R.A. Dickey has taken over the NL ERA lead at 2.68.
Once again, the race for the NL Cy Young Award has distilled itself to a two-man competition.
However, it's a different pair of contenders now vying for individual honors. The margin between the two is a narrow one, and the race could tilt either way during the final three weeks of the 2012 season.
For this week's rankings, we're doing away with the honorable mentions. Yes, some pitchers are worth highlighting, such as Matt Cain, Jordan Zimmermann, Kyle Lohse, Wade Miley and Stephen Strasburg.
But at this point of the season, it's time to focus on who can really win this thing. Though we've extended the field of candidates to eight for several weeks with honorable mentions, five contenders is really enough.
So here are those five leading candidates for the NL Cy Young Award. While the bottom of the list might change over the next three weeks, the top two contenders likely will spend the rest of the season fighting over that No. 1 spot.
Please leave your responses and suggestions in the comments. You also can reply to me on Twitter. My address is at the end of this article. As you'll see this week, your feedback can be influential when it comes to putting together these rankings.
All the statistics mentioned here are current as of Sept. 13, 2012.
Last Week: No. 5
It was a close call between putting Matt Cain back in the top five or keeping Cole Hamels on the list, but the Philadelphia Phillies left-hander gets the nod again this week.
Cain has a better ERA (3.06) and WHIP (1.03), but Hamels has more strikeouts (184 to 175) despite pitching four fewer innings.
One would think that Hamels' numbers are more impressive pitching at Citizens Bank Park. While the Phillies' home yard has a reputation as a bandbox, it actually plays rather neutral, according to ESPN.com park factors. However, Cain surely benefits from playing in the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the National League.
Both Cain and Hamels enjoy roughly the same amount of run support, too, so that can't be cited as an advantage.
Why Hamels over Cain then? Well, this really could go either way—and maybe it will next week.
But Hamels compiled his 14-6 record pitching for a worse team. Cain has a 13-5 record for a San Francisco Giants team that has nine more wins and outscored their opponents by 48 runs this season. Compare that run differential to the Phillies, who have scored six fewer runs than their opponents.
Last Week: No. 3
Johnny Cueto dropped one spot in last week's rankings after giving up four runs to the Phillies on Sept. 3. That seemed a bit unfair. Every pitcher is entitled to a bad start during the season.
But Cueto has now put up two poor performances in a row, giving up another four runs in his most recent start. This time, he did it against the Houston Astros, who are—let me check—yes, still the worst team and the lowest-scoring club in MLB.
So, in his past two starts, Cueto has allowed eight runs, 17 hits and three home runs over 11 innings of work. As harsh as it might seem, this has probably dropped him from consideration for the NL Cy Young Award with three weeks remaining in the season.
Cueto still has a 2.71 ERA that ranks third in the NL. Though his game is different from the other top pitchers in the league,—keeping the ball on the ground and pitching to contact—Cueto's numbers just don't stack up well against his competition.
If he's faltering a bit down the stretch while other top Cy Young Award contenders are still pitching strong, that's obviously not going to help his chances at winning.
Last Week: No. 4
Johnny Cueto's slide down the rankings presents an opportunity for Gio Gonzalez to move up a spot in the top five.
In his past three starts, Gonzalez has allowed a total of one run over 22 innings. During that span, he's given up 11 hits and eight walks with 23 strikeouts.
Gonzalez is second in the NL with a rate of 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. He also leads the majors with 6.8 hits and 0.4 home runs allowed per game.
With a 2.93 ERA, the Nationals left-hander ranks fifth in the league. His 1.13 WHIP is the NL's seventh-best, weighed down by 68 walks allowed. But opposing batters are hitting only .206 against Gonzalez, the best average in MLB.
Besides his walks total, one more mark against Gonzalez is the amount of innings he's pitched. At 181.1 innings, he's thrown far fewer than the other four hurlers on this list, each of whom is near or has exceeded 200 innings for the year.
But Gonzalez is scheduled for three more starts this season if he stays on his current schedule. That should push him over 200 innings for the third straight year.
Last Week: No. 1
Okay, I have bowed to the will of the people. Last week, the comments, Twitter replies and emails were heavily supportive of R.A. Dickey over Clayton Kershaw for the No. 1 spot in our NL Cy Young Award rankings.
I'm still not entirely willing to give up the fight, however.
Kershaw has 206 strikeouts to Dickey's 197 despite pitching in only 1.2 more innings. He also is just behind Dickey's 2.68 ERA with his 2.70 total.
The Dodgers southpaw has a slighter higher WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) at 1.02 to Dickey's 1.04. Opponents also are hitting .212 against Kershaw while Dickey is allowing a .224 average.
Though we've learned that wins don't necessarily reflect a pitcher's merit, Kershaw's 12-9 record looks far inferior to Dickey's 18-5 mark. The Dodgers are a better team than the Mets, so you would think Kershaw's win-loss numbers should be better.
But let's also consider how little run support Kershaw gets. He took the loss in his most recent start on Sept. 11 despite giving up just one unearned run. He is winless in his past three appearances despite allowing three earned runs in 20 innings.
The New York Mets score 4.76 runs per game for Dickey, according to ESPN.com. Kershaw receives 3.73 runs of support per start.
Dickey is unquestionably a better story and is pitching for an inferior team. But is he really performing that much better than Kershaw?
Last Week: No. 2
I covered most of the case for making R.A. Dickey the current front-runner for the NL Cy Young Award in the previous slide, but this gives us the opportunity to elaborate.
With an 18-5 record and likely four more starts remaining for him this season, Dickey will likely win 20 games for a New York Mets team that sports a 65-78 record as of Sept. 13.
He currently has 28 percent of the Mets' victories for the year. That is certainly more than the 16 percent Clayton Kershaw has accounted for this season.
Dickey also has been able to achieve his success despite one of the worst defensive teams in MLB playing behind him. According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, the Mets have the second-worst defense in the NL, surrendering 30 runs more than a league-average defense would.
It's a good thing Dickey is able to strike out so many batters, because his defense just can't be trusted. As I mentioned in the previous slide, however, the Mets do help out Dickey by scoring 4.76 runs per game for him.
Dickey leads the NL with a 2.68 ERA. He's second in the league with 197 strikeouts. His 1.04 WHIP is the third-best among NL starting pitchers, as is his .224 opponents' batting average.
This isn't a level of performance we're accustomed to seeing from someone who throws a knuckleball. Knuckleballers typically have been viewed as curiosities and sideshows, pitchers who adopt a gimmick pitch as a last resort to compete in the major leagues.
But Dickey obviously has shown what a knuckleballer is capable of once he masters the pitch. While he is most definitely a curiosity, it's because of how well he's pitched this year. He is most certainly not a sideshow, though he provides plenty of entertainment.
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