Price-Verlander, Dickey-Kershaw are tough Cy Young choices
The distribution of the Baseball Writers Association of America's major awards continues Wednesday night with the announcement of the results of the Cy Young voting in both leagues, a change from recent years when each league's award was given its own day.
Once again, the awards will be announced live on the MLB Network in an hour-long special starting at 6 p.m. Eastern Time, this time with the American League award being announced first, at 6:17 p.m. ET, followed by the National League award at 6:47.
As I have each of the last two days, I present here a look at the three finalists for the award in each league along with my take on who will win, who should win and why.
After ceding the title to James Shields in 2011, Price reemerged as the Rays' ace in 2012 with his finest season yet. The No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, Price finished second in the Cy Young voting in 2010, but this year he set personal bests in ERA, ERA+, wins, winning percentage (an AL-best .800), WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also led the AL in wins and ERA, two of the three (along with strikeouts) triple crown categories.
His best stretch came over 11 starts from June 24 to Aug. 21, when he went 7-0 with a 1.36 ERA with each start being quality and lasting a minimum of seven innings. In two of his four no-decisions in that stretch he threw eight scoreless innings only to watch his team lose 1-0 in both games. Overall, 17 of his last 18 starts were quality, and he failed to complete seven innings in just one of those 17. He did, however, miss a start in September due to shoulder soreness.
The defending AL MVP and Cy Young award winner wasn't as good in 2012 as he was in 2011, but he came remarkably close. The basic shape of his season line mimicked that of 2011. He led the majors in innings, strikeouts and ERA+ both years, struck out almost exactly a man per inning both seasons, posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio around 4.00 and a WHIP around 1.00, allowed hits, home runs and walks at well below league-average rates, and was among the league-leaders in complete games and wins (his 17 victories were tied for fourth in the AL this year). Overall, his 7.6 wins above replacement this year were not a far cry from his 8.3 of 2011.
The biggest differences between Verlander's last two seasons actually had nothing to do with how well he pitched. In 2011, his opponents hit a mere .237 on balls in play, suggesting that on top of all of that great pitching, he had more than his share of luck as well. This year, that figure corrected itself to .275 (Verlander's career BABIP is .286), inflating his hit rate by more than one safety per nine innings. Also, in 2011 he received 4.73 runs of support per 27 outs in 2011, but this year got just just 3.98 runs per 27 outs. That alone didn't carve seven wins off his record, but it might have been the difference between his 17 wins and Price's 20 (Price got 4.8 runs of support per 27 outs this year).
On the subject of run support, Weaver, who, if you cover up his record clearly can't compete with the other two finalists for this award, received a whopping 6.03 runs of support per 27 outs this season. He also missed four starts mid-season with a lower back strain (I'm including the May 28 start in which he faced three batters and recorded no outs before leaving with the injury in those four).
Still, when healthy, Weaver did have a tremendous season. Despite the injury, he had a dominant run of 12 starts from May 18 to Aug. 6 (minus the disabled list stay) in which he went 10-0 with a 1.64 ERA with nine of those 12 starts being quality. That stretch that doesn't include his May 2 no-hitter, in which he allowed just one baserunner via a walk and struck out nine.
Perhaps I'm not giving the electorate enough credit here. They showed great growth in giving this award to pitchers with lesser win totals in 2010 and 2011. Still, with Price winning two of the three traditional triple-crown categories, I think he's the best bet to take home the hardware.
My choice, however, would be Verlander. If you cover up those triple-crown stats, Verlander has a clear lead in the rest of the stats listed above, and he leads in raw strikeout total as well. I already discussed the fact that Price's record benefited from greater run support, and ERA+ shows that Verlander was actually more effective at keeping runs off the board after you adjust for ballpark effects. To me, Verlander was clearly the best pitcher in the American League again this year, but I suspect he's going to lose a close vote to Price.
Dickey was already one of the best stories in baseball coming into the year (his painfully honest and captivating autobiography,
A college star at the University of Tennessee in the mid-90s, Dickey was drafted 18th overall by the Texas Rangers in 1996, but when his initial team physical revealed that he didn't have an ulnar collateral ligament (the one repaired in Tommy John surgery), his signing bonus was revoked and he fell significantly in stature within the organization. Dickey struggled to make it in with Texas for the next decade until manager Buck Showalter, pitching coach Orel Hershiser and bullpen coach Mark Connor suggested in April of 2005 that he become a knuckleball pitcher.
