Posted: Thursday June 21, 2012 7:14AM ; Updated: Thursday June 21, 2012 3:56PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>MLB AWARDS WATCH

Dickey, Cain on top of completely new NL Cy Young leaderboard

Story Highlights

R.A. Dickey and Matt Cain have thrown some of the year's best performances

Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Brandon Beachy among the pitchers falling off the list

Justin Verlander continues to lead the American League field; Jake Peavy is 2nd

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R.A. Dickey
For now, R.A. Dickey's back-to-back one-hitters help give him the edge over perfect game pitcher Matt Cain.
US Presswire

The Cy Young race in the American League seems to be taking shape as the top three men on this week's list return from three weeks ago, and the leader remains the same.

No such stability exists in the National League, however. There are five new names on the NL leaderboard, which is partly a reflection of just how much great pitching we've seen this season.

Of the five men who made up the NL quintet during my last look at the Cy Young race, one (Atlanta's Brandon Beachy) has been eliminated because of a season-ending elbow injury that will require Tommy John surgery and another (Pittsburgh's James McDonald) cooled off just enough to allow two of the league's hottest pitchers to slip by him. The rest -- Cole Hamels (5.40 ERA and just one quality start in four turns in the last three weeks), Chris Capuano (4.24 ERA, also 1-for-4 in quality starts) and previous leader Gio Gonzalez (1-2, 4.24 ERA) -- fell off the list because of poor performances.

Don't bet on the current top five remaining in place permanently, either, as it includes a rookie, a pitcher scheduled to be shut down by his team after 165 innings and a 37-year-old knuckleballer who entered the year having gone 41-50 with a 4.34 ERA in his major league career.

NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, June 20. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

National League

1. R.A. Dickey, RHP, Mets (N/A)

Season Stats: 11-1, 2.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 4.90 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.50 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 10.50 K/BB, 8.6 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO

Dickey's last two starts were complete game one-hitters in which he struck out a total of 25 men. The unearned run he allowed in his penultimate turn was the only run he surrendered in any of his last five starts. In his last six starts, three of which he completed, he has allowed just two runs, one unearned, while striking out 63 men in 48 2/3 innings. Those performances led many to wonder if what Dickey has been doing is the most dominant stretch of pitching by any knuckleballer in the game's history, but the Elias Sports Bureau rendered that conversation moot when it reported that no pitcher in major league history had ever struck out eight or more men without allowing an earned run in five straight starts before Dickey did it in his last five. That's no pitcher of any kind, knuckleballer or otherwise. By that measure, then, one could argue that Dickey's last five starts add up to one of the most dominant runs by any pitcher ever, which is mindboggling given Dickey's age (37) and track record (he didn't qualify for an ERA title or post an ERA better than league average until his age-35 season).

No knuckleball pitcher has ever won a Cy Young award, though 1959 winner and Hall of Famer Early Wynn had a knuckler in his arsenal, as did 1952 American League MVP Bobby Shantz (the Cy Young was created in 1956). Shantz used the pitch more prominently, but wasn't a pure knuckleballer like Dickey, who throws the pitch rougly 85 percent of the time. For more on where Dickey's season to this point fits in flutterball history read this typically excellent Hit and Run post by our Jay Jaffe.

Oh, and for anyone who thinks Dickey's place on this list is solely a product of those last five or six starts, consider this: He has just one non-quality start this season, and since that one dud, he has gone 9-0 with a 1.21 ERA over his last 11 starts with the Mets going 10-1 in those games.

2. Matt Cain, RHP, Giants (N/A)

Season Stats: 9-2, 2.34 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 1.24 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 4.86 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Cain's last start was his first this season in which he failed to complete six innings, and as ranked by Game Score, only his season debut was worse this year. Perhaps that shouldn't have been a surprise, given that it came just five days after he threw a season-high 125 pitches in his perfect game against the Astros. In between his two duds, he went 8-2 with a 1.82 ERA in a dozen starts.

Cain's perfect game, one of the most dominant nine-inning pitching performances of all-time, was his second shutout of the season, but he also held the Phillies scoreless for nine frames back on April 18 only to be matched naught-for-naught by Cliff Lee. On the season, he is on pace to set career-bests in just about everything, which says a lot considering Cain was already one of the best pitchers in the major leagues coming into this season.

3. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (N/A)

Season Stats: 8-3, 2.38 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 3.35 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 2 CG

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.05 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 4.33 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 1 CG

Cueto's 2011 season was shortened on the ends by shoulder inflammation and a latissimus dorsi strain, but if you add his 2011 and 2012 seasons together, he has gone 17-8 with a 2.33 ERA (172 ERA+) in 250 2/3 innings with five complete games in 38 starts. This year alone, he was 4-0 with a 1.12 ERA through his first seven starts before a couple of poor mid-May outings briefly bumped him from this list, but those remain his only two non-quality starts since April 11.

Cueto's ERA is a tick above Cain's, but the relative environments of their home ballparks make Cueto's the superior figure, as illustrated by the adjusted ERA+, which has Cueto at 174 (with 100 being average) to Cain's 153. On the road, Cain has a 3.48 ERA, while Cueto's is 2.15. However, Cain leads Cueto in nearly every other category as well, which is why he's ahead of the Reds ace on this list.

4. Wade Miley, LHP, Diamondbacks (N/A)

Season Stats: 8-3, 2.30 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 3.35 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.10 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 25.00 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS

The last two spots on this list could have gone to any number of pitchers, including McDonald, Gonzalez, the Giants' Ryan Vogelsong or the Cubs' Ryan Dempster, who is currently on the 15-day DL. Beachy would have been a candidate as well had he not suffered a season-ending injury which will keep him out of action for roughly 12 months but who has been one of the best pitchers in the National League to this point in the season (an indication of just how much the Braves lost with that injury).

