Phil Hughes, Ubaldo Jimenez early leaders in Cy Young race
David Price, Matt Garza, Jered Weaver and Andy Pettitte are in AL contention
Former Cy Young winners Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum are chasing Jimenez
There is a big dropoff in the National League after the top three
Every week I will rank the top five candidates in each league for one of baseball's three major awards. Last week, I examined the MVP races in each league and next week, I'll take my first look at the Rookie of the Year contenders. This week, I'm turning my attention to the early-season leaders for the Cy Young awards.
With the amateur draft just three weeks away and the Nationals' perhaps on the verge of promoting last year's No. 1 overall selection, Stephen Strasburg, it's interesting to note that of the 10 pitchers listed below, seven of them are former first-round draft picks and an eighth (Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez) wasn't even eligible for the draft. Some of them -- such as Phil Hughes of the Yankees and David Price of the Rays -- were brought along slowly (in the opinions of some, too slowly), while others, such as the Giants' Tim Lincecum had relatively brief apprenticeships before becoming mainstays in a big league rotation.
The question of how to handle young pitchers is one that has no definitive answer. The only thing known for sure is that each of the pitchers below has been outstanding to date.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, May 16; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
1. Phil Hughes, RHP, Yankees
Season stats: 5-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 2.79 K/BB
Last four starts: 3-0, 1.01 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 3.29 K/BB
After injuries scuttled his first two major league seasons, Hughes, the 23rd pick in the 2004 draft, slipped into the Yankees bullpen in 2009 and played a key role in their championship run by posting a 1.40 ERA and 11.4 K/9 as a reliever in the regular season. But he still had to beat out Joba Chamberlain in camp to become the Yankees' fifth starter this year and actually opened the season in extended spring training because the Yankees didn't need a fifth starter until the season's second week. In his second start, he threw 7 1/3 no-hit innings against the A's, and in his last three, he has posted this line: 21 IP, 16 H, 2 R, 0 HR, 3 BB, 21 K. Hughes' opponents have hit just .223 on balls in play (a figure that is likely to regress to the league average of around .300), and just two percent of his fly balls allowed have become home runs (against a league average of about 7.5 percent), so some correction is coming, but the strikeouts are still there, and his stuff is as good as it's ever been.
2. David Price, LHP, Rays
Season Stats: 5-1, 2.03 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.29 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.24 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 2.44 K/BB
This is how it was supposed to go for Joba Chamberlain. The first pick in the 2007 draft, Price arrived in the majors in late 2008 and dominated out of the bullpen as the Rays surged to their first pennant. He then opened 2009 in Triple-A to limit his innings and returned to the majors in late-May as a starter. After some growing pains in '09, Price seems to have arrived as a dominant ace this year. However, the big difference between his 2009 and 2010 performances, like Hughes, has been some good fortune on balls in play and fly balls staying in the park, both of which could regress as the season progresses. Still, Price has Cy Young stuff and pitches for the team with the best record in baseball, so don't be surprised if he sticks around on this list.
3. Matt Garza, RHP, Rays
Season Stats: 5-1, 2.38 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 2.82 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 2-0, 2.60 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.83 K/BB
One could make an argument for Rays starters James Shields and Jeff Niemann as well, which should give some explanation as to why the Rays have been the best team in baseball thus far. The top four men in their rotation are a combined 17-3 with a 2.44 ERA and 24 quality starts in 30 appearances. Shields has the best peripherals of that quartet, Niemann the second-lowest ERA after Price, but Garza has a better overall line than either of those two as well as share of the AL lead in wins, the category that seems to speak the loudest to awards voters.
4. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels
Season Stats: 4-2, 2.47 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 4.92 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.16 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, 4.57 K/BB
Weaver leads the AL in strikeouts with 59 and has struck out at least six men each of his eight starts. He's also the only one of the five pitchers on this list that doesn't have any wacky peripherals that suggest a correction is coming his way. True, that strikeout rate is unprecedented for Weaver (his career rate was 7.3 K/9 coming into this season), but at 26, it's entirely possible that Weaver is still maturing (his extreme home/road split from 2009 seems to be a thing of the past), which means he just might be the ace to replace John Lackey in Anaheim after all.
5. Andy Pettitte, LHP, Yankees
Season Stats: 5-0, 1.79 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 5.8 K/9, 1.81 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 3-0, 2.13 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 2.14 K/BB
Pettitte claimed this final spot by beating Minnesota's Francisco Liriano head-to-head in the Bronx on Saturday. In that game, Liriano struck out seven men in six innings against no walks, while Pettitte walked three against just two Ks, but Pettitte also held the Twins to just two hits and no runs as the Yankees remained a perfect 7-0 in his starts on the season. Pettitte has allowed more than one run in a start just twice, more than two runs just once, and is off to the best start of his very impressive 16-year career. Of the five ALers to have won five games this season, only Pettitte and Hughes have ERAs under 2.00, and of the 13 major leaguers with five or more wins only Pettitte, Hughes, and the Giants' Tim Lincecum have not registered a loss.
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