Cy Young watch (cont.)
1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (1)
Season Stats: 6-3, 2.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 6.62 K/BB, 4 CG
Last Four Starts: 1-2, 2.61 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 4.83 K/BB, 2 CG
Halladay has struck out 200 or more men four times in his career, including in each of the last three seasons, but no one would ever call him a strikeout pitcher. He has never topped eight strikeouts per nine innings in a season in which he has qualified for the ERA title. Rather, all those Ks have been partially a product of all those innings (he has averaged 250 1/3 innings in those four 200-strikeout seasons). Yet, Halladay has increased his strikeout rate, however slightly, in each of the last three seasons, and this year he is striking out more than a man per inning. Last year was the first of his career in which he struck out ten or more in three starts, and this year he already has two such starts, one of which saw him tie his career high with 14 punchouts. Dating back to that start against the Padres on April 24, Halladay has struck out 61 men in 55 2/3 innings, a rate of 9.9 K/9. Meanwhile, he's leading the league in fewest walks per nine for the third year in a row. He's the best pitcher in baseball. Period.
2. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Braves (N/A)
Season Stats: 7-1, 1.51 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 3.45 K/BB, 1 CG
Last Four Starts: 3-1, 1.52 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 5.5 K/9, 3.60 K/BB
An oblique strain delayed the start of Jurrjens' season until April 16, but he set the tone for his season immediately upon his return by holding the Mets to just two hits and a walk across seven scoreless innings. Jurrjens has nine quality starts in as many opportunities this season, and has yet to throw fewer than six innings or allow more than two runs in a game. The 25-year-old is in a six-way tie for the major league lead in wins, but leads both leagues in ERA by a considerable margin. He doesn't strike out many men, but has compensated by being even stingier with walks and home runs, handing out just 1.5 free passes per nine innings and allowing just three taters in 65 2/3 frames. He trails Halladay largely because Halladay has thrown 20 more innings and a lot can change over such a span, but Jurrjens is averaging just a third of an inning less per start (7 1/3 to Halladay's 7 2/3). The only other National Leaguer with more than nine starts who is averaging more innings per start than Jurrjens is the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse, and the difference is minuscule (7.303 to Jurrjens' 7.296).
3. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants (5)
Season Stats: 5-4, 2.22 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.29 K/BB, 1 SHO
Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.82 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 2.75 K/BB, 1 SHO
Lincecum didn't allow a run in three of his five May starts, striking out 12 Mets in seven scoreless innings on May 4, twirling eight scoreless in a 1-0 win against the Diamondbacks his next time out and shutting out the cross-bay A's on three singles and no walks two turns ago. Overall, he posted a 1.47 ERA on the month and fell one out shy of posting five quality starts in five opportunities. He has done all of that despite the continued erosion of his strikeout rate, which has declined in each of the last three seasons. Lincecum has struck out just 13 men in 21 2/3 innings over his last three starts, a rate of 5.4 per nine innings. That might just be a random dip, but it bears watching. His last three-start stretch with a strikeout rate that low came late last July. He then went winless with a 7.82 ERA in August.
4. Kyle Lohse, RHP, Cardinals (N/A)
Season Stats: 7-2, 2.13 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 3.13 K/BB, 1 SHO
Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.93 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 5.8 K/9, 3.60 K/BB
Lohse takes the fourth spot here against my better instincts. He has been extremely lucky on balls in play thus far this season, with opponents hitting just .224 on fair balls that don't leave the park. Combine that with his low strikeout rate and the 4.79 career ERA he has compiled over his ten previous big-league seasons, and Lohse's success doesn't seem sustainable. Still, a third of the way through the schedule, I have to evaluate him based on his performance more than his projection. Sorry, Clayton Kershaw. Beyond luck, or perhaps good team defense, which has certainly contributed, Lohse has, like Jurrjens, limited walks and home runs, but the latter seems like luck as well, as he lacks Jurrjens track record for keeping the ball in the park.
5. Josh Johnson, RHP, Marlins (2)
Season Stats: 3-1, 1.64 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 2.80 K/BB
Last Three Weeks: 0-0, 1.50 ERA, 2 GS, on DL with inflammation in right shoulder May 17.
In giving Roy Halladay the edge over him on this list three weeks ago, I referred to the Marlins' ace as "the somewhat fragile Johnson, who has made 30 starts just once in his career." Johnson hit the disabled list with inflammation in his pitching shoulder two starts later. He's expected back next Monday after missing just three starts, an absence brief enough not to force him out of this race, but the same shoulder issue ended his season a month early last year, and such an early reoccurrence suggests there's a larger underlying problem with the joint. I'm not optimistic about Johnson's ability to rediscover and maintain his pre-injury dominance over another twenty starts, but given that he has thrown just 5 1/3 fewer innings than Jurrjens, it's too soon to drop him from the list entirely.
Off the list: Jaime Garcia (3), Shaun Marcum (4)