Posted: Thursday July 12, 2012 12:27PM ; Updated: Thursday July 12, 2012 12:27PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>MLB AWARDS WATCH

Verlander, Dickey maintain narrow leads in Cy Young chase

Story Highlights

Chris Sale of the White Sox has rebounded well from his only bad start of the year

Johnny Cueto has supplanted Matt Cain as the biggest challenger to R.A. Dickey

Ryan Vogelson's story of breaking out in his 30s is almost as good as Dickey's

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Justin Verlander and Rafael Furcal
Justin Verlander didn't look very good against the NL in the All-Star Game but he's still in position for his second straight AL Cy Young.
Mike Stone/Reuters

Justin Verlander gave up five runs in his one inning of work at Tuesday's All-Star Game, a performance that would rank as the worst of his major league career if the game counted. Fortunately, that dreadful outing doesn't count toward his overall season numbers (nor should it, for countless obvious reasons). If it did, though, it just might have been enough to knock him out of the top spot in my Cy Young award rankings, an indication of how close the race is in the American League.

Tight as they may be, however, the Cy Young races have stabilized from three weeks ago, when my top five in the National League turned over completely from my previous look at the award and there were new names in seven of the 10 overall spots. This week just three men have fallen off the list between the two leagues combined, and both leaders, Verlander included, remain in place, though with considerable shuffling behind them.

NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, June 20. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

American League

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: 9-5, 2.58 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.27 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 5 CG, 1 SHO

Last Three Starts: 2-1, 2.63 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 7.33 K/BB, 8.0 IP/GS, 2 CG

Verlander is fourth in the American League in ERA and third in adjusted ERA+ (159), but the only two men ahead of him in the latter category have made three fewer starts and thrown at least 30 fewer innings. Verlander, meanwhile, leads the major leagues in innings per start, total innings pitched (132 2/3), complete games and strikeouts (128, tied with Felix Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg), is tied for the AL lead in quality starts (14) with Jake Peavy and C.J. Wilson and is second in the league in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Verlander also has an active streak of 60 consecutive starts with at least six innings pitched that dates back to August 2010, the longest such stretch since Hall of Famer Steve Carlton's streak of 69 straight which was snapped in April 1982. He doesn't have as big a lead in the race for this award as he did when he won it a year ago, but to my eye he was clearly been the best pitcher in the American League in the first half of the 2012 season.

2. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (4)

Season Stats: 10-2, 2.19 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.92 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 CG

Last Three Starts: 2-0, 1.21 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS

Sale has put up that tiny 2.19 ERA in hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Park, which translates to a league-leading 194 ERA+ that trails only that of the twice-injured Cub Ryan Dempster, who has made two fewer starts and thrown 16 2/3 fewer innings, in all of baseball. Sale has allowed more than three runs in a game just once this season, but that came immediately prior to my last look at this race. I wrote then that I would have liked to have seen how he responded to that bad outing before having to make my list.

Now I've had the chance, and the answer is his Last Three Starts line above. All three starts were quality and the one that failed to hand him a decision saw him throw eight scoreless innings at home against the Brewers only to have Zack Greinke throw nine scoreless frames in a game the Brewers won 1-0 in the 10th.

3. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (N/A)

Season Stats: 10-1, 1.96 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.32 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Three Starts: 3-0, 0.42 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 2.60 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS

Weaver briefly fell of this list due to a back injury that forced him to the disabled list at the end of May, but in four starts since his return on June 20, the night before my last Cy Young column, he has allowed just one run across four starts. That's one run in 27 2/3 innings, good for a silly 0.33 ERA since his return. What's more, he has gone deeper into each successive game since coming back, wrapping up the first half with eight scoreless innings against the Orioles during which he allowed just three hits and a walk.

Weaver has now held his opponents scoreless for six or more innings in seven of his 15 starts this season, the highest cumulative total of scoreless starts of six or more innings in the majors this year (there are four men who had done it five times) and by far the best percentage of such starts (47 percent).

4. Jake Peavy, RHP, White Sox (2)

Season Stats: 7-5, 2.85 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 4.15 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 4 CG, 1 SHO

Last Three Starts: 1-2, 3.38 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 8.33 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 1 CG

5. C.J. Wilson, LHP, Angels (3)

Season Stats: 9-5, 2.43 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 1.80 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS

Last Three Starts: 1-1, 2.37 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 4.3 K/9, 0.90 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

Wilson and Peavy have both made 14 quality starts, but while Wilson appears to have a clear advantage over Peavy in ERA, when you look at park-adjusted ERA+ that gap narrows considerably, with Peavy coming in at 149 to Wilson's 155. Given the fact that Peavy has out-pitched Wilson in nearly every other regard, that's close enough for me to give Peavy the edge.

One note on their respective won-loss records, something I generally disregard when making these lists: Peavy posted a 2.70 ERA and averaged 7.5 innings per start over his final four starts in June but went 0-4 in those games because the White Sox scored a total of just two runs in those four games, two of which were complete game losses for Peavy. Give him a 2-2 record in those games and he's 9-3 and looking a lot more attractive to old-school voters.

