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Updated 2013 MLB Cy Young Award Stock Watch

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystJune 19, 2013

Updated 2013 MLB Cy Young Award Stock Watch

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    Barring an injury, I can all but guarantee that Yu Darvish will win the 2013 American League Cy Young Award.

    You'll have to read on to find out why.

    The National League winner is considerably more up in the air, but we at least have a good idea who the key players will be at the end of the season.

    It's only been three weeks since Joe Giglio authored our last Cy Young stock watch update, but injuries to some candidates, surges by others and a couple of oversights (sorry, Joe!) necessitated a refreshed look at who ranks where in the race for each league's Cy Young.

     

    *All statistics are courtesy of Fangraphs.com, ESPN.com and Baseball-Reference.com and are accurate through the start of play on Wednesday, June 19, 2013.

Just Missed the Cut (NL)

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    Shelby Miller (8-4, 7 QS, 2.08 ERA, 10.01 K/9, 1.98 BB/9, 3.3 WAR)

    Miller has some incredible ratios, but he has had difficulty lasting deep into games.

    We won't fault him for leaving with a cramp in his leg after five innings on Monday night. These things happen. But he has recorded a quality start in just seven of his 14 outings and has made it past the seventh inning just once—in a 13-strikeout one-hitter against the Colorado Rockies that officially put him on everyone's radar.

    He's on the verge of being great, but needs to work on being more efficient with his pitch count before he can be a top five candidate for the NL Cy Young.

     

    Mike Minor (8-2, 11 QS, 2.68 ERA, 8.44 K/9, 1.79 BB/9, 2.1 WAR)

    Jordan Zimmermann (9-3, 11 QS, 2.44 ERA, 6.05 K/9, 1.26 BB/9, 2.3 WAR)

    Statistically, they might as well be the same person, so lets lump them together here slightly behind Shelby Miller in seventh and eighth place in the current NL hierarchy.

    In terms of ERA, both Minor and Zimmermann are right up there with Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright over the past calendar year, so it has been more than just a good start to 2013 for both of them. How long each guy remains in the discussion may depend on how well his team fares in the NL East.

    Significant edge to Minor thus far.

     

    Jason Grilli (25 saves, 0 blown saves, 0.85 ERA, 15.35 K/9, 1.4 WAR)

    I don't typically condone the notion of a relief pitcher for the Cy Young award, but what Grilli has done to this point in the season is just plain silly.

    If he can remotely maintain those numbers for the rest of the season while the Pirates make the playoffs for the first time since the first George Bush was in office, Grilli would be a strong candidate for the NL Cy Young Award.

Just Missed the Cut (AL)

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    Clay Buchholz (9-0, 10 QS, 1.71 ERA, 8.64 K/9, 3.09 BB/9, 4.1 WAR)

    Anibal Sanchez (6-5, 9 QS, 2.76 ERA, 11.13 K/9, 2.53 BB/9, 3.1 WAR)

    The Cy Young award is about endurance as much as it is about greatness.

    Over the last three years, the only pitchers to receive a first-place vote while making fewer than 31 starts were Fernando Rodney and Craig Kimbrel last season—closers who each received one first-place vote while finishing in fifth place in their respective league.

    As incredible as both Buchholz and Sanchez have been thus far this year, it doesn't look like either of them will be reaching that 31-start plateau. Buchholz has only made 12 starts and is likely headed for the disabled list. Sanchez has made 13 starts and is already on the DL.

    We're not ruling either of them out of contention just yet. If either guy can come off the disabled list after the minimum 15 days and go back to pitching lights-out for another three months, he could win the award. 

    Until then, let's just focus on guys who are still on the mound today.

     

    Chris Sale (5-5, 10 QS, 2.43 ERA, 9.07 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 3.6 WAR)

    Sale is in a similar boat as Buchholz and Sanchez, though he has already emerged from a brief bout with shoulder pain this season and is pitching phenomenally.

