Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The 2006 Cy Young Race

Johan Santana picked up his seventh win of the year on Sunday, lowering his ERA for the season to 2.87 as he held the Pirates to one run over seven innings. Santana has never been this strong in the first half of the seas on before, which leads one to believe he might be on track for his best season yet. Will that be good enough for a Cy Young Award? That's not so clear.

The Cy Young lost a lot of its luster to me last year, when Bartolo Colon won the AL honor over several far more deserving candidates and Roger Clemens missed out on the NL award despite posting baseball's first sub-2 ERA since Pedro in 2000. Still, it is fun to track the top pitchers in the league to see who might be the frontrunner to win the award at season's end.

2005 was a down year for AL starting pitchers. Just two starters posted an ERA below 3, and the Cy Young award winner was not in the top five in ERA or OBA. Santana had a very good year (16-7, 2.87 ERA, 0.97 WHIP) and so did a few other guys like Mark Buehrle (16-8, 3.12 ERA, 1.18 WHIP), Kevin Millwood (9-11, 2.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) and Bartolo Colon (21-8, 3.48 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) but for the most part the league's traditional top pitchers had relatively sub par or injury-shortened seasons.

This year is shaping up to be a totally different story. Santana is off to a better start than he was last year, but so are a number of other pitchers. There are at least ten guys who at this point look like legitimate contenders for the Cy Young Award. So what I'm going to do is break down the top ten, in order of where they currently stand.

Please note that I am ranking the pitchers in terms of how I feel their chances of winning the Cy Young will be, not necessarily how good they've been. As we learned last year, they are two different things. I'll be taking into account voter tendencies (WINS WINS WINS), as well as where the pitcher plays and how they tend to perform in the second half of the season.

Also, I'm sure some people are going to be a little perturbed that Francisco Liriano's name is not on the list. The fact is that while he will almost undoubtedly be in the discussion by the time the All Star break rolls around, at this point he has still only made six starts and it is simply too early to put him on the list.

So without further ado, the 2006 Cy Young race, as of June 19:

1. JOSE CONTRERAS
85 IP, 7-0, 2.96 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 60 K / 22 BB, .214 OBA
Whether or not he is deserving, Contreras is probably the frontrunner at this point. While his WHIP and strikeout numbers aren't the best you'll find, Contreras is holding his opponents to a miniscule .214 batting average and .583 OPS, both tops in the league. He also hasn't lost a start yet, and until some teams start beating him, he's sitting in the driver's seat in this race. It also doesn't hurt that he plays for the defending World Series champs and was a major force in the postseason last year.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Hasn't lost a decision since the Twins beat him on August 15th of last year. If he has a strong second half and the White Sox win the AL Central, the award will be his.

2. MIKE MUSSINA
100.1 IP, 8-3, 3.14 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 90 K / 17 BB, .227 OBA
Mussina cruised through the first two months of the season, holding a 7-1 record and a 2.42 ERA at the end of May. However, he's struggled in June, posting a 6.27 ERA in three starts. This has brought his numbers down to Earth a little bit, but they are still good. He is holding opponents to a measly .626 OPS. The facts that he plays on the big stage in New York and should easily get enough run support to win 20 games both help his cause quite a bit. The only question is, at age 37, will he hold up over the second half of the year?
THE BOTTOM LINE: Mussina has had a great career but has never won a Cy Young. If he gets 20 wins and proves to be an ace for this Yankees staff, the voters might be inclined to give him one.

3. CURT SCHILLING
101.1 IP, 9-2, 3.55 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 86 K / 12 BB, .266 OBA
Schilling's statistics are hardly jaw-dropping, but he is on pace to win 22 games and that could be crucially important. Schilling projects to finish the year with numbers similar to what Bartolo Colon had last year (albeit with much better strikeout/walk rates). He also pitches in Boston and has historically been a great pitcher, so there's no doubt that he's going to get plenty of love from the voters.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Like Mussina, Schilling has had a great career but has never won a Cy Young. If Colon could win it last year, Schilling can win it this year with 21-22 wins, even if his ERA and OBA don't come down much.

