NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Matt Cain Holds Steady in Rough Week for NL Pitchers

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterAugust 3, 2012

NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Matt Cain Holds Steady in Rough Week for NL Pitchers

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    What happened to National League pitching this week? Nearly each one of the top contenders for the NL Cy Young Award got beaten up in their most recent appearance. 

    I have to be honest here. I'm not happy with this week's rankings. And you may not be happy with them either. Regardless of your feelings, I hope you'll share your responses and suggestions because they're always helpful in putting this list together. 

    With most of our leading candidates putting up a bad performance or a recent string of poor outings, I can't really see a reason to move anyone around. Not this week, anyway. But we do have a couple of pitchers that are inching their way toward the top five, including one who probably should have gotten consideration weeks ago. 

    After scrutinizing the list of names and their season statistics for a longer period than usual, the following five players (and three honorable mentions) look like the best current candidates for the NL Cy Young Award. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

    The reigning NL Cy Young Award winner could very well be listed among the top five candidates for this year's honors. 

    So why isn't Clayton Kershaw in our top five, especially after pitching a five-hit shutout on July 29? He just hasn't put together a consistent, dominant string of starts. In the start before that shutout, he allowed eight runs. He'll give up one run in two consecutive starts, then get roughed up for five runs the next time out. 

    Kershaw is third in the NL with 143 strikeouts. His 2.95 ERA is the seventh-best among the league's starting pitchers. With a 1.06 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), he's tied for fourth. Opposing batters have a .220 average against Kershaw, the NL's fourth-best mark. And his 149.1 innings are the most in the league.

    Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants

    We keep wanting to put Ryan Vogelsong in the top five of these rankings. He leads the majors in ERA at 2.22. His 1.13 WHIP ranks seventh in the NL. And perhaps most impressively, opposing batters are hitting only .218 against him. That's the third-best mark in the league. 

    Vogelsong has allowed one run in each of his past three starts, one against the Dodgers and another versus the Braves. He's only given up more than three runs once this season. 

    Despite that success, however, is Vogelsong the beneficiary of a good defense behind him and a large ballpark?

    Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) ranks the Giants defense as the sixth-best in the league. AT&T Park is the most pitcher-friendly stadium in the majors, based on park factors. An FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 3.68 says Vogelsong isn't pitching as well as his ERA indicates. 

    Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals

    Here's the name that probably deserved Cy Young Award consideration a few weeks ago. Should we just put the whole Nationals rotation in these rankings? 

    Jordan Zimmermann has the second-best ERA in the majors at 2.28. His 1.06 WHIP ranks seventh among NL pitchers. Baseball-Reference rates him as the second-best pitcher in the NL based on WAR (wins above replacement). At 4.4, he's just behind Johnny Cueto. 

    With that kind of performance in the middle of the starting rotation, no wonder the Nats feel confident about shutting Stephen Strasburg down before the end of the season. 

    Like Vogelsong, Zimmermann benefits from a good defense (the Nats rank fifth in UZR as a team) and working in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. But keeping the ball down, getting ground ball outs and walking only 1.6 batters per nine innings is obviously an extremely effective way to win ballgames. 

5. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

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    Last week: No. 5.

    After a rough stretch during which he allowed 21 runs (19 earned) in 26 innings, R.A. Dickey finally rebounded with the sort of performance that made him look like the best pitcher in the NL for the first half of the season.

    Facing the Arizona Diamondbacks, Dickey allowed one unearned run and four hits over seven innings. He also struck out eight batters, the highest total in his past five starts, asserting himself over opposing hitters again. 

    What was the difference? As Dickey explained to ESPN New York's Adam Rubin, he had better control of his knuckleball, changing speeds and getting better movement on the pitch. In prior starts, Dickey got into a tendency of throwing everything too hard, and the knuckleball was flattening out.

    Despite his recent slide, Dickey still has outstanding season numbers. He's compiled a 14-2 record, tied for the most victories in baseball. His 2.83 ERA ranks fifth in the NL, just a hair behind Matt Cain's 2.82. Dickey is also behind Cain in WHIP, second in the league at 1.03.

    Up next for Dickey is the San Diego Padres, against whom he pitched seven scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts earlier this season. 

4. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 4.

    After Stephen Strasburg was blown up by the Mets for six runs and eight hits in four innings of work, moving him out of the top five seemed like the logical move. He's pitched poorly in two of his four starts since the All-Star break, compiling a 4.43 ERA. 

    But Strasburg isn't the only pitcher coming off a bad start or string of bad starts, which is why he's still listed among the top Cy Young contenders. 

