NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Matt Cain, R.A. Dickey, Lance Lynn Blow It All Up
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Yet again, our NL Cy Young Award rankings are blown to bits and have to be put back together again after another outstanding week from the top pitchers in the league.
Last week, the Mets' R.A. Dickey, James McDonald of the Pirates and the Giants' Matt Cain each made a push into the group of top Cy Young Award contenders. (We cheated a bit by making Dickey an honorable mention, which didn't please his supporters very much.) That shook things up a bit.
But Wednesday night's action provided some authoritative performances that just can't be ignored. As you look through this week's new rankings, perhaps some of these changes will seem like wild overreactions. In my opinion, however, these games are affirmation for pitchers who should be considered the best in the NL.
So after some considerable upheaval, here are this week's top-five candidates for the NL Cy Young Award.
Brandon Beachy's 1.98 ERA leads the major leagues.
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Brandon Beachy, Atlanta Braves
Beachy leads the major leagues with a 1.98 ERA. Keeping him off the list of top-five contenders seems crazy. That should indicate the level of outstanding pitching we're seeing this season in the National League. His 1.00 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) and .178 opponents' batting average also rank among the top three in the NL.
Beachy is winless in his past four starts despite giving up two runs or fewer in three of those appearances. Though his walks have increased in recent starts, Beachy still isn't allowing many hits—but he needs better run support from the Braves lineup.
James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates
After making his debut in our top five last week, McDonald gets squeezed out due to tremendous performances from other top pitchers in the NL. His 1.00 WHIP is tied for third in the league, and an opponents' batting average of .200 ranks fourth among NL starting pitchers.
McDonald hasn't allowed more than three runs in a single start this season. And in his 12 appearances this season, he's given up two runs or fewer in eight of those ballgames. He's a big reason the Pirates are fighting for first place in the NL Central right now.
Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers
Greinke ranks fifth in the NL with 89 strikeouts. His current ratio of 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings would be the second-highest of his career if he maintains it through the season. Based on WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Fangraphs has him rated as the best pitcher in the NL at 3.0.
Yet Greinke is far down the list of league leaders when it comes to ERA, WHIP and opponents' batting average. His 1.98 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and 2.34 xFIP indicate that his defense is letting him down. Sure enough, the Brewers are in the bottom third of the NL in team defense based on Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved.
Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
Hamels ranks third in the NL with 92 strikeouts. Throwing 89 innings—the third-highest total in the league—gives him a ratio of 9.3 K's per nine. If Hamels makes 30 starts, which he's done in each of the past four seasons, that will be the best strikeout rate of his career.
Giving up seven runs and eight hits to the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday wasn't a good addition to his resume, however.
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
The reigning NL Cy Young Award winner is having another fine season, though he's a tick below the top pitchers in the league right now. Kershaw's 1.00 WHIP is tied for third among NL starting pitchers. His .265 ERA and .213 opponents' batting average rank in the top 15 of the league as well.
But his decreased strikeout rate (8.3 K's per nine innings) is the lowest of his career, which is a concern. That can surely be attributable to the plantar fasciitis that he's been dealing with for the past couple of weeks. Kershaw insists the condition doesn't affect his pitching, but it's certainly possible that his mechanics are adjusting to compensate for the pain.
5. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
Opponents are batting .168 against Gio Gonzalez this season.
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Last week: No. 1.
Making a big drop from the top spot is Gio Gonzalez, who looked like the best pitcher in the National League for the past few weeks.
Dropping him down four spots seems harsh, especially when Gonzalez is still pitching very well. Since allowing four runs in his season debut, he's given up three runs or fewer in his subsequent 11 starts. Gonzalez is still allowing very few hits. His ratio of 5.3 hits per nine innings leads the majors.
Gonzalez is also one of four pitchers tied for the third-best WHIP in the NL at 1.00. And his .168 opponents' batting average is the best mark among big league pitchers.
However, Gonzalez isn't striking out batters at quite the same rate he was earlier in the season. That's what made him so dominant and stood him apart from the other pitchers in the league. In each of his past two starts, Gonzalez has struck out five batters. That still gives him 10 strikeouts in his past 11 innings.
But he no longer leads the majors in strikeouts per nine, ceding that category to teammate Stephen Strasburg. His strikeout total was dominating the NL previously, but his 89 strikeouts now rank fifth in the NL.
4. Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals
Lance Lynn has struck out 23 batters in his past two starts.
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Returning to our NL Cy Young Award rankings after a few weeks' absence is the St. Louis Cardinals' almost-rookie right-hander, Lance Lynn.
Several commenters voiced their support for Lynn while he was missing from our top-five contenders. While he was certainly deserving of Cy Young Award consideration with some outstanding numbers, a handful of pitchers were just performing a little bit better.
That's not the case now. Lynn has been tremendous in his past two starts for the Cards. On Thursday night, he held a strong Chicago White Sox lineup to just three hits over 7.1 scoreless innings. He also struck out 12 batters, reaching double digits in that category for the second consecutive outing.
Over his last two appearances, Lynn has struck out 23 batters in 13.1 innings. He's allowed two runs, nine hits and three walks during that span. Looking out further to his past five starts, Lynn hasn't allowed more than two runs.
Bringing up someone's win total has become taboo these days, but it's definitely worth noting that Lynn is one of two pitchers in the majors with 10 wins this season. He leads the Cardinals in wins, ERA (2.42) and strikeouts (86). Not bad for a guy who wasn't even tabbed for the Cards' starting rotation until Chris Carpenter got hurt in spring training.
3. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Stephen Strasburg is the first pitcher to 100 strikeouts this season.
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Last week: No. 2.
How can Stephen Strasburg be nudged down a spot in our top five after the two starts he had last week? Well, that's a good question. But as we said earlier in this slideshow, it's an indication of just how great the pitching has been in the National League.
Interleague play has been a showcase for Strasburg. On Friday against the Red Sox, Strasburg introduced himself to Fenway Park by racking up 13 strikeouts while allowing two runs and four hits over six innings. Thursday versus the Blue Jays, the Nats' ace struck out eight over six innings while allowing two runs and five hits.
With those eight strikeouts on Thursday, Strasburg became the first pitcher in the majors to reach 100 strikeouts for the season. His ratio of 11.69 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest ratio among big league starting pitchers.
Strasburg's 2.45 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and .216 opponents' batting average each rank in the top 10 among NL pitchers.
But let's go back to his past two starts. Against two strong AL East lineups, two of the best offenses in the major leagues and in two of the best hitters' parks in baseball, Strasburg was dominant. If there was any question as to whether he's one of the best pitchers in the sport, he shot such doubts down.
2. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets
R.A. Dickey almost joined Matt Cain in the perfect game club.
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Last week: Honorable mention
The commenters have spoken loudly over the past couple of weeks in response to our NL Cy Young Award rankings. Where is R.A. Dickey? Why aren't we showing him any respect? Why do we hate knuckleballers? And pitchers who use initials in their first name? Or whose last name rhymes with "hickey?"
(That includes last week's comment from Samuel Marroquin, which is still making me laugh a week later with its trumped-up outrage.)
OK, OK—we relent. But only because Dickey has presented such an outstanding case for his Cy Young Award candidacy.
Thursday night, the Mets knuckleballer was one hit away from joining Matt Cain in the perfect-game club. The Tampa Bay Rays are one of the worst offensive clubs in the American League—but it's still incredibly impressive that Dickey was able to hold them to just one hit over nine innings while racking up a career-high 12 strikeouts.
(By the way, was B.J. Upton's single actually a hit or should it have been ruled an error on David Wright? Judge for yourself. The Mets are appealing the decision, but I think Wright would've had to make a rather spectacular play to throw Upton out at first base.)
Along with Lance Lynn, Dickey is one of two pitchers to notch 10 wins thus far into the season. He's also providing the Mets pitching staff with a workhorse amount of innings, piling up 90 in 13 starts. Only Cain has more innings this year.
And with 90 strikeouts in 90 innings, Dickey is showing that he's not the typical soft-tossing knuckleballer who fools hitters into some crazy swings. He has the stuff that can overpower hitters to get them out. If Dickey maintains his current pace, his ratio of nine strikeouts per nine innings would easily be the best of his career.
Should we keep going? Dickey's 2.20 ERA is the third-best in the league. His 0.94 WHIP ranks second, and his .208 opponents' batting average is the sixth-lowest. Fangraphs rates him with a 2.2 WAR, tied for fourth-best among NL pitchers.
No need to get so worked up this week, Samuel Marroquin. Dickey has taken his place among the best pitchers in the NL.
1. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Matt Cain has thrown 90 innings, tops in baseball.
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Last week: No. 5.
Is it a wild overreaction to shoot Matt Cain up to the top of our NL Cy Young Award rankings after he pitched a perfect game Thursday night? Well, maybe.
However, it's been a persistent itch all season long to get Cain into these rankings. If I can be perfectly honest, my initial instinct before the season was to pick Cain as my NL Cy Young Award winner. I realize that's easy to say now (especially since I ranked him third), but I'm beginning to wish I'd followed through on my convictions rather than eventually going with Cliff Lee as my pick.
Cain has been deserving of Cy Young consideration all season, with excellent numbers across the board. Perhaps nothing jumped out to demand attention over the past couple of months, such as leading the league in strikeouts or ERA, but Cain has been among the league leaders in every pitching category.
But let's look at where he is now after pitching that perfect game against the Houston Astros.
First, no one has thrown more innings in baseball this season than Cain, with 95. Innings matter. It's a sign of a pitcher's stamina and ability to stay in a ballgame. He doesn't wear himself out with high pitch counts early in the game; he doesn't have that one bad inning that gets relievers warming up in the bullpen. It's a huge asset for a pitching staff to know that Cain will have the game under control every time he takes the mound.
Cain's 2.18 ERA ranks second in the NL and third in the majors. His 96 strikeouts are the second-highest total among big league pitchers. His .192 opponents' batting average ranks fifth.
His current ratio of 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings would be the best of his career if he follows it through to the end of the season. His walk rate of 1.5 per nine would be the lowest he's ever compiled. Less than two walks every nine innings. Let that one swim in your head for a bit.
But Cain truly stands out with his 0.85 WHIP. The next closest major league pitcher is the White Sox's Chris Sale at 0.92. Cain just isn't putting many runners on base. And as was pointed out in the comments of last week's rankings, Cain is even better with runners in scoring position. Opposing batters are only hitting .139 against him in those situations.
As I wrote earlier Thursday, Cain's perfect game was validation. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball, though he doesn't get the attention of Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver or even Stephen Strasburg.
But the six-year, $127 million contract he signed before the season showed how highly the Giants regard Cain. Other pitchers are going to be measured against that deal. And now, he has that signature moment; the career highlight he can prop up on the counter whenever anyone asks how good he is.
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