    If he can avoid missing any more starts between today and the next stock watch update, he'll likely crack into the top five—especially if the guy currently in the fifth spot finally starts experiencing some of the regression we've been waiting two months to see.

     

    James Shields (2-6, 13 QS, 2.72 ERA, 8.07 K/9, 2.55 BB/9, 2.3 WAR)

    Felix Hernandez proved in 2010 that you can win the Cy Young Award without the benefit of anything resembling run support. On average, the Mariners gave him just 3.06 runs of support per start that season, as he went on to finish the year with a 13-12 record despite posting 30 quality starts.

    In 2013, Shields is receiving a similarly pathetic amount of help from the Royals bats and is currently on pace for 31 quality starts.

    However, even the staunchest of sabermetricians is going to have a hard time overlooking his 2-6 record. King Felix was just barely over .500 in 2010, and he picked up his fifth win of the season on June 19.

    If something doesn't change in Kansas City, Shields might be lucky to pick up five wins all season.

National League No. 5: Patrick Corbin (Stock Up)

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    2013 Stats: 9-0, 12 QS, 2.28 ERA, 7.04 K/9, 2.19 BB/9, 2.7 WAR

    I am still a skeptic, but Patrick Corbin has done more than enough to earn a spot on the back end of the NL Cy Young discussion.

    After keeping the Marlins in check (who hasn't?) on Monday night, Corbin currently has the fifth-lowest ERA in the National League.

    A lesser man trying to prove a point would mention that his 3.71 xFIP is ranked 21st in the NL, meaning his expected ERA over the rest of the season is worse than that of Tim Lincecum or Edwin Jackson.

    But I'm not going to go there. I'm going to take the high road.

    Speaking of high, have you noticed Corbin's LOB percentage this year? It's the sixth-highest rate in the National League. When you have a great K/BB ratio like Shelby Miller or Matt Harvey has, you don't put too much stock into a high LOB rate. That is because they aren't putting as many free runners on base or relying as heavily on defense to get them out of a jam.

    When you're 22nd in the league in K/BB though, it's a bit more concerning.

    In comparing his ERA and xFIP to the rest of the league, Corbin much more closely equates to Jeff Locke or Mike Leake than he does to any of the four guys ahead of him on this list. And last time I checked, most Reds bloggers were debating whether Leake was the fifth or sixth-most valuable pitcher in their own organization.

American League No. 5: Hisashi Iwakuma (Stock Up)

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    2013 Stats: 7-2, 12 QS, 2.06 ERA, 8.07 K/9, 1.52 BB/9, 3.8 WAR

    With Hisashi Iwakuma at No. 5 on the stock watch and Felix Hernandez even higher on the list, make sure you hug some Mariners fans today. They are probably on the verge of an emotional breakdown.

    When you have two of the five best pitchers in the American League, you shouldn't be flirting with being 10 games below .500. On the contrary, you should be 10 games above .500 like the Detroit Tigers have been.

    Unfortunately, Iwakuma and King Felix have been the only thing keeping the Mariners from replacing the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins in the "Well, at least we aren't as bad as Team X" punchlines.

    However, Seattle's ineptitude as a team shouldn't mitigate Iwakuma's success as an individual. He's second in the AL in ERA as well as in quality starts. In his 31 career starts, he has posted a 2.35 ERA and has a WAR of 3.2.

    If you could find someone who knows nothing about recent baseball history but perfectly understands baseball statistics like ERA and K/BB ratio, that person might be inclined to have Iwakuma even higher on this list.

    If he can keep this up for another few months, he might eventually bypass more established names like Justin Verlander and teammate Hernandez.

National League No. 4: Clayton Kershaw (Stock Down)

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    2013 Stats: 5-4, 12 QS, 1.84 ERA, 8.72 K/9, 2.60 BB/9, 4.3 WAR

    Clayton Kershaw has the lowest ERA in the National League, but allow me to be one of the first to speculate that he might be headed for a considerable amount of regression.

