NL Cy Young Race Too Close to Call

In reviewing MVP and Cy Young races this week, I saved the NL Cy Young for last, and I’m glad I did. Since I started this series, the three legitimate contenders, Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, and Cliff Lee, each pitched a game, each getting a chance to augment his candidacy with another dominant outing.

What did we learn from this last outing? Basically, that the race is still too close to call. While Halladay and Lee each pitched nine dominant innings, Kershaw pitched just five, but they were no-run, no-walk innings against the division-leading Diamondbacks. Let’s take a look at some very basic year-to-date numbers:

Kershaw: 218 2/3 IP, 2.30 ERA
Halladay: 219 2/3 IP, 2.34 ERA
Lee: 219 2/3 IP, 2.38 ERA

Are you kidding me? Have three candidates ever looked that identical before?

Roy Halladay has probably been the frontrunner for this award since spring, if not since last fall, when he won his first NL Cy Young in his first season in the league. Halladay’s numbers are off-the-charts dominant. He strikes out 8.64 batters per nine innings pitched and walks just 1.23, a ratio better than seven to one. He’s given up just nine homers all season, despite pitching in a homer-friendly park. All this adds up to a Fielding Independent Pitching of 2.09, which leads the major leagues by a wide margin. Halladay’s FIP is offset by a .304 opponents’ Batting Average on Balls in Play. While BABip relies more on defense and luck than on a pitcher’s talent, those hitters have reached base and those runs have actually scored, so one could make the argument that, while he’s relied less on his fielders, Halladay’s value to the Phillies is better expressed by his 2.34 ERA than by his 2.09 FIP.

Halladay’s teammate Cliff Lee (my preseason Cy Young pick, in case you’re interested) has dominated hitters equally but differently. He’s struck out even more batters than Halladay (9.14 per nine), but he’s walked more (a still-impressive 1.72 per nine) and given up seven more home runs. Hitters are batting .286 when putting the ball in play against Lee, which means that the aggregate difference between their seasons is that Lee gives up a few more fly balls (about 4% more) and a few more of them clear the fence, but the extra ground balls Halladay gives up turn into hits at a greater rate. Nothing to see here, folks.

The other difference between Halladay’s dominance and Lee’s is that Halladay has been more consistent, while Lee has been more streaky. As I mentioned in my MVP piece yesterday, Lee gave up a total of just three runs in ten starts in June and August. When he’s on, he’s the best pitcher in the world. When he’s off (his ERA in April, while mostly BABiP-fueled, was 4.18), he’s just a very good pitcher on a team with several very good pitchers.

The way things are going in the National League, Clayton Kershaw may be auditioning for a spot in the Phillies’ 2013 rotation. He’s been the equal of Halladay and Lee, though again, he’s achieved his success in a slightly different way. Kershaw leads the league with 236 strikeouts, or 9.71 per nine innings. He walks just over two batters a game, and has given up 13 homers, resulting in a 2.37 FIP, which falls right between Halladay’s and Lee’s. Much of his success has come from a low BABiP (.272), but with 236 strikeouts, it’s hard to attribute anything Kershaw’s done to luck.

More to the point, Kershaw works in a pitcher-friendly park in LA. Adjusting for park effects, Kershaw’s ERA+ is 160, fourth in the National League behind Johnny Cueto (169 in just 156 innings), Halladay (166) and Lee (163). Is this enough to dismiss Kershaw’s candidacy? Certainly not. It is, however, one very small strike against him. We could also consider that Kershaw has started one more game than Halladay and Lee, which means he’s pitching “just” 7.05 innings per start, while Halladay and Lee have each pitched 7.32.

I’m picking miniscule nits in trying to separate anyone from the pack. If the season ended today, I think I would be inclined to name Halladay the Cy Young winner, based on the fact that he’s involved his defense slightly less in achieiving the same results Lee and Kershaw have achieved. But I’m not willing to put that in ink just yet.

These guys will all get two to three more starts to sort things out though, so I’ll let the results of those games inform my final ballot. While the Red Sox would probably trade Adrian Gonzalez right now for a starter who can guarantee six innings pitched and three runs surrendered, such a start down the stretch might eliminate one of these pitchers from Cy Young contention. And that says everything about this race.

My provisional ballot:
1-3. incomplete
4. Cole Hamels
5. Ian Kennedy

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