Verlander cruising toward AL Cy Young while Kershaw takes NL lead
Justin Verlander leads the majors in wins, WHIP and K's for first-place Tigers
Clayton Kershaw has been superb of late, and he passes Roy Halladay
Reds' Johnny Cueto leads the majors in ERA but hasn't pitched enough to be Cy
Justin Verlander has become part of the American League Most Valuable Player discussion, a clear sign that he's pulling away in the AL Cy Young award race. However, over in the National League, the competition for the Cy Young is as wide open as ever. This week, the NL race has a new leader, who finds himself in that top spot for the first time this season, while the other four contenders from last week have shuffled spots behind him, and the Diamondbacks' Ian Kennedy and his 17-4 record are stuck on the outside looking in. That gives the NL six legitimate contenders, and major league ERA leader Johnny Cueto is not among them.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, August 28; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.
1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: 20-5, 2.38 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 (218 K), 4.54 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO
Last Four Starts: 4-0, 2.93 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 3.20 K/BB
Verlander is starting to lengthen his lead in this race. His ERA is just a tenth of a run worse than Jered Weaver's, and he has Weaver beat hands down in nearly every other category. The Detroit ace leads the majors in wins, WHIP, strikeouts, quality starts (26 of 29) and innings pitched (215 2/3), threw a no-hitter in early May, and is 11-1 in a dozen starts against teams in his own division for a first-place club. Some of those things matter more than others, but they're all likely to sway voters to his side. So is his performance over his last 18 starts, which forms the core of his Cy Young case. Since May 29, Verlander has gone 16-2, with a 1.78 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, and 5.37 K/BB. Talk of him being a serious contender for the AL MVP is overblown, but he'll absolutely pick up some votes for that award, and seems a near certainty to go home with this one.
2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (2)
Season Stats: 15-7, 2.28 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.50 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO
Last Four Starts: 1-2, 5.84 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 2.00 K/BB
Just two of Weaver's first 24 starts this season failed to meet the standards of a quality start (minimum 6 IP, maximum 3 ER), and in both of those he missed by just one run. However, two of his last four starts have been full-on disasters in which he had more runs allowed than innings pitched. Weaver gave up eight runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays on August 13, and, starting on short rest Sunday night in an attempt to help his club cut its deficit in the AL West in half, he gave up seven runs in six innings against the Rangers, thus helping Texas increase its lead in the AL West to three games.
Weaver allowed five home runs in those two duds, compared to just nine homers allowed in his other 26 starts this season. Both of those disaster starts came on the road in homer-happy ballparks, bad environments for an extreme fly-ball pitcher like Weaver. Angel Stadium, however, with its deep leftfield gap and high wall in the right-field power alley (not to mention Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout patrolling the pastures for years to come), eats up the fly balls Weaver gives up, which is a large part of the reason that his home ERA (1.38) is less than half of his road mark (3.03) this season, as it was last season (1.86 to 4.14), and very nearly the year before (4.78 to 2.90). Since the start of the 2009 season, Weaver has given up 29 home runs on the road against just eight at home.
3. James Shields, RHP, Rays (N/A)
Season Stats: 12-10, 2.96 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.76 K/BB, 10 CG, 4 SHO
Last Four Starts: 2-1, 2.97 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 5.50 K/BB, 3 CG, 1 SHO
Shields' major-league-leading 10 complete games equals CC Sabathia's 2008 total for the most this millennium. Shields had just four complete games in his five previous major league seasons. In August alone, he has completed three games, including a shutout of the Royals, a 3-1 loss to the Red Sox in Boston, and a 12-strikeout domination of the Blue Jays at hitting-friendly the Rogers Centre. However, his Cy Young candidacy has been hurt by the fact that every so often he'll go out and get bombed, as he did two turns ago when he somehow gave up seven runs to the Mariners despite striking out seven men against one walk, or in his final start in July, when he gave up 10 runs in four innings to the punchless A's. The Rays have team-friendly options on Shields for the next three seasons, but don't be surprised if they pick up the first then look to trade him this offseason. Shields' trade value will likely never be higher given his combination of performance and contract, and the Rays, as always seems to be the case, have plenty of young arms ready to replace him in the rotation next year.
4. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees (3)
Season Stats: 17-7, 2.99 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.98 K/BB, 3 CG, 1 SHO
Last Four Starts: 1-2, 5.72 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 9.67 K/BB
Sabathia's last four starts, summarized above, followed an outstanding run of eight starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed, which vaulted him onto this list. Over the last four, he has continued to dominate in the strike zone (29 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings against just three walks), but has had some bad luck on balls in play (.372 BABIP), as well as one fluky game in which he gave up five solo home runs to the Rays, but didn't allow another run in eight innings of work. It could be that he's throwing too many strikes, or catching too much of the heart of the plate, or it could have just been a hiccup. Since that five homer game, Sabathia has turned in two quality starts in which he allowed just one home run, that being a wind-blown shot by Coco Crisp at the homer-happy Yankee Stadium. His big test comes Tuesday night, when he makes his fifth start of the year against the Red Sox. Sabathia has yet to turn in a quality start against the Red Sox this season and has allowed at least six runs in each of his last three starts against Boston, resulting in an 8.84 ERA over those three outings.
5. Josh Beckett, RHP, Red Sox (4)
Season Stats: 11-5, 2.43 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 3.36 K/BB, 1 SHO
Last Four Starts: 2-1, 3.75 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.80 K/BB
Beckett is more a place-holder than a real contender in this race. One could argue for Toronto's Rickey Romero or Cleveland's Justin Masterson in this spot without much argument from me. Beckett's season has been built on the lowest opponents' batting average on balls in play in the majors among qualified starters this season (.235), though it's worth noting that Verlander, Rookie of the Year candidate Jeremy Hellickson, Romero and Weaver are the next four on that list. However, only Hellickson has thrown fewer innings this season, and attendance is part of what undermines Beckett's candidacy. Though he only had one start skipped, Beckett has taken four fewer turns and thrown more than 50 fewer innings than Verlander, which alone keeps him several lengths off the lead in this race.
Off the list: Dan Haren (5)