R.A. Dickey led the NL with 230 strikeouts.
The race for the NL Cy Young Award might be the most compelling for an individual honor that we've seen in MLB this season.
(The AL MVP race might be more contentious, especially because of the divide between supporters of advanced metrics and those who prefer a more traditional view of the game.)
Several pitchers emerged as a front-runner for the NL Cy Young Award, especially in the first half of the season. Just before the All-Star break, however, a handful of contenders separated themselves from the pack.
At times, so many pitchers were having great seasons, the list of candidates went 10 or 12 deep. And that didn't include relievers, at least two of whom were putting up historic performances.
But during the season's final weeks, this became a race between the New York Mets' R.A. Dickey and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw. Dickey emerged as the front-runner at midseason and Kershaw had to catch up. Yet both pitchers have a strong case for being named the NL's top pitcher.
Here is our final list of the top five contenders for the NL Cy Young Award this season.
Last week: No. 5.
There's a contingent of analysts and fans who believe Craig Kimbrel should be the NL Cy Young Award winner.
The Atlanta Braves closer had another dominant season, striking out 116 batters in 62.2 innings. That averages out to a rate of 16.7 strikeouts per nine innings, which is the best in MLB history.
His WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) was 0.65. Opposing batters hit only .126 against him. Both figures are also among the lowest ever seen.
Oh, and Kimbrel also saved 42 games for a Braves team that won 94 games and earned one of the NL's wild-card playoff spots.
Relievers have won the Cy Young Award before. It's not unprecedented. Eric Gagne was the most recent NL winner in 2003. Dennis Eckersley and Guillermo Hernandez have been AL winners.
But so many starting pitchers are worthy of Cy Young Award consideration in the NL that it's difficult to warrant rewarding a reliever this year. A pitcher who throws 200 dominant innings has more of an impact than one who pitches 60 innings, regardless of how impressive his performance is.
Unfortunately for Kimbrel, 2012 isn't the year for a reliever to win the league's highest individual pitching honor.
Last week: No. 4.
For a pitcher to have as good a season as Matt Cain had in 2012, yet not be a favorite for the NL Cy Young Award, demonstrates how much great starting pitching there's been in the league this year.
Cain went 16-5 for the San Francisco Giants. His 2.79 ERA was fourth in the league. His 1.04 WHIP ranked second. His opponents' batting average of .222 was the third-lowest among NL starting pitchers.
The right-hander also showed his typical durability by pitching 219.1 innings, the league's third-highest total. He had 193 strikeouts, placing him seventh in the NL.
Before the season, my instinct was to pick Cain for the NL Cy Young Award. I ultimately predicted him to finish third behind Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke. For most of the season's first half, I thought he was a front-runner for the award until R.A. Dickey and Johnny Cueto began to emerge as favorites.
Cain became a top candidate again as the season neared its end. He's had an excellent year. But a few pitchers have been even better.
Last week: No. 3.
Stephen Strasburg got all the publicity. His innings limit and eventual shutdown was the storyline that drew the most attention and scrutiny from media and fans.
Yet Strasburg may not have even been the Washington Nationals' best starter this season.
Gio Gonzalez led MLB with 21 wins. His 2.89 ERA was the sixth-best in the NL. His 207 strikeouts were the fourth-highest total in the NL in that category. His rate of 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings was tops in the majors.
Gonzalez's rate of 3.4 walks per nine innings was the lowest of his five-year major league career, as was his 6.7 hits per game. Yet his 76 walks resulted in a 1.13 WHIP that ranked seventh in the NL.
But the most impressive number on Gonzalez's resume is his .206 opponents' batting average. That was the best mark in MLB this year.
Gonzalez will get some strong consideration for the NL Cy Young Award. He may even win it, based on his outstanding numbers. But in my opinion, two pitchers had stronger seasons.
Last week: No. 2.
I am very, very conflicted about this. Ask me who should win the NL Cy Young Award between Clayton Kershaw and R.A. Dickey, and my answer could change depending on my mood, the time of day, or whatever statistics feel more important. The competition between the two is that close.
Kershaw could very well win the NL Cy Young Award for the second consecutive season. I can barely muster an argument that he shouldn't.
The Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander finished with the best ERA in MLB at 2.53. His 1.02 WHIP is the lowest among NL starting pitchers. Only Gio Gonzalez had a better opponents' batting average than Kershaw's .210 mark. He also threw 227.2 innings despite missing two starts due to an impingement in his right hip.
With 229 strikeouts, Kershaw finished one behind R.A. Dickey in that category. The difference between Kershaw's strikeout total and Dickey's was Adam Greenberg. In the one at-bat that he received from the Miami Marlins on Tuesday (Oct. 2), Greenberg struck out against Dickey on three straight pitches.
The Cy Young Award isn't an MVP award, but Kershaw deserves additional consideration for pitching so well down the stretch while the Dodgers were fighting for the NL's second wild-card playoff spot.
In his last two starts, Kershaw allowed just one earned run over 16 innings. He gave up eight hits while striking out 18 batters and walking five. That performance may have won him a second straight Cy Young Award.
Last week: No. 1.
After making such a strong case for Clayton Kershaw in the previous slide, can I really argue that R.A. Dickey should win the 2012 NL Cy Young Award? I'm certainly going to try.
The New York Mets knuckleballer led the NL with 230 strikeouts, finishing one ahead of Kershaw, thanks to facing Adam Greenberg in his heavily publicized one at-bat. He also led the NL with 233.2 innings pitched, five complete games and three shutouts.
Speaking of shutouts, Dickey also pitched 44.2 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run. That may have been the most impressive body of work by a starting pitcher this season.
With a 2.73 ERA, Dickey placed second among NL starting pitchers. His 1.05 WHIP ranked third in the league. And his .226 opponents' batting average was the NL's fourth-best in that category.
Dickey was one of two NL pitchers to earn 20 wins this season. He got those 20 victories for a Mets club that finished with 74 wins. That means Dickey won 27 percent of his team's games.
With the advent of advanced metrics and a better understanding of statistics, we've learned that wins are not an accurate barometer of a pitcher's value. Whether a pitcher earns a win is dependent on too many other factors.
Yet, it's Dickey's win total—compiled while pitching for a fourth-place team—that will likely give him the nod over Kershaw. He finished with a 20-6 record, good for a .769 winning percentage.
Knuckleball pitchers aren't supposed to have a season like this. Knuckleballers are a curiosity, throwing a gimmick pitch that takes years to master. Yet no one has mastered it like Dickey, throwing it with velocity, locating it within the strike zone and using it to dominate the opposition.
Writers, broadcasters and fans are enamored with Dickey's story, in which he finally achieved major league success after years of professional and personal struggle. Perhaps that shouldn't be a factor with award voters, but it surely will be.
Besides, Dickey isn't going to win the NL Cy Young Award just because it would make a great story. He earned it with the best overall performance from a pitcher this season.
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