NL Cy Young Award Rankings: Gio Gonzalez Makes for a Three-Man Race
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Seven days remain in the 2012 MLB season, and we might have a three-man race for the NL Cy Young Award.
(Depending on how you feel about relievers being considered for the award, it might be a four-man competition. But more on that later.)
That doesn't give much time for other contenders to catch R.A. Dickey, who appears to be the front-runner at this point.
If Dickey pitches poorly in his last two starts of the season and the other pitchers competing for the award do well, it's certainly possible that someone else could win the NL Cy Young Award. But this looks like Dickey's award to lose.
In our view, these are the top five leading contenders to win the NL Cy Young Award. (This week also sees the return of three honorable mentions, since so many pitchers are having great seasons.) But is this really down to the top three candidates?
All statistics mentioned here are current as of Sept. 27.
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Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies
Someone had to get squeezed out of the top five with the changes that were made. This week, the odd man out is Hamels. And with one week left in the regular season, he might not have a chance to get back in.
Hamels certainly deserves consideration as one of the top Cy Young Award candidates this season.
With 208 strikeouts, Hamels ranks third in the NL. His 3.11 ERA is one of the top eight in the league among NL starting pitchers. Hamels also ranks fifth in the league with a 1.13 WHIP and 208.1 innings pitched.
Hamels has been especially impressive since the All-Star break, compiling a 6-2 record and 2.99 ERA. That helped the Phillies get back into the NL wild-card race.
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
Several commenters wondered why Cueto wasn't listed in last week's rankings. After allowing 14 runs and 28 hits in a span of three starts, I felt like he pitched himself out of the Cy Young Award race.
But in his two most recent appearances, Cueto allowed only two runs and 10 hits over 13 innings. He also walked four batters and struck out seven.
Unfortunately, those performances came too late to push him into contention again. Though Cueto pitches to contact and thus won't rack up the same strikeout totals as other top NL pitchers, his numbers just don't stack up against the competition.
With 210 innings pitched, Cueto ranks fifth in the league. His 2.80 ERA places him fifth as well, and that was the one statistic that distinguished him throughout the season.
Cueto has a shot at 20 wins if he gets the victory in his next start on Sept. 30. Between that and Cueto leading Baseball-Reference's WAR rankings at 5.7 wins above replacement, perhaps he deserves to be ranked higher than he is here.
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies
Each week in the comments, readers will bring up a name that was snubbed from the rankings. "What about Kyle Lohse?" "Why didn't you mention Jordan Zimmermann?" "Hey clown—where is Aroldis Chapman?"
The name I'm surprised no one has brought up is Cliff Lee. Maybe that's because of his 6-8 record. Perhaps it's because Hamels is regarded as the Phillies' best pitcher right now.
But Lee has been impressive during the second half, posting a 5-3 record and 2.74 ERA. He's actually been spectacular in September, compiling an 0.99 ERA in five starts.
No, Lee hasn't had a good enough season overall to win the NL Cy Young Award. But a pitcher who ranks among the league's 10 best pitchers in strikeouts (195), ERA (3.18), WHIP (1.13) and innings pitched (198) deserves mention.
5. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
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Last week: Unranked.
In the comments for last week's rankings, the people spoke, and I concede that they made a good point.
Despite being a reliever, Craig Kimbrel is having the kind of season that deserves heavy consideration for the NL Cy Young Award.
I'll admit I've had a blind spot through most of the season, looking almost entirely at starting pitchers in putting together these rankings.
Relievers should certainly be considered, and I think it's great that many pundits are arguing for Kimbrel. I just question whether this is the year for one to win the award when so many starting pitchers are having great seasons.
ESPN's Jayson Stark made a great case for Kimbrel in his column last week, however. A strikeout rate of 16.6 per nine innings is the best MLB has ever seen. His opponents' batting average of .126 and 0.66 WHIP are both among the lowest in baseball history.
But I'm still going to say that a pitcher who throws 200 innings at a high level of performance is more impressive than one who pitches 60 innings, no matter how dominant he might be.
If there weren't at least three starting pitchers having excellent seasons in the NL, I believe there would be more of a case for Kimbrel.
4. Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
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Last week: No. 5.
Is Matt Cain having a better season than Craig Kimbrel?
While Cain doesn't have the dominant strikeout numbers and low opponents' batting average, the San Francisco Giants' right-hander ranks high among the NL's starting pitchers in almost every category.
