NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Matt Cain and Johnny Cueto Duel for the Top Spot

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterJuly 27, 2012

NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Matt Cain and Johnny Cueto Duel for the Top Spot

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    Is it the blazing weather around the country? Something affected several of the leading contenders for the NL Cy Young Award over the past week.

    That's just a presumption, of course, but we saw some uncharacteristically bad outings from a handful of aces. Several commenters voiced support for Cole Hamels in last week's rankings. But he followed with one of his worst outings of the season, allowing five runs and 10 hits against the Giants. 

    Others were able to shake off the heat, however, and maintain their high level of performance. That might be an indication of who deserves the strongest consideration for the Cy Young Award at this point. 

    As always, your suggestions are welcome in the comments and definitely play a role in how these rankings are put together. For this week, these five pitchers look like the top contenders for the NL Cy Young Award. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants

    Vogelsong very well could be in our top five next week, if certain pitchers continue their downward spiral. He is definitely one of the leading candidates for the NL Cy Young Award.

    With a 2.26 ERA, Vogelsong is third in the league. He also ranks among the top 10 NL pitchers with a 1.11 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) and a .217 opponents' batting average. 

    Vogelsong has allowed just one run in each of his past two starts. In his 18 appearances this season, he's given up three runs or more only five times. Considering the few number of batters he strikes out (6.5 per nine innings), allowing so few runs is even more impressive. 

     

    Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals

    Lynn flies back onto the radar after going missing for a few weeks (much to the dislike of his fans). Since a rough three-game stretch during which he gave up 17 runs and 25 hits in 15.1 innings, the Cards' almost-rookie has rebounded nicely.

    In his past three starts, Lynn has allowed a total of one run. He's given up 14 hits in 19 innings while striking out 22 batters and walking just five. 

    Lynn ranks eighth among NL pitchers with a strikeout rate of 9.31 per nine innings. His 12-4 record and 3.10 ERA have surely exceeded what the Cardinals expected from him when he took Chris Carpenter's spot in the starting rotation. 

     

    Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants

    Should we just put the entire Giants starting rotation in these rankings? Oh, sorry—not you, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito. 

    Bumgarner is right behind teammate Matt Cain with a 1.04 WHIP. His 121 strikeouts put him among the top 10 NL pitchers, as does his 3.10 ERA and .225 opponents' batting average. 

    Perhaps the most impressive number is Bumgarner's innings. He's been a workhorse, throwing 136.2 innings, the fourth-highest total in the NL. That workload has certainly helped his walks and hits per nine innings, each of which is among the 10 best rates in the league. 

5. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

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    Last week: No. 3.

    During the All-Star break, one of the most frequent questions I was asked from readers, e-mailers, Twitter followers and sports talk radio hosts was whether or not R.A. Dickey could continue his excellent first-half performance during the second half of the season.

    I thought so, because Dickey demonstrated such great control over the knuckleball. He could locate it and change speeds, something we hadn't seen with previous knuckleballers.

    The pitch seemed to get into opposing hitters' heads.

    However, the unpredictable nature of the pitch appears to have come back to bite Dickey. While he and the knuckleball were in harmony during the first half, there appears to be some disagreement between the two now. 

    The problem may be that Dickey forgot that changing speeds was such a key part of his success. No matter the pitch, if hitters can time it, they'll eventually crush it.

    Since the All-Star break, Dickey has been getting crushed. In four starts, he's allowed 17 earned runs and 36 hits in 25.1 innings. Dickey also helped out with a relief appearance and gave up two runs in one inning of work. 

    If there's one consolation, it's that Dickey is still striking hitters out. Even during that rough four-game stretch, he notched 23 strikeouts. He ranks second in the NL with 139 strikeouts and seventh with a rate of 8.38 Ks per nine innings.

4. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: Honorable mention.

    After falling out of the top five last week, Stephen Strasburg is back among the leading Cy Young Award contenders.

    Facing the New York Mets in his last start, Strasburg looked like his dominant self again. He allowed one run and four hits over seven innings while striking out 11 batters. Granted, the Mets haven't provided much opposition lately, but it was important for the Nationals to finish off a sweep on the road against a division opponent. 

    Strasburg leads the majors in strikeouts with 151. With the Nats controlling his innings, that's resulted in a rate of 11.58 Ks per nine innings, the best in baseball. His 2.76 ERA and .229 opponents' batting average each rank among the 10 best in the NL as well. 

