Thursday, August 13, 2009

Beckett still trailing in Cy Young race

A year ago, both Francisco Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera received votes for the American League Cy Young Award. That, though, was largely a function of a serious dearth of serious candidates behind Cleveland's Cliff Lee and Toronto's Roy Halladay. (Daisuke Matsuzaka received more votes than any starting pitcher other than Lee and Halladay. That should tell you something.)

Voters won't have that type of problem this season. The American League Cy Young Award race is shaping up to be a doozy down the stretch. Five pitchers feature an ERA+ of 150 to this point, and several other pitchers on contending teams could pitch their way into the discussion down the stretch thanks to inflated win numbers and impressive strikeout-to-walk ratios.

Here's how the ERA+ numbers break down thus far:
1. Zack Greinke, Kansas City: 180
2. Edwin Jackson, Detroit: 163
3. Roy Halladay, Toronto: 160
4. Felix Hernandez, Seattle: 159
5. Josh Beckett, Boston: 152

Cliff Lee ranks sixth on the list with an ERA+ of 145, but he ain't winning the American League Cy Young Award this year.

That, though, is a pretty good list of candidates. Let's start there. Here's how the strikeout-to-walk numbers break down for the above five pitchers thus far:
1. Halladay: 6.57
2. Greinke: 5.06
3. Beckett: 3.45
4. Hernandez: 2.98
5. Jackson: 2.45

Finally, because it matters to Cy Young voters, the win totals:
1. Beckett: 14
t-2. Halladay: 12
t-2. Hernandez: 12
4. Greinke: 11
5. Jackson: 8

Jackson deserves to remain in the conversation at this point based on his sensational first half for the first-place Tigers, but his ERA is going in the wrong direction and his win total currently ranks him in a tie for 25th in the American League, tied with Vicente Padilla and Nick Blackburn.
Unless Jackson goes on a scalding-hot run over the last six weeks of the season, this is a four-horse race between Beckett, Greinke, Halladay and Hernandez. Greinke and Halladay ought to have an edge at this point -- the ERA+ standings suggest it's still Greinke and everyone else -- but whoever has the best September likely is going to walk away with some hardware.

For Halladay, it would be his second Cy Young. For everyone else, it would be first-time occasion.

Who's it going to be? Who's going to have the best September?

As you might imagine given his tremendous playoff resume, Beckett is a spectacular September pitcher. His career ERA in the final month of the season is 2.77 to go along with a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.08.

Two years ago, Beckett went 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA and a 30-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio from Sept. 4-21. But he stumbled in his last start, surrendering five earned runs in six innings at Minnesota, and that might have been enough to lose him the Cy Young Award.

The Royals' 25-year-old wunderkind doesn't have spectacular career numbers across the board -- this is his first Cy Young-worthy season, after all -- but he's always been an outstanding September pitcher. He has a 2.80 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 3.5 in his career in the season's final month.

A year ago, perhaps foreshadowing the dominance he would display this season, Greinke finished his season by throwing 14 straight shutout innings in back-to-back wins over the Mariners and Tigers.

Surprise, surprise: The Man Who Would Not Be Traded has a 2.51 ERA in September and a strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.85) better than any other month. He made a hard charge for the Cy Young Award last season, even as Lee seemed to have it wrapped up, recording a 2.06 ERA in August and a 3.34 ERA in September.

He sealed the first Cy Young Award of his career in 2003 with an unbelievable September: 5-1 with a 1.41 ERA and a pair of complete-game shutouts.

It's hard to believe the Mariners' ace still is just 23 years old -- but, then again, that's why Theo Epstein wanted so badly to trade for him back in July. It's tough to look at the history with a pitcher so young, but in the last two years, he's had polar opposite Septembers. The Mariners lost each of his final five starts a year ago, including a season-ending outing in which he surrendered 13 hits in six innings.

In 2007, though, he went 4-0 with a 3.35 ERA, throwing 8 2/3 impressive innings against Texas on the final day of the regular season.

The verdict?

At this point, it's still Greinke and Halladay and everyone else. Neither has shown a tendency to let up in the season's final month, and both lead Beckett -- who has an edge over Hernandez for third place at this point -- in every meaningful category except wins. (As an aside: If you judge a pitcher primarily by his win total, we can't be friends.)

Then again, of course, there's a lefthanded pitcher with more strikeouts than Halladay and fewer walks than Hernandez and a better chance to get to 15 wins than Greinke. With more than a month still to play, you can't count out Jon Lester, either.

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