    While referencing a number of metrics to express my concern over Patrick Corbin's legitimacy among the upper echelon of the National League, I couldn't help but notice how many times Kershaw's name was within eyesight of Corbin's.

    Corbin is sixth in the NL in LOB percentage, but Kershaw is just half a percentage point behind him in seventh place. Corbin's K/BB ratio of 3.22 is good for a distant 22nd-best in the NL, but Kershaw's 3.35 ratio is only slightly better thanks to both a lower strikeout rate and a higher walk rate than his previous two seasons.

    Corbin has the 11th-lowest BABIP in the National League, but Kershaw's is even lower. His .245 BABIP is the sixth-lowest in the NL and the lowest of his career.

    Kershaw's 3.20 xFIP is 1.36 runs higher than his ERA. Only Corbin (1.44), Travis Wood (1.66) and Jeff Locke (1.86) have higher positive differentials between those two numbers.

    Now, I'm not saying the clock is going to strike midnight and Kershaw is suddenly going to devolve into Edinson Volquez. I'm just pointing out that all signs point to some regression for Kershaw, and he's already a far cry from Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright atop the NL Cy Young leaderboard.

American League No. 4: Justin Verlander (Stock Up)

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    2013 Stats: 8-5, 10 QS, 3.72 ERA, 10.37 K/9, 3.13 BB/9, 2.7 WAR

    It hasn't been a prototypical great Justin Verlander season, but by some metrics he's having the best season of his entire career.

    Considering the low ERA that many lesser-named pitchers have been posting this season, Verlander's 3.72 mark seems like a typographical error. After all, he's coming off of consecutive seasons at 2.40 and 2.64.

    His longevity in games is quite out of the ordinary as well. Between 2011 and 2012, Verlander averaged 7.30 innings per start (with the fractional portion of that number representing 30 percent of an inning, and not 7.3 innings, which would be eight innings). Through 15 starts in 2013, he's averaging just 6.13 innings per start. That's more than a full additional inning that he's forcing the Tigers to rely on an atrocious bullpen.

    On the very much plus side of things, his K/9 rate is the highest of his career, and his 2.82 FIP is just two-hundredths of a point shy of his previous career best. And that's a career that includes five different seasons finishing in the top seven of the AL Cy Young voting.

    Prior to Tuesday's disappointing game against the Orioles, Verlander had a string of four consecutive starts with seven innings pitched, fewer than three runs allowed and an average of eight strikeouts per start. He struggled in mid-May, but seems to be turning things around and could be headed for another Cy Young Award.

National League No. 3: Cliff Lee (Stock Up)

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    2013 Stats: 9-2, 13 QS, 2.53 ERA, 7.99 K/9, 1.39 BB/9, 4.0 WAR

    Just another run-of-the-mill season for the most valuable pitcher in all of baseball since the start of 2008.

    Cliff Lee won the AL Cy Young Award in 2008 and has been an All-Star in three of the past five seasons. Yet he entered the day on Tuesday with a 2.48 FIP that was better than he finished any previous season in his career. He has accomplished the feat while relying on two different types of fastballs that are considerably slower than they had been for the previous few seasons.

    What has his secret been?

    In short, he has been relying upon and/or benefiting from the deteriorating plate discipline of MLB hitters.

    After living in the vicinity of 56.7 percent from 2008-10, Lee has thrown just 53.2 percent of his pitches in the strike zone in 2013. He still throws more pitches in the zone than any other NL pitcher, but he has shown compliance to accept the batters' willingness to expand the strike zone.

    Despite the decrease in strikes thrown, he has the second-best K/BB ratio in the National League. That's because opposing batters are swinging at 34.6 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone—a full percentage point above his previous career high and good for sixth-best in the National League.