    The concern with Strasburg—and a reason some think he shouldn't be considered for the Cy Young Award—is that the Nationals will eventually enforce an innings limit on him and he won't pitch very much in September.

    But as I wrote earlier in the week, rumblings are that Nats general manager Mike Rizzo is eyeing a 180-inning limit for Strasburg, rather than the previously presumed 160 innings. That will make a huge difference, taking Strasburg toward the end of September, leaving two weeks remaining in the regular season. 

    Making two or three fewer starts than some of his peers shouldn't prevent him from winning the Cy Young Award if he deserves it.

3. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 4.

    Is Stephen Strasburg really the ace of the Washington Nationals starting rotation? I certainly tend to think of him that way and refer to him as such frequently. But Gio Gonzalez is arguably having the better season.

    No, Gonzalez doesn't have as many strikeouts. Though his 133 Ks rank fourth in the NL and his rate of 10.14 strikeouts per nine innings is the second-best in the league (behind Strasburg). 

    But as unhittable as Strasburg has been, Gonzalez is even more so. Opposing batters are hitting only .197 against him. They're hitting under .200 against Gonzalez! And his 1.11 WHIP is tied for the seventh-best mark in the league.

    Gonzalez had a rough start when these rankings were published last week, leading some to joke that we jinxed him. The Mets roughed him up for six runs and six hits in only 3.1 innings of work. Gonzalez also allowed two home runs and three walks during the game. 

    However, Gonzalez faced the Mets again in his following start and rebounded nicely. Pitching seven innings, he allowed no earned runs and only two hits. 

    With that win, Gonzalez earned his 13th victory of the season, tying him with R.A. Dickey for the most in the league. 

    There's no talk of any innings limit with him either. If Strasburg does indeed get shut down by the end of the season and through the postseason, Gonzalez will be the Nationals' ace. He's already pitching like one. 

2. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Last week: No. 2.

    The argument could be made that Johnny Cueto deserves to be the front-runner in these NL Cy Young Award rankings, and he certainly presents a strong case.

    In his last start, Cueto allowed one run and eight hits in seven innings against the Milwaukee Brewers. More impressive for a pitcher who doesn't strike out many batters was his nine strikeouts (versus one walk) during that effort. 

    For the month of July, Cueto has allowed only six runs in 25.2 innings. As a result, he leads the major leagues with a 2.23 ERA. Opponents just aren't scoring against him. 

    Is the difference an increase in strikeouts? In both June and July, Cueto posted strikeout rates of more than eight per nine innings. That hasn't been how Cueto has gone about his business, as he tries to get ground-ball outs pitching in the cozy Great American Ball Park.

    Whether it's because he's throwing harder or because his pitches are getting better movement in the summer heat, more batters are punching out.

    Cueto's numbers don't look quite as impressive compared to his fellow NL pitchers because he doesn't strike as many batters out, pitches to contact and pounds the strike zone, resulting in more hits.

    But the final results are certainly worth some praise. He's been the ace that the Cincinnati Reds have needed this season as they just keep on winning and keep the Pirates and Cardinals at a distance in the NL Central. 

1. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

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    Last week: No. 1.

    Why Matt Cain over Johnny Cueto for the top spot in our NL Cy Young Award rankings?

    Cain was roughed up in his last start, giving up five runs—and three homers—in eight innings against the Philadelphia Phillies. The five runs allowed tied for the most Cain has given up this year and the three homers were a season-high.

    But even with that outing and Cueto's amazing run of success, Cain still profiles as the better pitcher if you line their numbers alongside one another.

    Cueto has a 2.23 ERA, but Cain's 2.74 mark isn't far behind. Cain has allowed fewer hits (101 to 124), pitched more innings (134.2 to to 133.1) and has far more strikeouts (128 to 103). Cain also has a higher winning percentage at 10-3 (.769) than Cueto (.706). 

    The Giants' right-hander leads the NL in WHIP at 0.95. He's the only pitcher allowing less than 1.00 at this point in the season.  Cain also has the second-best opponents' batting average among NL starting pitchers at .208. 

    WAR favors Cueto over Cain, however, which is intriguing. Fangraphs has Cueto as the third-best pitcher in the NL at 3.5 wins above replacement, while Baseball-Reference has Cueto on top with a 4.6 WAR. 

    So maybe I have this wrong. But it sure doesn't feel like it.

     

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