    Strasburg leads the majors with 154 strikeouts and has the highest rate of Ks per nine innings among starting pitchers at 11.42. 

    As I wrote in an earlier article, Strasburg's second-half struggles might be an indication that he's beginning to tire out. It's typical of pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery to begin showing inconsistency as they progress through a long season and rack up innings. 

    That brings up the innings limit that has loomed over Strasburg all season and is one reason many think he shouldn't even be considered for the Cy Young Award. I don't agree with that sentiment. Strasburg is likely to make eight to 10 more starts this season.

    If he's outstanding in most of those games, is he less worthy because he made four fewer starts than his peers? 

    The larger point is that Strasburg will be shut down because Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo thinks his young ace has had enough and doesn't want to risk pushing him too far. 

3. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 3.

    Gio Gonzalez was roughed up in his most recent start, allowing five runs (four earned) and five hits over six innings. Gonzalez also gave up five walks, tying his highest total of the season and providing a reminder of the issue that has prevented him from becoming an elite pitcher before this year. 

    Yet in his prior appearance, Gonzalez allowed no earned hits and only two hits in seven innings, demonstrating that he's capable of dominating an opposing lineup on any given night. 

    Like his teammate, Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez has alternated a bad start with a good start. Yet there isn't a worry of him tiring out as there is with Strasburg. Gonzalez is a proven 200-inning pitcher, having reached that mark in each of the past two seasons. 

    Opposing batters are batting .199 against Gonzalez this season. He's allowing 6.5 hits per nine innings, the best rate in the majors. If not for 52 walks, his WHIP would surely be much better than 1.14. As is, that's still the ninth-best mark in the NL. 

    Gonzalez is about a month-and-a-half away from the becoming the Nationals' top starting pitcher once Strasburg gets shut down. Though he's not viewed as the Nats' ace, his statistics say he may already deserve that status. 

2. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Last week: No. 2.

    This is being written just as Johnny Cueto gave up four runs and eight hits in a win over the San Diego Padres. Cueto struck out nine batters, reminding us of what kind of pitcher he used to be before overhauling his game to succeed at Great American Ball Park. 

    Cueto's supporters will point to the Reds' home ballpark as the decisive factor in calling him the best pitcher in the National League. GABP is one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors, according to park factors.

    Having seen a game there myself, every fly ball flirts with being a home run. So it's particularly impressive that Cueto has allowed only four home runs in his home ballpark as of Aug. 2. He's only given up seven all season. His rate of 0.3 homers per nine innings is the best in baseball.

    Keeping the ball down and getting batters to hit into ground ball outs has obviously been extremely effective. 

    Has Cueto hit a rough patch, however? Two starts aren't a sufficient sample size to draw a conclusion from, but he's given up four runs in each of them. That's pretty notable since Cueto had allowed more than three runs only twice in his previous 20 starts. 

    Cueto still has a 2.52 ERA, the third-best in the NL. He's also pitched 146.2 innings, the second-highest total in the league, demonstrating that he works deep into ballgames and helps his pitching staff every time he takes the mound. The bullpen doesn't have to worry when he pitches, which is an important trait of an ace starter. 

    Being the best pitcher on a team with the best record in baseball probably doesn't hurt Cueto's cause either.

1. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

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    Last week: No. 1.

    Along with R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain was one of the pitchers among our top five NL Cy Young candidates who pitched relatively well in his most recent start.

    It wasn't a vintage performance for Cain, who allowed two runs and seven hits in five innings against the Mets. Cain actually took the loss because the Giants could only score one run for him, reminiscent of the poor run support that saddled him with a 12-11 record last season and a 13-11 mark the year before. 

    Cain also only has one win in his past seven starts, demonstrating yet again—which we already know well—that win-loss record is not an indicator of how well a pitcher is performing in a given season. 

    But Cain still has the fifth-best ERA in the NL at 2.82. He leads the league with a 1.00 WHIP. Opposing batters are hitting only .219 against him. And Cain's 135 strikeouts rank seventh among NL pitchers. 

    As we mentioned with Ryan Vogelsong, Cain benefits from the Giants playing good defense behind him and the larger dimensions of AT&T Park. But as his WHIP, high strikeout totals and low walk rate (1.8 per nine innings) show, Cain just doesn't put many batters on base.

    He would pitch well in any ballpark. Maybe not quite as well as Johnny Cueto pitches in Great American Ball Park since he's a fly ball pitcher (as Fangraphs shows). But maybe Cain would change his game the way Cueto did if he had to. We'll never know, of course. 

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