NL Cy Young Award Rankings: R.A. Dickey Is More Than Novelty and Narrative
It's been a week since we last posted our NL Cy Young Award rankings, but due to the All-Star break, we haven't seen much action from our top contenders. A couple of them haven't pitched since last week (though they appeared in the All-Star Game).
However, baseball's midseason break does provide a chance to review the first half of the season, rather than focus on a pitcher's most recent starts.
Johnny Cueto took over the top spot in our rankings last week because I felt he was pitching the best at that time. But was that an overreaction on my part? Was Cueto the best pitcher in the National League during the first half of the season when looking at the total picture?
Taking that into consideration, here are the top five contenders for the NL Cy Young Award at the midway point of the season.
Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants
Vogelsong broke into our top five last week but gets nudged out at the All-Star break. That's not to say he doesn't warrant consideration for the Cy Young Award, however.
With a 2.36 ERA, Vogelsong ranks second in the National League. In 16 starts this season, he's arguably had only one bad game. He's allowed three or more runs five times, which includes his most recent appearance.
Opposing batters are hitting only .221 against Vogelsong, tied for the sixth-best mark in the NL. That's even more impressive considering he strikes out 6.3 batters per nine innings.
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Is it possible for last year's Cy Young Award winner to be having a quietly great season? It feels that way, despite Kershaw actually having better numbers than he did at this point last year.
Kershaw has pitched the most innings in the NL, leading Matt Cain and Johnny Cueto by one-third of a frame. His 119 strikeouts are third in the league, while his 1.06 WHIP and .221 opponents batting average also rank among the NL's top six pitchers.
The Dodgers were a surprise team in the first half due largely to their pitching. For them to hold on to first place and keep the Giants at a distance, Kershaw will have to maintain his Cy Young form and lead the Dodgers' rotation.
Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
Gonzalez looked like the Cy Young front-runner for much of the first half of the season. He's not pitching as dominantly, especially from a strikeout standpoint, as he had earlier in the year. But the Nats left-hander has 12 wins on the season and has won his last four decisions.
After allowing four earned runs in each of his two previous starts, Gonzalez looked as if he might be wearing down a bit. Prior to that, he allowed three runs or fewer in 13 straight appearances. But Gonzalez held the Rockies to one run in his most recent outing, showing he may be back on track.
Opposing lineups are barely touching Gonzalez's stuff. He leads the NL with an opponents batting average of .192. More impressively, he's averaging 10.45 strikeouts per nine innings. Only his teammate, Stephen Strasburg, has a higher rate.
5. James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates
Last week: Honorable mention
If James McDonald was trying to pitch his way onto the NL All-Star team with his final start before the break, he made an excellent case for himself. (Unfortunately, McDonald was one of the most notable All-Star snubs.) Facing the Giants, McDonald racked up 10 strikeouts while allowing one run and four hits in seven innings.
That put McDonald at exactly 100 strikeouts for the season. His rate of 8.2 Ks per nine innings isn't quite the best of his career, but it's close. However, McDonald is walking 2.5 batters per nine, and that would be the lowest mark of his four full major league seasons.
With a 2.37 ERA, McDonald is right behind Ryan Vogelsong and ranks third in the NL. But the Pirates right-hander is even more impressive when it comes to putting runners on base. His 0.97 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is the third-best in the league, and a .196 opponents batting average is second-best among NL starting pitchers.
Andrew McCutchen is getting his rightful attention now that the Pirates are in first place in the NL Central. Will acclaim soon follow for McDonald? Most of the talk when it comes to Pittsburgh's pitching seems to center on A.J. Burnett. He's a more well-known name, so maybe that's understandable. But McDonald is the guy that should be getting the love.
4. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Last week: No. 4
Has Stephen Strasburg really lost his past three starts? Yet he's done so despite allowing eight earned runs with 18 strikeouts in 15 innings during that span. One of those starts was cut short after three innings due to dehydration and heat-related issues.
Maybe Strasburg just needs to avoid Tyler Colvin. The Rockies outfielder hit two home runs against him in Strasburg's last start, en route to a 5-1 loss.
Strasburg leads the NL (and is tied for the major league lead) with 128 strikeouts. He's striking out 11.64 batters per nine innings, the best rate in baseball. With a 2.82 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and .225 opponents batting average, Strasburg ranks among the top 10 NL pitchers.