    While age may have come with a decelerated fastball, it also brought with it some extra wisdom. Lee is still one of the best pitchers in the game today, even if his arm doesn't have anywhere near as much heat as some of the other Cy Young candidates.

American League No. 3: Max Scherzer (Stock Up)

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    2013 Stats: 10-0, 10 QS, 3.08 ERA, 10.84 K/9, 2.24 BB/9, 2.6 WAR

    On Monday night, Max Scherzer became the first American League pitcher to reach the 10-win plateau.

    While wins are still a vastly overrated statistic that even the best pitchers have minimal control over, it's nice to see him leading the league in some category, because he's one of the runners-up in so many others.

    Scherzer is between third and sixth place in the AL in K/9, K/BB, WHIPFIP and xFIP. Being near the top in so many categories means he belongs in the upper half of the Cy Young debate.

    Before he can worry about ultimately challenging Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez in the top three, Scherzer needs to make sure he can distance himself from the other candidates in the Tigers rotation. As evidenced by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in 2009, it's hard to make a case for being the best pitcher in the league when there's debate over whether you're the best pitcher on your team.

    Doug Fister is a fringe candidate, and a trip to the disabled list has at least temporarily derailed Anibal Sanchez's Cy Young dreams. It's most likely going to come down to Scherzer or Justin Verlander as the honorary true ace of the 2013 staff.

    Watching those two workhorses spend the summer fighting the war for WAR is going to be fun.

National League No. 2: Adam Wainwright (Stock Even)

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    2013 Stats: 10-4, 13 QS, 2.37 ERA, 8.18 K/9, 0.74 BB/9, 3.8 WAR

    Adam Wainwright has a quality start in 13 of his 15 outings in 2013.

    Naturally, his two non-quality starts came against the 29-40 Chicago Cubs and the 28-41 Milwaukee Brewers, because baseball just doesn't make sense sometimes. But he has been some kind of special in those other 13 starts.

    Already this season, Wainwright has two complete game shutouts and two other outings in which he held the other team scoreless through a combined 15.1 innings before handing over the rest of the game to the bullpen.

    His ability to avoid giving batters free passes has been simply mind-blowing. He didn't walk a single batter until his fifth start of the season and has walked just nine of the 429 batters he has faced all season.

    That's 2.09 percent and easily the lowest percentage among all starters. The next-closest National League pitcher is Jordan Zimmermann at 3.59 percent (14 walks against 390 batters faced). The lowest percentage in 2012 was Cliff Lee, who walked 3.31 percent of the 847 batters he faced.

    Coupled with a respectable strikeout rate, he has a chance to break Bret Saberhagen's modern-day record for K/BB ratio. Saberhagen fanned 11 batters for every walk he allowed in 1994. Wainwright's ratio is currently 11.11.

    My money is on Wainwright to eventually win the NL Cy Young Award, but if the season ended today, he would probably finish in second place.

American League No. 2: Felix Hernandez (Stock Down)

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    2013 Stats: 8-4, 11 QS, 2.32 ERA, 9.46 K/9, 1.72 BB/9, 3.7 WAR

    Remember how we pointed out a whole slew of statistics in which Max Scherzer is in the top six in the American League?

    Well, so is Felix Hernandez. And King Felix is actually best in the AL in K/BB and xFIP—which are two of the biggest indicators of future success, in my humble opinion.

    While some guys have risen to the cream of the crop behind a considerable amount of luck, Hernandez has been extremely pedestrian in a lot of the "lucky" categories.

    His .304 BABIP is less fortunate than the league average and right on par with his numbers over the past two seasons. His 78.3 LOB percentage and 8.5 HR/FB rate are better than league average, but they aren't staggeringly different from the norm. They are almost identical to the ratios he posted in 2009, when he finished second in the AL Cy Young voting.

    Hernandez would probably be fourth in the NL stock watch right now, but unless someone else clearly emerges from the pack, he'll remain one of the favorites to win the American League's most coveted pitching award.

