NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Matt Cain Falls from the Top, but How Far Down?

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterAugust 9, 2012

NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Matt Cain Falls from the Top, but How Far Down?

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    A new week brings a fresh set of rankings for the top NL Cy Young Award contenders. And a bit of upheaval comes with the new top five, as well.

    We have both a new front-runner at the top of our rankings in addition to a new name breaking into the top five. This week's list also includes what feels like a controversial decision, and I'll be curious to see if readers feel the same way. 

    One interesting sentiment that I've noticed among national baseball writers is growing support for reliever Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel to get Cy Young Award consideration. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that, but maybe I have blinders on, focused more toward starting pitchers.

    However, when you look at Chapman racking up 100 strikeouts in 53.2 innings, along with 19 consecutive scoreless appearances and 13 straight saves, he's definitely worth thinking about. He's not listed in this week's rankings, but I'm curious as to whether you think he should be.

    Besides debating relievers over starters as Cy Young Award candidates, please feel free to discuss our updated list of the top five leading contenders for the NL version of the award. Your feedback can make a difference in how this list is put together. And there's plenty to discuss this week. 

    All the statistics mentioned here are current as of Aug. 8.

Honorable Mentions

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    Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

    Dropping last week's front-runner all the way out of the top five seems rather drastic. To be honest, I'm not sure I feel right about it. But in comparing Cain's numbers to the five pitchers ahead of him, especially Clayton Kershaw, it seemed difficult to justify keeping him in there.

    Cain still leads the National League in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), though he's now tied with R.A. Dickey.

    However, that's the only category in which he's truly standing out right now. His 3.01 ERA ranks tenth in the NL. His .224 opponents' batting average is the league's sixth-best among starting pitchers. He also places sixth with 142 strikeouts. 

    While Cain is one of the NL's best pitchers, he's not the best right now. Really, he's not one of the five best either.

     

    Ryan Vogelsong, San Francisco Giants

    With seven scoreless innings versus the St. Louis Cardinals in his last start, the NL's ERA leader maintained his rule over that category. Vogelsong's 2.27 ERA is 18 percentage points better than the next closest pitcher, the Nationals' Jordan Zimmermann.

    ERA doesn't tell the whole story with Vogelsong, however.

    As shown at Fangraphs, his FIP (FIelding Independent Pitching) of 3.68 and xFIP of 4.41 (which factors in how many home runs a pitcher should have allowed) indicate that Vogelsong benefits from a good defense behind him (sixth in the NL) and AT&T Park being the best stadium for pitchers in baseball, according to ESPN.com's park factors.

    But sometimes, numbers don't explain everything. The Cardinals have the best offense in the NL, yet Vogelsong shut them out at Busch Stadium. The man can pitch. 

     

    Wade Miley, Arizona Diamondbacks

    Miley is already our top candidate for NL Rookie of the Year, so it figures that he might eventually get some Cy Young Award consideration as well. 

    In his past two starts, the D-Backs' left-hander has allowed a total of one earned run in 14 innings. He gave up nine hits while walking two batters and striking out nine. 

    Since the All-Star break, Miley hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his five starts. And in three of those appearances, he's given up one run or less. He's not holding down chump competition either. Miley has done this against playoff contenders like the Reds, Dodgers and Pirates. 

    The D-Backs are on the fringes of the playoff race. But in a season when No. 1 starter Ian Kennedy hasn't been an ace, Miley has taken over as the team's best pitcher. 

5. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Last week: Honorable mention.

    After clawing at the top five for several weeks, the defending NL Cy Young Award winner finally breaks through. 

    For me, the toughest call in this week's rankings was between Kershaw and Matt Cain for the fifth spot. But as I kept looking at Kershaw's numbers, there just seemed to be no good reason to keep him out of the top five. 

    Kershaw is fifth in the NL with 150 strikeouts. His 156.1 innings are the league's second-highest total. His 2.88 ERA ranks seventh among NL starting pitchers. His 1.04 WHIP is the second-best in the league while his .216 opponents' batting average ranks fourth. 

    As I wrote last week, Kershaw has had problems with consistency this season. He'll have two great starts, then follow up with a terrible outing.

    He's been fantastic in his past two starts, allowing one earned run and eight hits over 16 innings. If Kershaw follows his season pattern, he's due for a bad game in his next appearance, scheduled for Friday, Aug. 10 versus the Miami Marlins.

    The Marlins haven't played well recently, so Kershaw figures to have a good performance. If he doesn't, well, maybe it's just one of those years for him. Very, very good, but not quite great.

4. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 4.

    If there were any worries about Stephen Strasburg after he pitched his worst game of the season, giving up six runs and eight hits in four innings against the Phillies, he surely settled down those concerns with his next appearance.

    Facing the Marlins, Strasburg pitched six scoreless innings, allowing only three hits with six strikeouts. It was the type of dominant performance that leads fans and writers to question the Nationals' sanity for proceeding with plans to shut down Strasburg once he reaches his innings limit in September.

