Posted: Thursday August 23, 2012 3:41PM ; Updated: Thursday August 23, 2012 3:41PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>MLB AWARDS WATCH

Verlander remains favorite over Price in tight AL Cy Young race

Story Highlights

Justin Verlander's lead in innings, peripheral stats has him ahead for AL Cy Young

David Price has gone 8-0 with a 1.56 ERA over his last dozen starts this season

Johnny Cueto leads NL in wins, ERA as well as in advanced stats, WAR and ERA+

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Justin Verlander has limited opposing batters to a .206 batting average this year while striking out 192 in 190.1 innings.
Justin Verlander has limited opposing batters to a .206 batting average this year while striking out 192 in 190.1 innings.
Leon Halip/Getty Images

I'd save myself a lot of grief if I just started listing the top six American League Cy Young contenders, rather than the top five, because there are six pitchers with a real shot at the award. Of course, if I did that, you'd have to find someone else at whom to direct your angry e-mails and tweets. So, really, I'm being selfless by keeping the list to five. That AL race is a real thriller and looks like it will go right down to the wire. The National League race is less compelling almost by default, but it's not due to a lack of strong pitching performances. Rather it's due to the somewhat fractured nature of the race and the presence once again of a clear leader on whom old-school and new-school voters seem likely to agree.

NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, August 22. 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: 12-7, 2.53 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 6 CG, 1 SHO, 165 ERA+

Last Three Starts: 1-0, 1.71 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 12.0 K/9, 5.60 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

David Price leads the league in wins and ERA, but Verlander leads the league in innings per start and ERA+, and to me the latter two stats are more significant than the former two. Pitching wins and losses tell us nothing about how a pitcher pitched, and ERA needs context, which the league-and-ballpark-adjusted ERA+ provides. ERA+ is not a precision instrument, few sabermetric statistics are, but it effectively has Verlander and Price (who is at 164) tied, which allows Verlander's advantage in innings and superior peripherals to push him out front. As close as this race is (three weeks ago it was Jered Weaver, who is in the unpublished sixth spot this week, who led the league in wins and ERA), I've had last year's winner Verlander in the top spot since the end of May.

Verlander has made just three starts, not the usual four, since my last look at this race due simply due to timing. His fourth start is Thursday afternoon at home against the Blue Jays.

2. David Price, LHP, Rays (N/A)

Season Stats: 16-4, 2.28 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 3.34 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 164 ERA+

Last Four Starts: 2-0, 0.60 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 5.20 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS

Over his last dozen starts, all of which have been quality, Price has gone 8-0 with a 1.56 ERA, completing at least seven innings every time out and striking out 89 men in 86 1/3 innings. Of the four August starts summarized above he has only allowed a run in one of them, twirling 23 scoreless innings in the other three. In his four no-decisions over those last dozen starts, Price has allowed a total of four runs in 30 innings, a 1.20 ERA, the last two of those games were 1-0 Rays loses in which Price went eight innings without allowing a run. That last simultaneously explains just how dominant Price has been as well as why a league-leading win total means very little.

3. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (5)

Season Stats: 12-5, 2.54 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.98 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 4 SHO, 148 ERA+

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 6.50 K/BB, 8.2 IP/GS, 2 SHO

Hernandez has been as good over his last 13 starts (8-0, 1.53 ERA, 95 Ks in 100 innings) as Price has been over his last dozen, but he has been just a hair less consistent, mixing in a pair of non-quality starts, one of which lasted just 5 1/3 innings. With that exception, however, Hernandez has thrown at least seven innings in 12 of his last 13 starts and his last eight in a row. Four of Hernandez's last 11 starts have been shutouts, three of those have seen him strikeout a dozen or more men, and one of those was the 23rd perfect game in major league history, coincidentally a 1-0 victory over the Rays (but not over Price).

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

Season Stats: 15-4, 2.65 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.17 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 CG, 163 ERA+

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.79 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 11.2 K/9, 7.20 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS

As I wrote on August 12, Sale had a bit of a dead-arm period at the end of July in which his fastball velocity dropped, forcing him to rely more on his secondary pitches. As a result, he allowed five runs in each of his last two starts that month. The White Sox skipped his first August start, and his velocity was back up upon his return, allowing him to once again pitch off his fastball, resulting in the Last Four Starts line above. Concerns about his return to form being the result of facing the Royals and A's in his first three starts back in rotation were allayed by his dominance of the Yankees on Wednesday night as he held the Bombers to one run over 7 2/3 innings while striking out 13.

That one run came on a Derek Jeter home run, continuing a trend in which seven of the nine runs Sale has allowed on the month have come on solo home runs. That's simultaneously encouraging (he's only giving up home runs with the bases empty and teams are not building successful rallies against him) and troubling (he has allowed seven home runs in his last 29 innings, a rate of 2.2 HR/9, twice the league average).

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

Season Stats: 9-9, 3.11 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 4.05 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 4 CG, 1 SHO, 139 ERA+

Last Four Starts: 1-2, 2.89 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

My argument for including Peavy over Jered Weaver (16-3, 2.74) in this final spot is the same as my argument for including Verlander over Price in the top spot. Weaver, who posted a 4.85 ERA over his last four starts due largely to a nine-run disaster two turns ago, is the obvious choice based on wins and ERA, but the two are effectively tied in ERA+ (Weaver is at 138; remember, Peavy and Sale pitch one of the major leagues' most offense-friendly ballparks) and Peavy, who next starts on Friday against the Mariners, has already thrown 20 more innings than Weaver, who started Wednesday night. Peavy also has Weaver beat in innings on a rate basis (even if you eliminate the start in which Weaver left due to a back injury before recording an out he's only at 6.7 IP/GS) and has the superior strike-zone peripherals, meaning he shoulders a larger responsibility for getting outs and keeping men off the bases than Weaver, who relies more on his excellent team defense.

 
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