AL Cy Young Award Rankings: With Felix Hernandez Struggling, Who's No. 1?

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 18, 2012

AL Cy Young Award Rankings: With Felix Hernandez Struggling, Who's No. 1?

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    As recently as a couple weeks ago, nobody could touch Seattle Mariners ace righty Felix Hernandez. In 12 starts between the end of June and the end of August, King Felix compiled a 1.42 ERA and pitched five complete-game shutouts. One of those, of course, was the 23rd perfect game in MLB history.

    When August turned into September, King Felix looked like he was a shoo-in for his second AL Cy Young Award in the last three years. All he had to do was keep doing what he had been. Not exactly a whole lot to task given his track record.

    Alas, what King Felix was doing was apparently too good to be true.

    The month of September has not been kind to Hernandez. He's lost each of his three starts this month, allowing a total of 30 hits and 16 earned runs. It hasn't been pretty. In fact, it's been downright putrid.

    With Hernandez crashing and burning, the AL Cy Young race is wide open once again. Scroll ahead to see who's leading the charge in this week's rankings.

    Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Honorable Mentions

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    Matt Harrison, Texas Rangers

    Harrison has had something of an up-and-down season, but he's looked pretty good in his last two starts. He's logged 14.1 innings and allowed a total of three earned runs on 11 hits and four walks. He had his record up to 17-9 and his ERA down to 3.26. He ranks in the top 10 in the American League in wins, ERA and innings.


    Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox

    Peavy was solid once again his last time out, allowing two earned runs on four hits and a walk in six innings against the Minnesota Twins. He and Harrison have the exact same ERA, and Peavy also ranks fifth in the AL among pitchers with a WAR of 4.2, according to FanGraphs. He's having a much better season than he's getting credit for.


    Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays

    The field is too packed with quality starting pitchers for Rodney to be high in the running for the AL Cy Young Award, but he's clearly the best reliever the Junior Circuit has to offer this year. He's tied with Jim Johnson for the AL lead with 43 saves, and he also boasts a 0.66 ERA and a 0.78 WHIP. He's holding batters to a razor-thin .167 average.


    Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels

    Weaver's health has been really spotty this season, but he's looked pretty good in his last two starts, allowing just two earned runs in 12.1 innings. He's not in the top five due to his relatively low innings count and because of the divide between his ERA and his FIP (see FanGraphs), but I'd say he has first dibs on getting into the top five if a space opens up.

5. Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers

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    Last Week: No. 5

    No pitcher in the American League has a higher WAR than Max Scherzer over the last month, according to FanGraphs.

    If you're a Tigers fan—or if you just never miss a Scherzer start—you'll know that this makes perfect sense. Justin Verlander is the ace of Detroit's staff by reputation, but Scherzer is the best pitcher Jim Leyland has at his disposal at the moment.

    Over his last five starts, Scherzer has logged an even 36 innings and compiled a 1.25 ERA and a .173 opponents' batting average. He's struck out 42 and walked just five.

    If you're scoring at home, that's a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8.4. 

    Scherzer hasn't just been hot over the last month, mind you. In 16 starts dating back to the middle of June, he has a 2.45 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 106.1 innings pitched. He's been as steady as any pitcher in baseball for three months.

    Scherzer's 3.77 ERA is still less than elite, but it's getting lower and lower with every start he makes, and his FIP suggests that his ERA should be a lot lower than it is to begin with. Per FanGraphs, Scherzer ranks fifth in the American League with a FIP of 3.32. The only pitchers who rank ahead of him are Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, David Price and Chris Sale.

    Scherzer, of course, has all of them beat in the strikeout department. He leads all major leaguers with 220 strikeouts on the season, and his 11.21 K/9 just barely edges Stephen Strasburg's 11.13 K/9 for the top mark in baseball.

    Don't take Scherzer's inclusion in these rankings to be a knee-jerk reaction. He's very hot, to be sure, but the reality is that he's been one of the AL's most effective pitchers for a majority of the season.

4. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

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    Last Week: No. 4

    When Chris Sale surrendered eight earned runs on 12 hits and seven walks in 10 innings between two starts in late August and early September, it looked like he had finally hit a wall.

    Evidently not. In his last two starts, Sale has bounced back to allow just one earned run on eight hits and a walk in 12 innings. He won both starts to push his record to 17-6, and he has his ERA down to 2.78. That's good for third in the AL, and Sale also ranks third in WHIP at 1.03.

    At 175 innings pitched, Sale has now pitched over 100 more innings than he pitched in all of 2011 when he was a reliever. He hasn't broken down yet largely because the White Sox have done a good job of protecting him, and Sale has helped himself by learning to pitch with lower velocity more consistently. If you head over to FanGraphs to take a look at Sale's velocity progression this season, you'll see what I mean.

    That Sale has managed to keep pitching well despite diminished velocity just goes to show that he's savvier than most 23-year-old pitchers. He also has impressive control for a pitcher his age, which is reflected in his 2.26 BB/9 and his 3.93 K/BB.