    But during the second half of the season, Strasburg has followed up a good start with a bad performance in his next outing. That sort of inconsistency is typical of pitchers as they rack up innings in their first full season after reconstructive elbow surgery.

    How Strasburg pitches in his upcoming start, scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 10 against the D-Backs, might further indicate whether he's tiring out. 

    Strasburg leads the NL in strikeouts with 160 and has the best strikeout rate in the majors, punching out 11.3 batters per nine innings. His 2.97 ERA ranks eighth in the league, as does his 1.13 WHIP. His opponents' batting average of .233 is 10th among NL starting pitchers. 

3. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

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    Last week: No. 5.

    The New York Mets knuckleballer continues to look as if he's rebounded from a rough midseason stretch.

    In his past two starts, R.A. Dickey has allowed two earned runs with eight hits and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings. This is being written as Dickey is scheduled to face the Marlins on Thursday, Aug. 9, so we'll see if he keeps his current run of success going. 

    Dickey has 156 strikeouts, behind only Stephen Strasburg in the NL. His rate of 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings ranks fifth among the league's starting pitchers. Dickey also has the NL's fifth-best ERA at 2.82. But he's tied with Matt Cain for the best WHIP in the league at 1.03. And opposing batters are hitting .221 against him, the NL's fifth-best mark. 

    One interesting storyline that was developing with Dickey was whether or not Mets manager Terry Collins might begin pitching him every four days.

    The thought was that Dickey could pitch on shorter rest since the knuckleball was less taxing on a pitcher's arm and the Mets would get their best pitcher on the mound more often. Additionally, this would allow Collins to give some pitchers, such as Johan Santana, extra rest when needed.

    Now that the Mets have fallen out of the playoff race—15 games behind the Nationals in the NL East and 10.5 back in the wild-card standings—there's less urgency to try something that drastic. According to ESPN New York's Adam Rubin, Collins has abandoned this plan. Too bad, because that would have been fun to watch. 

2. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 2.

    As the season progresses, Gio Gonzalez appears to be getting stronger. At the very least, he's giving the Nationals' worn-out bullpen some needed rest when he takes the mound. 

    In his past two starts, Gonzalez has pitched 17 innings. During those two games, he gave up seven runs and 18 hits. But he also issued only two walks while racking up 17 strikeouts. 

    Gonzalez's start on Aug. 8 versus the Houston Astros was particularly impressive. As the Washington Times' Amanda Comak wrote, he pitched the first complete game of his career (also going into the ninth inning for the first time). Perhaps reuniting with Kurt Suzuki, his teammate with the Oakland Athletics, pushed the right buttons.

    Not that it has anything to do with his standing in these Cy Young Award rankings, but Gonzalez also hit his first career home run during the game. 

    Opposing batters finally got their collective average over .200 against Gonzalez this season. But the Nats' left-hander still leads the NL with a .209 mark. He also ranks second, behind teammate Stephen Strasburg, with 154 strikeouts and a rate of 9.83 Ks per nine innings. 

    Gonzalez is allowing 6.8 hits per nine innings, the best rate in the NL. He also has the lowest home run rate, allowing less than one per game. If only Gonzalez didn't walk as many batters as he does—his 54 are tied for the sixth-highest total in the league—his WHIP would be better than 1.14. However, his walk rate of 3.4 per nine innings is the lowest of his career. 

1. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Last week: No. 2.

    Reclaiming the No. 1 spot in our NL Cy Young Award rankings might seem a bit strange, given that Johnny Cueto has allowed 11 runs and 24 hits over his past three starts. Facing the Rockies and Padres—two of the worst teams in the NL—during this stretch isn't an encouraging sign either.

    However, it's intriguing that Cueto has two of these starts on the road. One of the most impressive aspects of Cueto's success this season is that he's amassed such a low ERA (2.58, third in the NL) while pitching in Great American Ball Park, one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. 

    Perhaps Cueto relaxed a bit away from the cozy dimensions of his home park. Keeping the ball on the ground and reducing his fly balls has been a key to his career turnaround. But in bigger ballparks like Coors Field and Petco Park, batted balls have plenty of room in which to drop. 

    Interestingly, Cueto has increased his strikeouts in his most recent starts. In each of his past two outings, he struck out nine batters. During the first half of the season, Cueto only reached that figure once. He's done it three times since the All-Star break.

    Cueto is highly regarded in terms of wins above replacement (WAR). Baseball-Reference ranks him as the top pitcher in the NL with a 4.8 WAR. Fangraphs, meanwhile, has Cueto just behind Gio Gonzalez at 3.9 wins above replacement. 

    Though Mat Latos has been excellent for the Reds since the All-Star break, giving Cincinnati a strong top two in their rotation, Cueto has been doing this for the NL Central leaders all season long. The Reds has lost four games in a row as of this writing, so Cueto's next turn in the rotation—scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 12—comes at a good time.

    An ace often becomes a stopper, preventing long losing streaks. Cueto might as well take on that responsibility as he continues to develop into the Reds' best starting pitcher. 

     

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