NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Johnny Cueto, Brandon Beachy Look Like Contenders

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterMay 17, 2012

NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Johnny Cueto, Brandon Beachy Look Like Contenders

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    The past week wasn't the best one for early NL Cy Young Award favorites. Four of the five pitchers we had listed as top contenders a week ago had their worst starts of the season.

    Did that knock them down a peg in our rankings? You'll have to click ahead and see for certain. But each of the five hurlers have been so outstanding in their first six-to-eight starts that their numbers still look quite impressive.

    Yet there still seems to be a lack of veteran star power here. It's still early in the season, but maybe this is indicative of what's to come. Maybe some younger aces are ready to emerge and push out some of the old guard.

    Two new pitchers break into our list of top-five candidates this week, one of whom a few commenters were touting seven days ago. His presence may have been overdue. But a closer look at their numbers calls into question how long they'll be ranked among the NL's top pitchers.

    So admittedly, I might be screwing over the San Francisco Giants' Matt Cain to make a point. But that could very well change next week. 

    As we currently see it, however, these are the five leading contenders for the NL Cy Young Award.

5. Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves

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    Making up for what may have been an oversight last week, Brandon Beachy pushes into our NL Cy Young Award rankings.

    The second-year right-hander has given the Atlanta Braves the top starting pitcher it lacked while Tim Hudson recovered from back surgery, Jair Jurrjens underwent a stunning downfall and Tommy Hanson struggled with consistency. 

    Beachy leads the major leagues with a 1.60 ERA. In his seven starts, he has yet to allow more than two runs. While he's blowing away hitters, striking out 33 batters in 45 innings, he's simply not giving up many hits. Beachy has allowed only 29 hits to this point.

    An FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 2.73 indicates that his team's defense has bailed Beachy out significantly. His xFIP (explained here by Fangraphs) of 4.01 confirms it. Based on how batters have been hitting him, Beachy should be an average pitcher, according to that number. And it doesn't bode well for his performance down the line.

    But for now, the numbers are what they are. And the Braves are in first place, at least in part because Beachy isn't allowing the opposition to score when he's on the mound. 

4. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Looking at the NL pitching leaderboards, Johnny Cueto would certainly seem to be one of the top hurlers in the league. His four wins are tied for third, while his 1.89 ERA is the fifth-lowest among NL starting pitchers. 

    For a team as starved for an ace as the Cincinnati Reds, Cueto is their undisputed No. 1 starter right now.

    But as with Beachy, advanced metrics, such as FIP and xFIP, indicate that Cueto's numbers are more impressive than his actual performance justifies.

    Cueto's FIP is 3.32, almost double his ERA figure. That shows he's getting some help from his defense. His 3.85 xFIP says Cueto's performance to this point is above-average, but not by much.

    However, you really don't have to look at advanced metrics to see that Cueto's ERA and win total are a bit deceiving. He's allowed 47 hits in 52 1/3 innings while striking out 33. Those numbers don't look dominating.

    All this makes it sound as if Cueto doesn't belong on this list. Well, maybe he doesn't, but he's getting the job done for a Reds team that's threatening the St. Louis Cardinals' first-place lead in the NL Central. That warrants some consideration.  

3. Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals

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    With a 6-0 record built upon the likes of the Pirates, Cubs and Brewers, it was natural to wonder how Lance Lynn would fare once he faced some more formidable competition.

    Lynn got his test Sunday against the Braves. Against what might be the best team in the NL, the Cardinals' almost-rookie right-hander took his first loss of the season.

    Well, there you go, right? Lynn isn't as good as his early record said he was! Paper Cardinal!

    Not so fast. The Braves didn't exactly dominate Lynn. In fact, his effort was entirely respectable and was good enough to give the Cards a chance to win.

    Pitching six innings, Lynn allowed three runs and four hits, along with seven strikeouts. That was against an Atlanta lineup which has scored the second-most runs in the NL (behind Lynn's own team). 

    Lynn faces another tough test on Friday, when he pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The game is at Dodger Stadium versus the team with the best record in the majors. In addition, the Dodgers enjoy a plus-30 run differential over their opponents. 

    Fortunately for Lynn, he won't have to face Matt Kemp, who's on the disabled list with a strained hamstring. That might make the difference in him throwing yet another gem. 

2. Ryan Dempster, Chicago Cubs

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    Would Ryan Dempster be exposed as an early-season fluke when his Chicago Cubs faced their archrival Cardinals on Monday night?

    Dempster did indeed pitch his worst game of the season, allowing four runs and nine hits over six innings. But, the Cubs didn't lose the game because of him. In fact, they went on to win, as the Cubs' batters pounded Jake Westbrook for 11 hits and Cards reliever Mitchell Boggs blew the game later on.

    With that effort, Dempster's league-leading 1.02 ERA skyrocketed all the way up to 1.64. Oh, that's still the second-best ERA in the majors.

    And that number is for real. Dempster has 41 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings while allowing just 29 hits. Among starting pitchers with at least 40 innings, only Matt Cain and Brandon Beachy have allowed so few hits. (Remind me why Cain isn't on these rankings again? Oh, yes—to prove a point.) 

    Dempster should be tested again this weekend against a Chicago White Sox lineup that can put up some runs with a resurgent Adam Dunn. If Dempster can shut down an American League club, that might make him an even more appealing trade candidate by midseason. 

1. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Pitching Tuesday against a woeful San Diego Padres lineup that has scored the second-fewest runs in the majors, Stephen Strasburg looked like he had an easy path to his fourth win of the season.

    Some, such as MLB.com's Nationals beat writer Bill Ladson, even thought this was the ideal scenario for Strasburg to throw his first career no-hitter.

    It was all just too good to be true, apparently. Strasburg pitched his worst game of the season thus far, giving up four runs and seven hits in just four innings of work. 

    Rainy conditions, including a downpour that resulted in a brief delay, may have had something to do with the poor effort. As it turns out, Strasburg was also dealing with some discomfort due to a misplacement of heat balm on a delicate part of his body. (Did the rain cause the balm to drip from his shoulder to his lower body? It's possible.) 

    So, should one bad game stain Strasburg's Cy Young Award candidacy? That seems unfair, though it's certainly tempting to knock him down a spot or two when he got roughed up by the Padres. But let's see how he does his next time out. If this is the beginning of a bad streak for Strasburg, then that will obviously affect how he's perceived.

    On Sunday, Strasburg faces the most surprising team in baseball, the Nats' cross-town rival Baltimore Orioles. The O's have the second-highest run total in the majors with 177 and should provide the toughest challenge Strasburg has confronted this season.

    If he shuts down an AL East lineup, the Nats' ace should stay at or near the top of NL Cy Young Award contenders.