The big question with Strasburg's Cy Young candidacy—and perhaps with the Nationals' playoff chances—is how much he'll be pitching at the end of the season. The innings limit that general manager Mike Rizzo will place on Strasburg has loomed over him all year.
However, Strasburg doesn't want to hear anything about an innings limit. If the Nats are in the postseason, he wants to pitch.
"They're gonna have to rip the ball out of my hands," Strasburg told SiriusXM's Jim Bowden earlier this week.
Oh, this is going to be fun to watch.
3. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
Last week: No. 1
Over the past couple of weeks, Johnny Cueto probably got more attention for being snubbed from the All-Star team—and his role in a brawl between the Reds and Cardinals two years ago—than his accomplishments on the mound.
Of course, the reason there was such an uproar over Cueto's omission from the NL roster is because he's had such an impressive season.
Cueto's 2.39 ERA is the fourth-best among NL starting pitchers. He's also rated highly in wins above replacement. At Baseball-Reference, Cueto's 3.6 WAR puts him at the top of the league. Cueto has a 3.0 WAR at FanGraphs, which ranks him fifth.
Is Cueto as dominant a pitcher as his NL peers? His strikeout total, WHIP and opponents batting average rank far below the top pitchers in the league. But it has to be mentioned that Cueto pitches to contact, gets plenty of ground balls and works deep into ballgames. He has to pitch that way to have success in Great American Ball Park, one of the best hitter's ballparks in the majors.
Why is Cueto in the No. 3 spot after being on top last week? In my view, he was having the best week among the top NL contenders and deserved to leapfrog to front-runner status. But I admit now that may have been an overreaction.
Looking at the number of hits he gives up and the lower number of strikeouts he gets compared to his peers, it's difficult to rank him higher than the other elite pitchers in the league at the midway point of the season
2. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
Last week: No. 3
Matt Cain dropped to the third spot in our rankings after two relatively subpar efforts in his most recent starts. Eight runs and 17 hits allowed over 13.1 innings just isn't what we're accustomed to seeing from him. Four home runs allowed was also a curiosity.
Cain also faced the Nationals and Reds, two of the better lineups in the NL, in those two starts. That's probably worth noting.
Overall, however, Cain put together an outstanding first half of the season and looks to be a serious candidate for the Cy Young Award through the rest of the year.
Where do we begin? Cain's 118 strikeouts rank fourth in the league. His 2.62 ERA is seventh among NL starting pitchers. Only one other NL pitcher has a better WHIP than Cain's 0.96. And his .209 opponents batting average is the league's fifth-best mark.
In a year when the Giants' presumed ace, Tim Lincecum, has had his worst season, Cain has stepped up to take his place as the team's best starting pitcher. (Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner are right behind him, of course.) Because of that, the Giants may just find themselves in the postseason yet again.
1. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets
Last week: No. 2
One of the biggest stories leading up to the All-Star game was NL manager Tony La Russa's decision not to give Dickey the start.
Going from out of the league to starting the All-Star game would have been another chapter in Dickey's amazing turnaround story. Dickey's knuckleball would be on center stage, with the Fox super slo-mo camera trained on every pitch to show its lack of spin and floating movement. Each aspect could have gotten more attention and camera time with a starting nod.
Novelties and narrative aside, Dickey simply deserved the honor because he's been the best pitcher in the National League so far this season. He went 44.2 innings without allowing an earned run. He pitched 33.2 consecutive scoreless innings.
Dickey is second in the NL with 123 strikeouts. Knuckleballers get funny swings from opposing hitters, but they're not supposed to mow the competition down like that. His 2.40 ERA is the fifth-best in the league. He leads the NL with an 0.93 WHIP. Opposing batters have a .203 average against him, the third-lowest among NL starting pitchers.
Can Dickey repeat his success in the second half? That's been a frequent question during this midseason break. It's hard to imagine he'll be quite as dominant because so few pitchers can maintain that level of performance through a full season.
Plus, the knuckleball is such a difficult thing to predict. Will Dickey have the same feel for the pitch? Will it move in the same way? Dickey seems to be able to control his pitch better than other knuckleballers, throwing it harder and giving himself more options to work with.
Was it an overreaction to knock Dickey out of the top spot after poor efforts in two of his past three starts? Probably. Based on that, I thought Johnny Cueto was actually pitching better, which is why I moved him past Dickey. Looking at the overall first half of the season, however, Dickey stands out above his peers.
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