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NL Cy Young Award Rankings: James McDonald, Matt Cain, R.A. Dickey Join the Fun

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterDecember 16, 2016

NL Cy Young Award Rankings: James McDonald, Matt Cain, R.A. Dickey Join the Fun

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    Of all the rankings we do each week for the major awards in the National League, putting together a list of top-five contenders for the NL Cy Young Award is by far the most difficult. There are simply more than five pitchers that should be considered, and one to three of them are going to be snubbed every week.

    I can only imagine that some of you will go crazy over Johan Santana not being included, especially after throwing a no-hitter last Friday. But I really do try to look at every meaningful stat, and I think it matters that Santana has thrown 68 innings this season, or almost 20 fewer than Matt Cain. 

    I'm also not very comfortable about booting Cole Hamels from the top five after having him ranked second last week. It seems unfair and reactionary, but he had two sub-par starts during the past week. And with so many great pitchers to consider, that's enough to drop him off the list. I expect he'll be back, however.

    If you believe other pitchers should be in these rankings or listed in a different order, please offer your suggestions in the comments. It truly is helpful. But as of this week, here are the top-five contenders for the NL Cy Young Award. 

Honorable Mention: R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

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    Not including R.A. Dickey in our NL Cy Young Award rankings until this week was probably an oversight. In my view, he still hasn't quite pushed into the top five contenders yet. But his numbers have become too good to ignore.

    Dickey is 9-1 this season with a 2.44 ERA for a New York Mets team that has been one of this season's big surprises. But his performance is even better than his win-loss record and ERA indicate.

    After pitching 7.1 scoreless innings against the Washington Nationals on Thursday, Dickey hasn't allowed a run in his past three starts. Over his past four appearances, during which he's pitched 30.2 innings, Dickey has given up only one run. 

    With 78 strikeouts in 81 innings, Dickey isn't the type of soft-tosser we normally associate with a knuckleballer. He's really ramped up the strikeouts over his last four starts, punching out 38 hitters. If Dickey's current ratio of 8.6 Ks per nine innings stands throughout the season, it would easily be the best of his career.

    If you were to ask me who is the best pitcher on the Mets' staff, I would instinctively say Johan Santana. But Dickey is pitching like the team's ace right now. 

5. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

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    Before the season, I thought Matt Cain was a strong contender to win the NL Cy Young Award (though I ultimately picked Cliff Lee). He's done nothing so far to change that perception. Since I've began putting together these NL Cy Young Award rankings for Bleacher Report, I've tried to get him into the top five.

    This week, I finally did it.

    In the introduction, I said that I believe innings matter. It's an indication that a starting pitcher is staying in a ballgame and giving his team a chance to win. But a high innings total also shows that a pitcher is throwing so well that his manager doesn't want to take him out. 

    No one in the National League has thrown more innings than Matt Cain, who's logged 86 so far this season. But Cain isn't just eating up innings. He's dominating opposing hitters while he's in the ballgame.

    Cain is third in the NL with 82 strikeouts. His current radio of 8.3 Ks per nine innings would be the highest since his first full season in 2006. His 2.41 ERA ranks seventh in the league, which should tell you just how good the top starting pitchers have been this year. 

    His 0.94 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) leads the NL. Cain simply isn't allowing many hitters to reach base. And with an opponents' batting average of .209 that ranks seventh in the league, he's not giving up many hits either. 

4. James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    How much attention would James McDonald be getting if he pitched for a team other than the Pittsburgh Pirates? I'm certainly asking myself that question, as his inclusion in these NL Cy Young Award rankings may be well overdue.

    But if the Pirates stay in contention for the NL Central lead—they're currently tied for second place, two games behind the Reds—McDonald may be getting much more attention as we move into the summer. 

    McDonald's 2.14 ERA ranks second in the NL. He has yet to allow more than three runs in a game this season. And among his 11 starts thus far, he's given up as many as three runs in only three of those appearances. In his past three starts, McDonald has allowed two earned runs and 13 hits over 21 innings, while striking out 21 batters.

    His 0.95 WHIP is second among major league starting pitchers. Opponents are batting .194 against him, the third-lowest average in the NL. He's striking out more batters per nine innings (9.0) than he ever has, while also allowing the fewest walks (2.5) and hits (6.1). 

    If McDonald keeps up this level of performance, he'll very likely keep pushing his way up the list of Cy Young Award contenders. If he helps the Pirates into the postseason, he may just end up winning the thing.

3. Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves

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    Last week: No. 3.

    Holding down the third spot in this week's NL Cy Young Award rankings is Brandon Beachy, who continues to put up some of the best numbers in the league.

    Though Beachy has lost his past three starts, he pitched well enough to win two of those ballgames. Instead, he took two tough losses to the Washington Nationals, as the Atlanta Braves scored only two runs for him in those outings.

    Beachy continues to lead the majors in ERA at 1.87. The next closest pitcher is the Pirates' James McDonald at 2.14. His 0.95 WHIP is tied with McDonald for third in the NL. And opposing batters are hitting only .179, the second-lowest batting average among big league starting pitchers. 

    One developing concern for Beachy and the Braves could be the number of walks he's allowed over his past two starts. Beachy has walked eight batters in 11.1 innings, which is veering away from what's made him successful.

    Pitching to contact and letting his defense help him out is how Beachy has compiled such great numbers this season. Is he beginning to get away from that and trying to get hitters to swing and miss? If that's the case, Beachy might find his three-game losing streak extended as the Braves head into a tough stretch of interleague play. 

2. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 4.

    After taking a tumble in last week's rankings, Stephen Strasburg leapfrogs Brandon Beachy to get back near the top of the leader board. 

    If there was some concern that Strasburg was beginning to tire out after his first 10 starts of the season, he looked rejuvenated last Saturday against the Braves. Perhaps an extra day of rest caused by a Friday rainout was just what he needed. 

    Atlanta beat Strasburg up in his previous start, battering him for four runs and six hits over five innings. He didn't help himself with four walks, either. But in the rematch (matched up against fellow Cy Young Award contender Beachy), Strasburg was dominant.

    Pitching seven innings, he allowed no runs, only four hits and struck out nine batters. Considering how potent the Braves offense has been, this was probably Strasburg's best performance of the season.

    With 65 innings thrown this season, I realize it might look contradictory to have Strasburg so high in these rankings while not including Johan Santana because of a lower innings total. But Strasburg has struck out 11 more batters and issued four fewer walks while allowing the same number of runs and just two more hits. 

1. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 1.

    Gio Gonzalez continues to lead our top five NL Cy Young Award candidates, but his footing may not be as solid as it once appeared.

    Gonzalez had one of his worst starts of the season last Sunday against the Braves. He lasted only 4.2 innings while giving up three runs and seven hits. His five strikeouts were also the fewest he's had in 11 starts this year.

    With that performance leaving him with 84 strikeouts for the season, Cole Hamels overtook Gonzalez for the NL lead in that category. However, his ratio of 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings still leads the majors. 

    While his 1.03 WHIP now ranks fifth in the NL, opposing batters are hitting .172 against him. That's the lowest opponents' batting average in the big leagues. 

    Gonzalez will face a major test in his next start, facing the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park during interleague play. In five career starts against Boston, he's compiled a 2-1 record and 5.79 ERA, allowing 34 hits in 28 innings. At Fenway Park, Gonzalez has allowed 10 runs, 19 hits and 11 walks over 16 innings. 

    Will Gonzalez be the NL Cy Young Award front runner by this time next week? 

     

    Follow @iancass on Twitter

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