CYS MATTER

In a year of mostly ho-hum pennant races, the three-man chase for the top pitching honor in the NL brings welcome drama to the stretch run
September 18, 2011

While the AL Cy Young race is basically over—Justin Verlander (page 62) has it locked up—the situation in the NL is more fluid. Each day brings a little more pitching excellence, whether it's Phillies co-aces Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay or the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, all of whom are having award-worthy seasons. We're being treated to a great back-and-forth battle for the top pitching honor in the senior circuit.

The Cy Young debate has undergone an ideological evolution. From Brandon Webb in 2006 to Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum in '09 to Felix Hernandez in '10, pitchers have begun earning the honor without high win totals. In 2011, win-loss record simply isn't part of a credible discussion. Analysis has changed in ways that disconnect pitcher performance from that measure.

What a pitcher has done himself—how many innings he's thrown and how many batters he's walked or struck out, how well he has limited the effect of contact—is what he should be judged upon. Through Sunday, Kershaw, Lee and Halladay were the top three in the NL in innings pitched—separated by three, total. Kershaw led in strikeouts (with 231), Lee (211) was second, Halladay (204) fourth. Halladay had the lowest walk rate in the NL, Lee the fourth lowest. Halladay was first in strikeout-to-walk ratio, Lee third, Kershaw fourth. ERA is a step removed from these basic numbers, but the stat supports the idea that these three are the class of the league. Kershaw was tied for the lead (with the Reds' Johnny Cueto), at 2.36; Lee and Halladay were tied for third, at 2.44.

The three pitchers are very hard to separate using traditional statistics, which is why we turn to the sabermetric numbers. By Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP, from Fangraphs.com, based on a pitcher's strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen and home runs allowed), we see that Halladay had a 2.11 mark, to 2.39 from Kershaw and 2.61 for Lee. That's an indication that Doc hasn't gotten quite the same help from his defense the other two have—he has the highest batting average allowed on balls in play of the three—and is consistent with the idea that his basic skills, as reflected in his strikeout and walk rates, have been the best of the group. Adjust further, using a more detailed measure called xFIP, and Halladay's 2.60 mark still led the trio.

The advanced numbers aren't the final word, but they help slim the field. Ian Kennedy, whose 19--4 record is earning him Cy Young support in some quarters, doesn't come close to the top three when looking at FIP (3.37) or xFIP (3.52). But by any measure, traditional or sabermetric, this race is too close to call. If the season ended on Sunday, Halladay would be my choice for the NL Cy Young Award. But there are two weeks left, and watching Halladay, Lee and Kershaw battle it out will make for one of the season's juiciest subplots.

FOLLOW @joe_sheehan

THE NUMBERS

Halo effect

It appeared that the AL pennant races would provide very little drama, but the Angels have worked hard to change that. Riding an injection of speed and defense from young outfielders Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout, the Angels won 15 of 22 games through Sunday to chop the Rangers' lead in the AL West, which stood at seven games on Aug. 17, to 2½ games. Trout, a rookie who was called up from the minors for the second time this season on Aug. 19, seems to be the key; the Angels are 20--5 when he starts, including 11--2 since his recall. The 20-year-old had a .283/.356/.566 batting line in 59 plate appearances while playing exceptional defense since coming back. Mike Scioscia should stop platooning him with Bobby Abreu and get Trout's bat and legs into the lineup every day down the stretch.

PHOTOGARY A. VASQUEZ/US PRESSWIRE (KERSHAW)FEAT OF CLAYTON Kershaw's stellar second half (9--1, 1.30 ERA and the NL's best WHIP among starters) has thrust him into the thick of a nip-and-tuck Cy race. PHOTOBRAD MANGIN (TROUT)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)