Dickey agreed to make the change but success did not come immediately. In 2006, he gave up six home runs in his only major league outing and he didn't pitch in the bigs at all in 2007. He went through three other organizations before he finally found success in the Mets rotation in 2010 at the age of 35. Dickey didn't crack New York's roster until mid-May 2010, and regressed a bit in 2011, so while he did excel in those two seasons, his dominance in 2012 at the age of 37 still came as a shock.
A rough outing in Atlanta in his third start of the season likely threw some off the trail, but every other one of Dickey's first 14 starts was quality, and starting with a game in Pittsburgh on May 22 he put together the most dominant run in the majors this year. Over eight starts from May 22 to June 29, Dickey went 7-0 with a 0.86 ERA. In each of the seven quality starts in that run he threw at least seven innings and struck out at least eight; five times he struck out 10 or more.
Over five straight starts from May 27 to June 18 he allowed one unearned run in 41 2/3 innings, and the last of those two starts were complete-game one-hitters in which he struck out a total of 25 men. In seven straight starts from May 17 to June 18 he struck out 71 men against six walks in 54 2/3 innings. Dickey became the first pitcher since Dave Stieb in 1988 and just the seventh ever to throw consecutive one-hitters, and his run of five-straight starts with eight or more strikeouts and no earned runs allowed was completely unprecedented in major league history.
After that run, Dickey stumbled a bit in July, but went 7-4 with a 2.39 ERA over his final 13 starts, 12 of which were quality.
Like Weaver, Gonzalez simply can't compete here once you cover up his record, and his 5.50 runs of support per 27 outs suggest you should. The 26-year-old lefty was a key part of the Nationals' success, led the NL in strikeout rate and was generally excellent outside of a rough eight start stretch from June 26 to August 3.
He was not, however, one of the top three pitchers in the National League, in my opinion. Reds ace Johnny Cueto -- who led the league in ERA+ (152 from a raw ERA of 2.78), threw 17 2/3 more innings than Gonzalez and had a superior 3.47 strikeout-to-walk ratio -- should have been the third finalist. The BBWAA has been publishing the individual voters' ballots on its website along with the overall voting tallies this year. I'll be curious to see if Cueto's failure to crack the top three was the result of one or two misplaced votes or a more widespread failure to appreciate his performance this season.
It's tempting to cut and paste what I wrote about Justin Verlander above in this space. Kershaw is the defending winner of this award and, while he wasn't quite as good in 2012 as he was in 2011, he was darn close and produced a final line that was very similar. Kershaw led the majors in ERA and the National League in WHIP in each of the last two seasons. His hit and home run rates were identical in both years. He threw roughly 230 innings and had more than a strikeout per inning in both seasons. He walked a few more this year and struck out a few less, which dropped his ratio a bit, but that was the biggest change in his performance despite the left hip impingement that threatened to end his season in mid-September.
Despite that injury, Kershaw was once again at his best down the stretch, going 7-3 with a 1.55 ERA over his last 12 starts, 11 of which were quality. He posted a 0.77 ERA in September despite missing a turn mid-month due to the injury. A tentative outing after his return to action on Sept. 23 was Kershaw's only non-quality start in that final dozen, and he made a big push for this award in his final two turns after that, allowing one run in 16 innings while striking out 18. He finished his season with a dominant outing against the division-rival and eventual world champion Giants, a team against which he posted a 1.62 ERA in five starts on the season.
Kershaw didn't have consecutive sub-quality outings all year and only once finished a start with a season ERA over 3.00. On that occasion, he went out and shut out the Giants in his next turn to drop his ERA back into the twos. Still just 24, Kershaw has qualified for the ERA title in the last four major league seasons and posted a 2.60 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 9.4 K/9 across those four seasons.
Dickey and Kershaw are effectively tied in innings, WHIP, strikeouts and strikeout rate. Dickey had the more dominant stretch, which produced more complete games, and leads in strikeout-to-walk ratio, but Kershaw has a significant advantage in ERA and ERA+, one reflected in his lead in wins above replacement. As for their records, Kershaw received just 4.03 runs of support per 27 outs to Dickey's 4.76, which helps to explain why Kershaw's doesn't sparkle like Dickey's.
I'd have a hard time arguing with a vote for either pitcher. Kershaw was slightly better over the course of the entire season, but Dickey's dominance from late May through the end of June was the most impressive sustained pitching performance in recent memory. That Dickey is the better story may break the virtual tie for a number of voters, but you have to be pretty hard of heart to complain about that, particularly given that Kershaw won the award last year and is 14 years younger than Dickey.