NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Can Anyone Beat R.A. Dickey Now?

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterSeptember 20, 2012

NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Can Anyone Beat R.A. Dickey Now?

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    What looked to be a riveting two-man race for the NL Cy Young Award during the final two weeks of the 2012 season has now probably been called due to injury. 

    Clayton Kershaw's hip injury has likely eliminated R.A. Dickey's closest competition for the award. No other contender is really close enough to give Dickey a run at this point of the season. Unless he pitches disastrously in his final three starts, he will very likely win.

    One pitcher who was nudged out of this week's top five is the Cincinnati Reds' Johnny Cueto. Cueto appeared to be the next best contender for the award, but he has fallen off the pace in a big way over his past three starts, giving up 14 runs in 15.1 innings. Thus far through September, his ERA is 8.22.

    That presents an opportunity for someone else to break back into this week's rankings. But it's a familiar face who has contended for Cy Young Award honors all season. 

    In our view, these are the five current leading contenders for the NL Cy Young Award. Everyone else is probably pitching for runner-up status now. 

    All statistics mentioned here are current as of Sept. 20.  

5. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants

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    Last week: Unranked.

    Looking at Matt Cain's numbers, it feels like he should be higher on this list.

    His 2.86 ERA is fourth in the NL. His 1.05 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) ranks third. Opponents are hitting .224 against him, the fourth-best average in the league. 

    Cain also ranks among the top 10 NL starting pitchers with 185 strikeouts. And only R.A. Dickey has pitched more innings as of Sept. 20 than Cain's 207.1. 

    So why isn't he higher on this list? 

    Cole Hamels' numbers are comparable and they've been compiled while working in a less pitcher-friendly environment.

    Cain plays his home games at AT&T Park, the best pitchers' ballpark in the NL, according to ESPN.com's park factors. Citizens Bank Park plays more neutral, despite its reputation as a bandbox.  That gives Hamels the edge, though it's a very slight one.

    These two could easily switch places or even move up the rankings, depending on how they perform in their final three starts of the season.

4. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Last week: No. 5.

    We made some of the case for Cole Hamels in the previous slide, hijacking it a bit from Matt Cain. Let's continue the argument here. 

    Hamels' 3.05 ERA places him eighth among NL starting pitchers, four spots behind Matt Cain and his 2.86 mark. He also has a higher WHIP (1.12 to Cain's 1.05) and opponents' batting average (.235 to .224). Cain has even pitched four more innings than Hamels this season. 

    The only category in which Hamels has an advantage over Cain is strikeouts. He ranks third in the NL with 202 and has a higher rate of Ks per nine innings. 

    But as I explained in the previous slide, I'm giving Hamels the edge because he plays in a less pitcher-friendly ballpark in Philadelphia and he's put up his numbers while pitching for an inferior team. 

    Though the Philadelphia Phillies have made an impressive run toward wild-card contention in September, the San Francisco Giants are 11 wins better. They also provide a better defense behind Cain, according to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating

    But Hamels actually gets better run support, according to ESPN.com. So should Cain get more credit because of that?

    The difference between these two is so slight. You could make an argument for either pitcher, though Cain does have better numbers across the board. I could change my mind on this as soon as I click "publish."

3. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 3.

    Gio Gonzalez had another strong outing in his most recent start.

    Facing the Atlanta Braves—one of the best teams in the NL in runs scored—the Washington Nationals left-hander allowed two runs and four hits over five innings. Gonzalez came in to that game (Sept. 16) having allowed nine runs in 16.2 innings for a 5.00 ERA versus the Braves. 

    With a 2.95 ERA, Gonzalez ranks sixth among NL starting pitchers. His 1.14 WHIP ranks eighth. (Nine walks over his past two starts didn't help with that.) He has 196 strikeouts in 186.1 innings pitched, good for a rate of 9.46 Ks per nine.

    But most impressively, opponents are batting .207 against Gonzalez. That's the best opponents' batting average in the MLB

    Gonzalez is scheduled for three more starts this season, depending on whether Nationals manager Davey Johnson wants to rest any of his starters down the stretch.

    That should push him just over 200 innings for the year, and his lack of innings could be the one red flag on his resume when compared to the NL's other top pitchers. (Though the point was made in last week's comments that Gonzalez shouldn't be penalized for that because Johnson has pulled his starters after five or six innings all season.) 

2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Last week: No. 2.

    It would be a shame to see the NL Cy Young Award decided by injury, but that may be what happens in this year's race. 

    R.A. Dickey might have beaten out Clayton Kershaw for the award anyway. Both pitchers match up very closely, but Dickey's impressive win total on a New York Mets team 16 games under .500 may be the deciding factor. 

    However, with Kershaw possibly out for the rest of the season due to an impingement in his right hip, the NL Cy Young Award race has likely been decided.

    Kershaw insists he'll pitch again, according to USA Today, and doctors say he can do so if he can deal with the pain. But the Dodgers say they won't allow Kershaw to pitch under those circumstances. And right now, he's only throwing off flat ground, not a pitching mound. 

    If Kershaw is done for the season, his numbers are certainly worthy of a second consecutive Cy Young Award. He still leads the NL with 206 strikeouts, though Dickey and Cole Hamels will likely overtake him after their next starts. 

    Kershaw's 2.70 ERA is frozen in place for now, second in the NL. It's up to Dickey to finish ahead of that mark. His 1.02 WHIP is tops in the league and his .212 opponents' batting average places him second. 

    It's possible that Dickey could falter in his final three starts of the season. Or Kershaw could come back and pitch badly while he struggles with his injured hip.

    The NL Cy Young Award race isn't completely decided yet. But it would've been nice to see Kershaw and Dickey go toe-to-toe through the end of the season. 

1. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

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    Last week: No. 1.

    As mentioned in the previous slide, Clayton Kershaw's hip injury robs baseball fans of what looked to be an outstanding competition with R.A. Dickey for the NL Cy Young Award. 

    Though Kershaw was ahead of Dickey in strikeouts, WHIP and opponents' batting average, the New York Mets knuckleballer has the NL lead in ERA along with 18 victories for a team that's only won 66 games at this point of the season.

    To me, it's amusing that Dickey's win total could end up being what gives him the edge over Kershaw. Wins weren't supposed to matter anymore, right? We're more sophisticated now and look at all the peripheral stats to determine a pitcher's value.

    Dickey's past two starts certainly provided an example of how a win total can be deceiving. He should probably have 20 wins by now, after allowing five earned runs over 14 innings. Yet Dickey took the loss in both of those appearances because the Mets could only score four runs combined in those two games.

    With three more starts likely scheduled for him through the remaining two weeks of the regular season, Dickey will still have an opportunity to get 20 wins this year. The Mets announced that his next start has been moved up to Saturday (Sept. 22). As ESPN New York's Adam Rubin noted, this allows Dickey to pitch the home finale against the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

    Dickey will face the Miami Marlins in his other two remaining starts. That's a favorable matchup for him. In four starts against the Marlins this year, he has a 4-0 record and 1.16 ERA. Dickey also held the Pirates to one run in seven innings the one time he faced them this year. So his chances for getting the big No. 20 look good.

    Even without 20 wins, however, Dickey should get the NL Cy Young Award this year. Obviously, he's earned it with his performance. But being honored as the best pitcher in the league would certainly be a nice ending to what's been a great personal story. 

     

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