    Per FanGraphs, Sale and David Price have the exact same FIP at 3.24. Sale actually has Price beat in WAR, 4.6 to 4.1, despite the fact he's logged over 12 fewer innings this season than Price.

    As such, there's a case to be made for Sale to be higher on this list. He's not, mainly because—as well as he's pitching right now—his best work was done in the first half of the season. Sale went into the All-Star break with a 2.19 ERA and a .198 opponents' batting average, and he has a 3.61 ERA and a .255 opponents' batting average ever since.

    He's still good, but he's nowhere near as dominant as he was before.

3. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

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    Last Week: No. 1

    A king has his reign, and then he starts getting knocked around the yard like he's Jason Marquis.

    Something to that effect was said in the movie Prometheus. Whatever the exact quote was, the sentiment of it seems relevant to what Felix Hernandez is going through right now.

    King Felix hasn't been so kingly in his three September starts. He's given up 16 earned runs over an even 16 innings, which equates to a bloated ERA of 9.00. Opponents have hit him at a .400 clip in his last three starts.

    We're not talking about a soft .400 either. King Felix's luck hasn't been great, but it's hard to blame his struggles on bad luck knowing that hitters have posted a .587 slugging percentage against him in his last three starts.

    In the process, his ERA has risen from 2.43 to 2.92 over his last three starts, and he's fallen to fourth in the AL in WHIP at 1.11. His Cy Young resume has taken a Falcon Punch to the jaw.

    Some parts of King Felix's Cy Young resume still look good. Per FanGraphs, he still leads the AL in FIP at 2.96, and only Justin Verlander has a higher WAR than Hernandez. He's also still the only pitcher in baseball with five shutouts to his name. No other pitcher has more than three.

    Because of this, I hesitate to say that the King's Cy Young candidacy is dead altogether. There's enough time left in the season for him to squeeze in a couple more starts, and he could very well race back to the top of these rankings if he finishes strong.

    On the bright side, it's not like he can be any worse than he's been so far this month.

    ...Right?

2. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Last Week: No. 3

    It looks like David Price's left shoulder is just fine.

    Price got to rest for 12 days before taking on the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium last Friday night, and the respite paid off in a big way. He pitched seven innings, allowing two earned runs on five hits and two walks with six strikeouts. He picked up his league-leading 18th win.

    The pitcher on the losing side on Friday night was none other than CC Sabathia. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, via ESPN.com, Price is 5-1 in his last eight starts against Sabathia. In the two games in which he got NDs, the Rays managed to win anyway.

    Relevant to his Cy Young resume? Not really, but worth sharing anyway.

    What stands out the most on Price's Cy Young resume is the fact that he's leading the American League in ERA at 2.54. As previously noted, he's also tied for third in the AL with Chris Sale in FIP at 3.24. Unlike, say, Jered Weaver, there's nothing overly fluky about Price's ERA.

    Price is tied for sixth in the AL in WAR with Max Scherzer at 4.1, according to FanGraphs. To this end, Price is in the same boat as Scherzer in that his WAR obscures just how reliable he's been over the last three months.

    In his last 15 starts dating back to the middle of June, Price has compiled a 2.16 ERA and a .204 opponents' batting average. He's logged at least seven innings in all but two of his last 15 starts. 

    Price has certainly benefited from King Felix's slump. If he pitches well in the remaining starts he has, he could top this list when the clock for the regular season strikes zero.

    But for now, he's still looking up at the reigning AL Cy Young winner.

1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

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    Last Week: No. 2

    Just when you think Justin Verlander is human, he goes out and reaffirms that he's actually superhuman.

    A couple weeks ago, Verlander followed a game in which he gave up eight earned runs on 12 hits in 5.2 innings with a game in which he allowed one earned run over eight innings with 11 strikeouts. More recently, he followed his disappointing performance against the Los Angeles Angels with a performance against the Cleveland Indians in which he pitched seven shutout innings with six strikeouts.

    Adjustments! Verlander knows how to make them.

    It's clear by now that Verlander's 2012 season isn't going to end up being quite as dominant as his 2011 season, but nobody should make the mistake of thinking that he's having a bad season. On the contrary, he's the man to beat in the AL Cy Young race once again.

    Verlander has done everything you want an ace to do. He ranks fourth in the AL in ERA at 2.82 and second in WHIP at 1.05. He leads the league in innings pitched with 217.1 and is second to Max Scherzer in strikeouts with 218. He's the only pitcher in baseball with as many as six complete games. 

    Verlander ranks second behind Felix Hernandez in the AL with a FIP of an even 3.00, according to FanGraphs. His 6.0 WAR is tops not just among AL pitchers, but among all major league pitchers.

    If he can avoid any more awful starts, Verlander should be able capture his second straight Cy Young Award.

    But given the way he's been going, I can't recommend counting on it.

Last Week's Rankings

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    5. Max Scherzer, SP, Detroit Tigers

    Steady as she goes.

    4. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

    Ditto.

    3. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

    One-up!

    2. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

    One-up!

    1. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

    It's not so good to be the king right now.

    Feel free to check out last week's rankings.

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