Beachy and Dempster are easy enough to pass over given their injuries, and I'm going with Miley, the rookie lefty from Arizona, over the rest despite the fact that he spent most of April in the Diamondbacks' bullpen. Miley pitches in a tougher home ballpark than any of the other pitchers I just mentioned and has been pitching deeper into games than any of them save Vogelsong. Also worth noting: Miley has yet to walk more than two batters in a game this season and has walked just one man over his last four starts (30 innings).

5. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals

Season Stats: 9-1, 2.46 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 11.8 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 2.08 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 13.8 K/9, 8.00 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS

Strasburg has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball this season, but the Nationals are being careful with him, artificially restricting his pitches and innings, which restricts his value. Strasburg has cracked 100 pitches just five times all season and has pitched past the sixth inning just four times in his 14 starts. The team intends to limit him to about 165 innings this season, something which you'll hear a lot about if the Nationals are still in a playoff spot when that total draws near, which they should be. Coming off his start on Wednesday night, Strasburg is more than half way to that total with 84 innings pitched on the season, and he stands no chance of winning this award given that innings limit. Still, to this point in the season his dominance can't be ignored.

Off the list: Gonzalez (1), Beachy (2), Cole Hamels (3), McDonald (4), Chris Capuano (5)

American League

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: 7-4, 2.57 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 3.93 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 2.63 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 2.18 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS

Verlander was the unanimous winner of this award last year, but he's far from a clear-cut leader this season. I favor him because he leads the majors in innings (108 2/3), innings per start and complete games, leads the AL in strikeouts (106) and quality starts (12), and is third in the league in WHIP and second in ERA+ (158). Only Jered Weaver, who has thrown just 69 percent as many innings due to a recent disabled list stay, leads Verlander him in the last two categories and by just one point in the latter.

2. Jake Peavy, RHP, White Sox (3)

Season Stats: 6-3, 2.74 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 3.61 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 0-2, 1.91 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 1.73 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 1 CG

The case for Peavy is similar to that for Verlander as it is based largely on the number of innings he has consumed while pitching at such a high a level. Peavy is fourth in the AL in innings pitched (98 2/3) and second among the five men on this list. He's sixth in ERA+ (155), but just a point out of fourth place and three points behind Verlander, a negligible difference given his advantage in innings pitched over everyone above him other than Verlander. He's also second in WHIP to Weaver and tied with Verlander for the league lead in quality starts (12 in 14 turns).

3. C.J. Wilson, LHP, Angels (5)

Season Stats: 8-4, 2.44 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 2.03 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS

Last Four Starts: 2-0, 1.65 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 2.00 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS

Wilson is second in the AL in ERA behind Weaver, who has thrown 17 1/3 fewer innings, and a tick above Peavy in ERA+ at 156. As I mentioned three weeks ago, his innings-pitched-per-games-started is misleading because of a rain-shortened outing in early May. Limited to a third of an inning in that start, Wilson started the next day as well, and if you count those two starts as one, his IP/GS jumps up to 6.6. Outside of that mid-May sequence, including his next start in which he seemed fatigued from those back-to-back outings and lasted just 3 2/3 innings, Wilson has thrown at least six innings in each of his other twelve starts, joining Verlander and Peavy in a three-way tie for the AL lead in quality starts.

4. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (N/A)

Season Stats: 8-2, 2.46 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.73 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 1 CG

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 2.40 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 4.50 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS, 1 CG

Sale is scheduled to start against the Brewers on Friday, which is bad timing for this list, as it would have been nice to see how he responded after his career-worst start against the Dodgers his last time out. Sale gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings in that game, one of those flukey contests in which two excellent pitchers (Sale and reigning NL Cy Young Clayton Kershaw) combined to allow 10 runs. Sale had given up just four runs in his previous five starts combined. Sale is third in the AL in ERA and far and away the league leader in ERA+ (172) once one factors in his offense-friendly home ballpark, but because the White Sox briefly pulled him from the rotation in early May due to an injury concern, and because of the bad timing that put his next start just after the publication of this list, he's well behind the other men on here in innings pitched.

5. Colby Lewis, RHP, Rangers (N/A)

Season Stats: 6-5, 3.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 7.00 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 2 CG

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 1.76 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 8.33 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 2 CG

Though Weaver, who returned from the DL with six scoreless innings Wednesday night, leads the league in ERA and WHIP, the time he missed and his resulting deficit in innings keeps him off the list for now. That makes room for Lewis, who was awful in May (1-3, 5.23 ERA, not counting the five unearned runs that inflated his Run Average for the month to 6.61, and 10 home runs allowed in just five starts, only one of which was quality), but has been excellent in April and June (5-2, 1.85 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, just five more home runs across nine starts, all of them quality). Even with his lousy May factored in, Lewis is seventh in the AL in ERA+ behind the four men ahead of him on this list, Weaver, and the A's Brandon McCarthy, who has also lost time to the DL this season; Lewis is also fourth in the league in innings per start behind Verlander, CC Sabathia (who has averaged 240 regular season innings over the last five years) and Peavy.

Incidentally, what is it about the Rangers' top draft picks of the late '90s being late bloomers? The team's top picks in 1996, 1998 and 1999 were R.A. Dickey, Carlos Peņa, and Colby Lewis. Peņa had a breakout season with the Rays in 2007 at the age of 29 after being released twice in 2006 and spending most of that season in Triple-A, and neither Lewis nor Dickey established himself as a quality major league starter until 2010, when both were in their 30s, Lewis doing so after spending two years pitching for the Hiroshima Carp in Japan.

Off the list: Jered Weaver (2), David Price (4)

 
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