MLB: Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander and the Top 5 2011 AL Cy Young Candidates

Davis ZhaoCorrespondent IIJune 24, 2011

MLB: Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander and the Top 5 2011 AL Cy Young Candidates

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    The baseball season is quickly closing in on its halfway mark, and a new group of pitchers is shutting down opposing offenses in the American League. Stud pitchers like CC Sabathia, David Price and Felix Hernandez are undoubtedly among baseball's best, but this season gives way to 2011's cream of the crop.

    Of course, it's far too early to crown any pitcher prematurely, but given their dominant performances heading into the All-Star break, these pitchers are a good bet to be in the mix for Cy Young consideration. (You can also view this list as a ranking of the top pitchers in the AL so far this season.)

    I will say right now that Felix and CC are dark horse candidates at the moment given Felix's strikeouts (if he can lower that ERA) and CC being in New York, but that's for the rest of the season to decide.

No. 5: Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners

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    The Numbers

    95.2 IP, 7-4, 2.45 ERA, 94 K's, 1.00 WHIP

    The Argument for Pineda

    I admit there's a bit of Mariners homer-ism in this selection, but you really can't argue with a 2.45 ERA. It's not like he was a midseason rookie call-up either; he's been the anchor of a very formidable M's rotation since day one.

    In fact, Pineda has been even better than reigning Cy Young winner King Felix. While Felix is the better pitcher, in a statistical affair like the Cy Young Award, Pineda is the better candidate.

    Don't be misled by the double-digit strikeouts either; with the exception of James Shield's 8.6 K/9, Pineda's 8.84 strikeouts per nine innings is by far the best of the five candidates.

    Biggest Roadblock

    Pineda's biggest obstacle to getting the Cy Young is that he is a rookie. By far, the most he has ever pitched is 140 innings in the minors last season, so even if the M's decide not to limit his innings, he may tire and fade down the stretch.

    I wouldn't expect Pineda to win the Cy Young this season, but at just 22 years old, I have a feeling he will win it more than once in his career.

No. 4: James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays

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    The Numbers

    112.2 IP, 7-4, 2.40 ERA, 108 K's, 1.00 WHIP

    The Argument for Shields

    In 15 starts, Shields has 108 strikeouts, so with his 16th he will likely lead the AL in strikeouts (league leader is 110 in 16 starts). He is also solely in first with five complete games this season.

    Besides the strikeouts, Shields won't lead the AL in much else—he doesn't have the most wins, the best WHIP or lowest ERA. However, his xFIP suggests that Shields may be the most reliable to keep his very low ERA.

    Without going into much detail, xFIP is one of the best ways to project how accurate a pitcher's numbers are in the future (and how much they are based on luck).

    If Shields has the best chance of maintaining his 2.40 ERA, he may very well end up with the best ERA, and with his high strikeout numbers, that gives him a legitimate shot at the Cy Young. It doesn't hurt that he gets a lot of East Coast exposure and pitches in the tough AL East division.

    Biggest Roadblock

    Like I said before, Shields' biggest roadblock is not leading the AL in enough stats. Last year, King Felix didn't have the most wins (Shields won't have the most either), but he blew away the competition by leading almost every other major category.

    Shields should absolutely be in the conversation for the award but is currently being overshadowed by other, more appealing candidates.

No. 3: Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox

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    The Numbers

    92.0 IP, 6-2, 1.86 ERA, 79 K's, 0.92 WHIP

    The Argument for Beckett

    Without a doubt, Beckett has made an amazing comeback from an injury-riddled 2010 season. The offspeed pitches were a cause for those injuries, but they've also allowed him to achieve the best ERA in the majors. His cutter, for example, is just one of those pitches that opposing batters can't get a hold of.

    His numbers against opposing batters are downright nasty—going beyond that 1.86 ERA, hitters are batting for a combined .174 average. They also barely get any home runs off Beckett, with just four on the season (by comparison, Justin Verlander has allowed 11 and Shields 12).

    Biggest Roadblock

    Despite his numbers, Beckett does have some issues. First of all, one would expect him to have more wins (teammate Jon Lester has nine), which puts him at a disadvantage to the other candidates with nine wins. He also doesn't have that many strikeouts, and given the emphasis placed on high-strikeout pitchers, Beckett is at a big disadvantage in that respect.

    Next, there comes the sustainability issue. Beckett's xFIP (3.68) is high for such a low ERA, meaning his 1.86 ERA will most likely rise. Given that his ERA is the main thing keeping his Cy Young candidacy afloat, this may spell disaster for his campaign.

No. 2: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

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    The Numbers

    120.2 IP, 9-3, 2.54 ERA, 110 K's, 0.85 WHIP

    The Case for Verlander

    Verlander currently leads the AL with the most strikeouts, most innings pitched and lowest WHIP. He also shares the lead for the most wins with a few other pitchers. Now, King Felix bucked the trend last year by helping voters look past wins, but it's still an important statistic.

    Like the other candidates, Verlander is enjoying a career year, and voters will no doubt remember the no-hitter against the Blue Jays and the botched no-hitter more recently against Cleveland.

    Verlander had a comparatively disappointing April, but since then, he has gotten better and better—in June, he is 4-0 with a 1.06 ERA.

    Biggest Roadblock

    Verlander is without a doubt one of the top contenders for the AL Cy Young, but he hasn't distinguished himself quite enough at this point. The strikeouts and WHIP are nice, but Jered Weaver is right behind him and matches the win total.

    Most importantly, Verlander's 2.54 ERA is the highest among the five, and Weaver's is 2.01—more than half a run better. Verlander's other numbers simply don't compensate enough for Weaver's fantastic stat line.

    Another sabermetric stat comes into play here: Justin Verlander's BABIP is .214, lowest in the AL. Again, without going into much detail, it pretty much says Verlander has gotten very lucky with balls in play, partly contributing to his success.

    If Verlander can pitch closer to his May and June averages and let averages smooth out his April ERA spike, he will be a serious candidate for the Cy Young.

No. 1: Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels

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    The Numbers

    116.1 IP, 9-4, 2.01 ERA, 102 K's, 0.92 WHIP

    The Argument for Weaver

    What Beckett was, Verlander wasn't, and what Verlander wasn't, Beckett was.

    Beckett had the insanely low ERA, but Verlander had the strikeouts and wins. Weaver has all of that. His 2.01 ERA isn't far off from Beckett's but far lower than Verlander's. His strikeout total is far higher than Beckett's but only a bit behind Verlander's.

    His sabermetrics also suggest that Weaver is a better bet to maintain his low ERA than Verlander and Beckett, whose stats have shown that they do get lucky a bit more than Weaver does.

    Weaver was roughed up a bit in May after a jaw-dropping April, but since then he has improved with a 3-0 record and 1.76 ERA in June.

    Overall, Weaver is what voters will look for in an optimal candidate. He has the wins, the consistent domination and the nasty strikeout factor. If Weaver can continue blanking opposing offenses, I believe he will be the front runner for the AL Cy Young Award this year.