4. JOHAN SANTANA
103.1 IP, 7-4, 2.87 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 109 K / 16 BB, .227 OBA
All things considered, Santana has pretty clearly been the most dominant pitcher in the league. He's racked up more strikeouts than any other pitcher in baseball while, impressively, issuing the second-fewest walks of any AL pitcher with 50+ innings pitched (next to Halladay, whose strikeout total is less than half of Santana's). Johan's numbers are all fantastic, but unfortunately he continues to be haunted by his lack of run support and has picked up just seven wins in 15 starts. Even if Santana gets a couple more wins before the All Star Game, he would need 11 more following the break to reach 20 on the season (for whatever reason, 20 wins seems to be the all-important measure of a Cy Young caliber pitcher). That's a pretty tall order. In each of the past two seasons, Santana has gotten 15 starts after the All Star break. In 2004, he amazingly got 13 wins in those 15 starts. Last year, despite posting a 1.59 ERA in those 15 starts, he got only nine wins. So, in other words, it would take his usual otherworldly post-break dominance and a lot of luck for him to be able to win 20 games. Santana's numbers are probably going to be very strong at the end of the season, but I fear the fact that he likely won't be playing for a contender coupled with a possible lack of wins may screw him over once again.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Santana leads the league in ERA and strikeouts, but as we learned last year, that's not enough. He'll need to pile up some wins for the remainder of the season in order to take home the award.

5. ROY HALLADAY
101 IP, 8-2, 2.94 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 53 K / 13 BB, .258 OBA
In our preseason predictions, Halladay was my selection for AL Cy Young winner. So far, he has put together a season that puts him near the top of the list. His strikeout rate (4.72 K/9) is not very good, but everything else is. He's on pace for 20 wins and ranks third in the AL with his 2.94 ERA. Ever the workhorse, Halladay leads the league in complete games with three and has averaged about 7 and 1/3 innings per start.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Halladay has been a terrific ace for the upstart Blue Jays, and his name will be in the mix at the end of the season if he stays healthy. However, while he is very good in all the categories, he's not the best in any category. He'll need to separate himself with a dominant second half.

6. KENNY ROGERS
99.1 IP, 10-3, 3.17 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 57 K / 22 BB, .255 OBA
Rogers has turned out to be a huge acquisition for the Tigers, providing a terrific veteran presence in a very good young rotation. At first glance, Rogers looks like a nice choice for Cy Young frontrunner with his league-leading 10 wins and his position as the ace of the top team in the American League. However, Rogers has a history of pitching poorly in the second-half. Last year he went 10-4 with a 2.54 ERA before the All Star break, but afterwards was just 4-4 with a 4.72. Before the break in 2004 he posted a 4.21 ERA, afterwards it dropped to 5.46. If Rogers can keep his production at this level and finish the year with 20+ wins and an ERA around 3.10 while the Tigers win the AL Central, he will have a good shot at the Cy Young. All I'm saying is that I'll be very surprised if any of those things happen.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If the vote were to be taken today, Rogers probably wins the Cy Young. However, with the knowledge of his tendency to collapse in the second half of the season, I'm holding my reservations about his ability to continue to pitch like he is now.

7. BARRY ZITO
97.1 IP, 8-3, 3.51 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 77 K / 43 BB, .222 OBA
Zito, who is set to become a free agent after this season, is putting up solid numbers in what might be his last year in Oakland. As usual, he is holding opponents to an extremely low batting average, which helps to make up for his lack of control (he has issued the third-most walks in the AL). It's hard to anticipate what might happen in the second half of the season with Zito, since his name has been popular in trade discussions, but I don't think he's going to put together the type of numbers necessary to be considered a top Cy Young candidate -- he still hasn't been able to recapture that magic of 2002 when he won 23 games and posted a 2.75 ERA.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Zito is having a nice season, but is behind the pack in all categories and unless he can piece together a very strong second half and improve on his control, he probably won't be a top candidate.

8. C.C. SABATHIA
64.1 IP, 5-3, 3.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 62 K / 18 BB, .231 OBA
Sabathia got hurt in his first start of the year and spent a month on the disabled list, but since his return he has been, for the most part, lights out. Sabathia has allowed more than two earned runs in only two of his nine starts since returning from the DL, but in those two starts he was shelled, giving up 5 ER to the Brewers and 7 ER to the Angels. Still, Sabathia's K/BB ratio (3.44) is by far the best of his career so far and he has looked truly dominant at times. With that said, he has only five wins and due to the time spent on the DL it will be difficult for him to pile up enough numbers to get his name in the conversation with the top dogs.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Sabathia has been dominant since his return from the DL, but it would take a pretty monstrous second half for him to be a serious contender considering his missed time.