National League No. 1: Matt Harvey (Stock Even)

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    2013 Stats: 6-1, 12 QS, 2.16 ERA, 9.95 K/9, 1.99 BB/9, 3.7 WAR

    As little as 24 hours ago, the top spot in the National League belonged to Adam Wainwright.

    But then Matt Harvey went out and dominated the Braves on Tuesday afternoon and Wainwright struggled a bit with the Cubs that evening.

    Harvey's final line ended up not looking as great as it should have. At the end of the seventh inning, he had allowed zero runs, one hit and two walks with 13 strikeouts.

    For reasons unbeknownst to anyone, Terry Collins sent Harvey back out for the bottom of the eighth after Harvey and his 103 pitches sat through a top of the eighth in which the Mets sent seven batters to the plate and saw 34 pitches.

    After that prolonged break from the mound, he allowed three straight runners to reach base—all of which the Mets bullpen naturally allowed to score.

    Even ignoring Tuesday's gem, it's been an excellent season for the 24-year-old. He has pitched at least into the seventh inning in 12 of his 15 outings, allowing two or fewer runs in 10 of those games.

    The only question is how well he'll hold up over the course of the season.

    He pitched 135.2 innings in 2011 and 169.1 innings last season. At his current pace, he would pitch about 250 innings in 2013. Even if he's in the running for the Cy Young, it wouldn't be surprising if the then-35-games-below-.500 Mets decided to shut Harvey down a few starts before the end of the season.

American League No. 1: Yu Darvish (Stock Up)

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    2013 Stats: 7-3, 10 QS, 2.84 ERA, 12.17 K/9, 2.75 BB/9, 3.0 WAR

    This slide is about to get all sorts of historical and analytical, but hear me out, because Yu Darvish is clearly the favorite in the American League right now.

    Darvish is to pitching what Adam Dunn is to batting, and Tuesday night was the perfect example.

    Against the Oakland A's Darvish faced 27 batters. He struck out 10 of them, walked two and gave up two home runs That's 51.9 percent of opposing batters that did not put the ball in play.

    They call those the "three true outcomes." As far as I can tell, it has only really been applied to batters—and most likely just as a means of proving how rarely guys like Dunn and Mark Reynolds actually put the ball in play. But let's take a look at how it relates to pitchers.

    On the season, Darvish has either walked, struck out or allowed a home run against 179 of the 401 batters he has faced. That gives him a three true outcomes percentage of 44.6. Of the 96 qualified pitchers in 2013, the next-highest is Max Scherzer at 40.1 percent.

    According to my offline research, only three pitchers in the past 34 years have finished a season at 43.0 percent or higher: Randy Johnson (seven times), Nolan Ryan (three times) and Kerry Wood (three times). The highest percentage was Kerry Wood's 47.5 mark in 1998 when he struck out 233 batters, walked 85 of them and allowed 14 home runs against 699 batters.

    The walks and home runs portion of it isn't exactly inspirational, but those three names represent some pretty good company for Darvish, do they not? And surely it's the strikeouts that are primarily keeping Darvish among those ranks.

    He's now up to 137 strikeouts in just 101.1 innings of work. If he makes 34 starts this season, he's on pace for 311 strikeouts.

    The only person in the past decade to top 270 strikeouts in a season was Randy Johnson, who whiffed 290 batters in 2004 at the age of 40.

    Excluding C.C. Sabathia's 2008 season (because he switched leagues at the trade deadline), five of the last six pitchers to record at least 240 strikeouts in a season won the Cy Young award—the one who didn't was Justin Verlander in 2009. He finished third in the voting behind Zack Greinke, who had 242 strikeouts of his own.

    Darvish is on pace to pass that 240-strikeout plateau before the end of August.

     

    Agree with my rankings and want to be my internet friend? Disagree with my rankings and want to rip me a new one? Either way, you should follow me on Twitter for witticisms on all things sports.

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