With 214.1 innings, Cain has the second-highest total in the league. His 191 strikeouts place him in the NL's top 10. A 2.77 ERA is tied for third, while his 1.04 WHIP is tied for the league's best mark. And his .222 opponents' batting average ranks third among his peers.
The fact that Cain can post those kinds of numbers and not be considered a top candidate to win the NL Cy Young Award demonstrates just how incredible the league's top starting pitchers have performed this year.
In a different season, Cain might be viewed as the front-runner for the award. (At one point this year, he was.) But a handful of other starters are just that much better in 2012.
3. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
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Last week: No. 3.
With his victory over the Milwaukee Brewers last Saturday (Sept. 22), Gio Gonzalez became the first pitcher in MLB this season to win 20 games.
While we're more sophisticated as baseball fans now to view wins as the best barometer for a starting pitcher's value, 20 wins is a notable achievement. Only three pitchers reached that number last season. (Though, does anyone regard Ian Kennedy as one of the best pitchers in MLB?)
Gonzalez has other numbers to demonstrate how well he's pitched this year, however. His 201 strikeouts are the fourth-highest total in the NL. He ranks fifth in the league with a 2.84 ERA, while his 1.12 WHIP is fourth.
Most impressive is his .204 opponents' batting average—the lowest among MLB starting pitchers. The next closest is Jered Weaver's .213 average.
Gonzalez will be the Washington Nationals' No. 1 starter going into the playoffs, and he's finishing the season on a strong note. In his past five starts, he's allowed a total of three earned runs in 34 innings.
2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
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Last week: No. 2.
When Clayton Kershaw hadn't pitched for nine days going into last week's rankings, it was worth asking whether or not the NL Cy Young Award would ultimately be decided by injury.
If Kershaw couldn't pitch for the rest of the season because of an impingement in his right hip, could he still be considered as the Cy Young Award winner over R.A. Dickey? (Gio Gonzalez would have something to say about that, of course.)
Kershaw took care of the injury question by coming back to pitch on Sunday (Sept. 23) against the Cincinnati Reds. Throwing seven innings, the Los Angeles Dodgers' southpaw held the Reds to one run and five hits. Five walks indicated that he wasn't at his sharpest, however.
According to the Los Angeles Times' Dylan Hernandez, Kershaw threw pain-free in his bullpen session on Tuesday and is scheduled to start for the Dodgers on Friday against the Colorado Rockies.
Even after missing time with injury, Kershaw still ranks third in the NL with 211.2 innings pitched. His 211 strikeouts are the highest total in the league, pending Dickey's performance on Thursday (Sept. 27). And he has the second-best ERA among NL starters at 2.68.
Kershaw is also tied for the NL's best WHIP at 1.04, and his .214 opponents' batting average is the second-lowest in the league.
Depending on whether or not manager Don Mattingly wants to save Kershaw for a possible one-game tiebreaker or wild-card playoff game, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner could have two more starts during the regular season. That gives him a chance to overtake Dickey for a second consecutive trophy.
1. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets
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Last week: No. 1.
Note: These rankings were being put together before R.A. Dickey's start Thursday afternoon (Sept. 27) against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Dickey pitched 7.2 innings, allowing three runs and eight hits with 13 strikeouts. With that, he won his 20th game of the season. Those numbers aren't factored into this week's rankings, however.
With 19 wins, R.A. Dickey has two chances to win 20 games for the season, joining Gio Gonzalez (and possibly Johnny Cueto) as the only pitchers to reach that season milestone.
Winning 20 games is something that could go in the first line of Dickey's obituary. Even though wins might not be viewed as importantly as they once were, 20 wins is still considered a big number for a pitcher to achieve.
That number is even more impressive considering that the New York Mets have won 71 games as a team this season. Of course, Dickey has plenty of other notable numbers on his resume that warrant voting for him as the NL Cy Young Award winner.
As of Sept. 27, Dickey leads the NL with 220 innings pitched, a 2.66 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. His 209 strikeouts rank second in the league, and his .223 opponents' batting average is the fourth-best mark among NL starting pitchers.
The next big question for Dickey will likely be whether or not he signs a contract extension with the Mets.
The team will surely exercise his $5 million option for next year, but what about after that? Dickey will turn 38 years old this year, but is obviously pitching better than he ever has. He picked a great time to have the best year of his career.
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