Wilson skipped the All-Star game due to a blister on his middle finger (with Peavy taking his place on the AL roster), but blister problems are old-hat to Wilson, who uses laser therapy to speed his return to action. He expects to make his first start of the second half on schedule, though the Angels have yet to announce their post-break rotation.

Off the list: Colby Lewis (5)

National League

1. R.A. Dickey, RHP, Mets (1)

Season Stats: 12-1, 2.40 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.73 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO

Last Three Starts: 1-0, 4.29 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

Tony La Russa's decision to start Matt Cain in the All-Star Game because of his superior career (past and, most likely, future) would have made more sense if there was any doubt that Dickey had been the best pitcher in the National League in the first half of this season. To my mind, there is not. In addition to all of the bold type above, Dickey is second in the league in strikeouts (123), fifth in ERA, fourth in park-adjusted ERA+ (158), fourth in quality starts (14) and quality start percentage (82 percent) and fourth in strikeout rate, leading Cain in all of those categories. He's also fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (Cain has him beat there, but not by much), and has thrown just a third of an inning less than innings-per-start leader Cain in the same number of starts, thus ranking second in IP/GS and fourth in the league in total innings (120).

Dickey has stumbled a bit of late, giving up five runs in two of his last three starts, though he managed to avoid a loss both times thanks to strong run support from the Mets, who have given him 5.6 runs per 27 outs on the season. Still, the start in between those two was tremendous (8 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K against the Dodgers in L.A.) and his six start stretch from May 27 through June 18 (6-0, 0.18 ERA, 11.7 K/9, 8.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, two one-hitters) was one of the greatest uninterrupted runs of pitching dominance in major league history.

2. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (3)

Season Stats: 10-5, 2.39 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.37 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 2 CG

Last Three Starts: 1-2, 3.38 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.50 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS

Cueto is fourth in the NL in ERA, but his park-adjusted 175 ERA+ is second behind only that of Dempster, who has thrown 34 1/3 fewer innings across five fewer starts. Cain has superior peripherals to Cueto, but the latter's advantage in ERA+ (175 to 134) is too large to ignore (though the All-Star selection process somehow managed to do so).

Looking at their respective game logs, Cueto has 15 quality starts in 18 outings. Two of the three that didn't meet that standard came in a three-start stretch in mid-May, and the last saw him allow just two runs but fall one out short of finishing the sixth inning and thus qualifying for a QS. As for Cain, he has just 12 quality starts, with the five exceptions spread more evenly throughout the season. Also, Cain has allowed more than three runs four times, Cueto only twice.

3. Matt Cain, RHP, Giants (2)

Season Stats: 9-3, 2.62 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.92 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 2 CG, 2 SHO

Last Three Starts: 0-1, 3.98 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 4.50 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS

Since his perfect game, Cain has posted a 4.26 ERA in four starts, only two of which were quality, and only one of which was a particularly impressive outing (that coming against the punchless cross-Bay A's). Still, he's second in the league in WHIP (behind Dickey), first in innings per start, second in overall innings (120 1/3, a third of an inning behind Clayton Kershaw, who has made one more start), fourth in strikeouts, second in strikeout-to-walk ratio (behind Joe Blanton!), tied for the league lead in shutouts and behind only Dickey in complete games. Cain has clearly been one of the best pitchers in the National League this year, but he's not neck-and-neck with Dickey anymore.

4. James McDonald, RHP, Pirates (N/A)

Season Stats: 9-3, 2.37 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.23 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS, 1 CG

Last Three Starts: 3-0, 3.20 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.43 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS

McDonald was fourth on this list six weeks ago and reclaims that spot this week after finishing the first half strong. He went 4-1 with a 2.34 ERA over his final five starts prior to the All-Star break and put an exclamation point on that performance by holding the Giants to a run on four singles and no walks over seven innings while striking out 10 in his final start of the first half. Paradoxically, those last five starts also included the only start all season in which McDonald has allowed more than three runs (he allowed four in 5 2/3 innings in Philadelphia in his last start of June).

5. Ryan Vogelsong, RHP, Giants (N/A)

Season Stats: 7-4, 2.36 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 2.20 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS

Last Three Starts: 1-1, 2.14 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 4.33 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

Outside of his ERA, nothing about Vogelsong's line above really lights up, but his game log sparkles. All but one of Vogelsong's 16 starts this season have been quality. All 16 have lasted at least six innings, and he has completed seven innings in 12 of his last 13 including his last eight in a row. He hasn't allowed multiple home runs in any of those 16 starts, has allowed just one unearned run all season and hasn't allowed more than five runs over two consecutive starts since April. The Giants won eight straight Vogelsong starts from May 8 to June 15 and are 10-2 overall in his last dozen, that despite only once scoring more than five runs in those games and only twice scoring more than four runs. The consistency there is amazing. Over the last two and a half months, a Vogelsong start has, with one exception, guaranteed the Giants seven innings and three or fewer runs allowed (usually fewer).

Taking a step back, since returning to the majors last year at the age of 33 after a four-year absence, Vogelsong has gone 20-11 with a 2.57 ERA over 290 1/3 innings. Prior to 2011, he had gone 10-22 with a 5.86 ERA in 315 major league innings. Dickey is still the best story on this list, but Vogelsong isn't far behind.

Off the list: Wade Miley (4), Stephen Strasburg (5)

 
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