9. SCOTT KAZMIR
88.2 IP, 8-4, 3.39 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 92 K / 33 BB, .263 OBA
The young Tampa Bay right-hander had a break out year in 2005 and is continuing to pitch strongly this year. Kazmir walked 100 batters last year, and his control remains a problem although it is improving. Kazmir will probably finish with very solid numbers but will not likely be a top contender in the Cy Young race unless he has a monster second half.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Kazmir could easily take home a Cy Young within the next few years, but he's cooled down after a hot start and is probably not quite there yet.

10. JUSTIN VERLANDER
90.2 IP, 8-4, 3.21 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 53 K / 28 BB, .276 OBA
The 23-year-old Verlander is having an excellent rookie year for the Tigers. He has been a huge part of the resurgence of the Detroit rotation. However, while his ERA is good, his peripherals are not very strong. The low strikeout-to-walk ratio and his relatively high FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 4.67 lead me to believe he's been getting fairly lucky and that we'll see his numbers regress to some degree in the second half.
THE BOTTOM LINE: His ERA is very good, but he hasn't been particularly impressive in any other area. I don't think we'll see Verlander's name in the discussion for Cy Young at the end of the year, but he could be a major contender for Rookie of the Year.

8 comments:

Ron said...

I like this list, and I agree with you on the wins thing, but it makes me so angry to read it and realize you are probably right. I have to believe that if Santana pitches at the same level he has up to this point for the rest of the year (although he usually improves in the second half) the voters MUST give him a serious look, regardless of Wins. I think IF he gets 18 and doesn't falter he is almost a lock (especially if he had a 2.10ERA to go along with those wins), but then again, if contreras pitched to a 3.00ERA and had 25 wins he would get it of course.

It seems like every time Santana pitches, the Twins have trouble scoring runs (well, more than usual anyway) but maybe thats an illusion, and I just notice it more when we are blanking the opposing team. Anyway, good analysis.

twins15 said...

Yeah, hopefully the Twins offense can produce for Santana. You know the ERA and K will be there, they just need the offense. Call me crazy, but I think with Mauer, Morneau, and Co. the Twins will get enough runs to get Johan up to about 18+ wins, which will be enough for the Cy Young, IMO.

Anonymous said...

No offense, but how can you possibly leave Jonathan Papelbon off this list? Not too many closers get to the point where another scoreless inning won't lower their ERA......

Nick M. said...

Yeah, Palpelbon will get serious consideration, thats true. I guess I'd say that the voters are more inclined to give him the Rookie of the Year more than anything else. I just am not sure if I see a closer getting the Cy Young this year. When Gagne had his great year, he got the award in part because there wasn't any stand out starters for the most part other than Jason Schmidt, who didn't "win" enough. If that's the case and Papelbon continues to pitch this way, then yes, there is a high chance.

Nick M. said...

Actually, Rob Neyer fielded this question in his chat. (As well as answering my question about the Cy Young and Santana. He seems to agree with Gleeman and others that the award has lost its prestige and even though Santana is the best, he may not win it. Realistically, he's probably right.)

Here is what he said about Papelbon:

sean (seattle): can anyone really be put ahead of Papelbon in the Cy Young race?

SportsNation Rob Neyer: Fair question. Papelbon's been fantastic, and when you watch him pitch you don't get the impression it's a fluke. But a closer has to be almost perfect to have a shot at the Cy Young, and you can go from almost perfect to not-close-to-perfect in one weekend. Let's check back in August.

I think part of the idea here was to look at who has the best chances. Papelbon has been unbelievable, but closers are always one or two outings away from falling out of the race. Its very possible he'll give up a few runs and end up with a ERA around 2 or 2.50 and 40-45 saves. Great numbers, but not Cy Young ones.

Nick N. said...

I guess the list was kind of intended to be a look at the top AL starters, but it's a good point that Papelbon probably deserved a spot. I guess my thing with him is that his ERA is not going to stay below 1 all season. If Papelbon finishes the year with say, 45 saves and a 1.30 ERA, that'd be a phenomenal year, but would it be enough for Papelbon to win the Cy? Those numbers weren't enough for Mariano Rivera to beat out Colon last year.

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