernandez has also faced the Rays and Tigers), but then Hernandez's overall line is just a bit less impressive: higher ERA and WHIP, lower strikeout-to-walk rate, no complete games.
Hammel's presence on this list is a reminder of how early it still is. In fact, Hammel likely won't last through the weekend as one of the top five pitchers in the AL given that he has been scratched from his scheduled start on Thursday due to inflammation and fluid in his right knee, and the Orioles have no immediate plans for when his next start will be.
Still, part of the purpose of this column is to take the temperature of the season, and through the first full week of May, Hammels has been one of the AL's best hurlers. Acquired from the Rockies in February along with reliever Matt Lindstrom for Jeremy Guthrie, the 6-foot-6 former Devil Ray has yet to allow more than two runs in a game this season and the only one of his six starts that fell short of quality did so by a mere three outs (5 IP, 2 R in Toronto in his second turn). In terms of strength of competition, he has faced both the Red Sox and Yankees and the Blue Jays twice, and those three teams rank second through fourth in the league in run scoring, and when he faced the Twins in his season debut, he held them to one run over eight inning on less than 100 pitches.
Verlander has had two non-quality starts (8 1/3 IP, 4 R against the Rays; 6 IP, 5 R, 4 ER at the Yankees), and has a rotation mate with a league-leading ERA that is more than a run lower than Verlanders. However, that other Tigers' hurler, Drew Smyly, was skipped the first time through the Tigers' rotation and has yet to throw more than six innings in any of his six starts, while Verlander has never thrown fewer than six frames in any of his seven turns and has four starts of eight innings or more. The result is that Verlander has thrown 17 1/3 more innings than Smyly and is just one frame shy of the league leaders in innings pitched, Peavy and Hernandez (both of whom have thrown 52 1/3).
Verlander's ability to go deep into games is tremendously valuable, and if you look at his peripherals, what he has done thus far this year has been roughly in line with his overall rates in his Cy Young-winning season of a year ago. That's enough for the fifth spot on this list.
Shoulder inflammation delayed Cueto's 2011 debut until May 8 and prevented him from qualifying for the ERA title (he would have finished second in the NL). He has now made 31 starts since returning to action a little over a year ago, posting a 2.03 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 204 1/3 innings over that span. That ERA is the best in baseball dating back to May 1 of last year, and the only man in baseball with a lower ERA this season is the Cubs' Ryan Dempster (1.02) who has made two fewer starts because of a brief disabled list stay due to a quadriceps strain.
There are things about Cueto's performance over that span that seem unsustainable (a .255 opponents' average on balls in play, just four percent of his fly balls leaving the ballpark compared to a league average around seven percent, a decline this season in the ground ball rate that seemed to explain his success last year), but the fact that it has persisted across two seasons suggests that there's more than luck at work. Cuteo has faced the league-best Cardinals lineup twice, the surprisingly potent Astros once and pushed the Brewers scoring rate below league average with seven scoreless innings in Milwaukee on Wednesday night. He has also gone at least seven innings in five of his seven starts and in his only non-quality start he held St. Louis to three runs over five innings in his second outing of the year.
I have Strasburg ahead of the 6-0 Lance Lynn in part because Strasburg is one of just five men in the majors with at least six starts to have turned in a quality outing every time, a group that does not include Lynn. Strasburg has the lowest ERA in that group, and the difference between his ERA and Lynn's mark below is that Strasburg has allowed just one more run while Lynn has recorded just two more outs. Both have had similarly soft schedules.
Lynn has won all six of his starts in part because the Cardinals have given him an average of 7.62 runs of support thus far this season, but Lynn has done his part. Though he has twice failed to finish the sixth inning, he has also allowed as many as two runs in just one of those six starts. Initially ticketed for the bullpen, the sophomore Lynn was a last-minute rotation replacement for last year's ace, Chris Carpenter, who developed a shoulder injury in spring training, Thus far, Lynn has exceeded what the Cardinals could have expected from a healthy Carpenter.
There are nine pitchers in the National League with lower ERAs than Sanchez, but I'm passing over Dempster and Ted Lilly (1.41) this week because they've made just five starts to the six or seven made by the others and passing over Brandon Beachy (1.62), Jake Westbrook (1.76) and Carlos Zambrano (1.98) because of comparatively weak peripherals. Sanchez, meanwhile, is a close second to Tim Lincecum in strikeout rate and, unlike those other five pitchers, is a perfect six-for-six in quality starts this season. He has gone seven full innings in each of his last four starts and has yet to allow more than two earned runs in a game this season. His 14 strikeouts against the Diamondbacks on April 28 stand as the highest single-game total in the majors this season.
I have Gonzalez below Sanchez because of his ugly Nationals debut, in which he gave up four runs to the Cubs in just 3 2/3 innings. Since then, however, Gonzalez has been dominant. Following that disaster, Gonzalez reeled off 25 straight scoreless innings over four starts before finally surrendering a run to the Dodgers in the sixth inning of his fifth outing (yes, Matt Kemp was involved, as was Gonzalez's old nemesis, the base on balls). In his five starts since that debut, Gonzalez has posted a 0.82 ERA, while his opponents have hit just .118/.190/.182, though both are in part due to an unsustainable .171 batting average on balls in play over that stretch. Stay tuned.