Last year in the National League, there were a trio of dominant pitchers: Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee. The trio finished 1-2-3, with Ian Kennedy finishing fourth based almost solely on his 21 wins. The top three were the best in the league, and no one really came close. The gap in fWAR between Lee and Madison Bumgarner was 1.2, which is equal to the gap this year between RA Dickey and Cole Hamels.
Now, what's the significance of me bringing up Dickey and Hamels? Well, Dickey leads the National League this season with 4.1 fWAR (tied with Gio Gonzalez), and Hamels is at 2.9 fWAR, which is 11th in the league. The gap between first and 11th this season is equal to the gap between third and fourth last year. It's pretty amazing that a huge chunk of players are in such a small gap.
The top six pitchers in the National League in fWAR are separated by less than half a win, and the race really is totally wide open. The current league leader in FIP is Zack Greinke, who's now an Angel. Number two is Gonzalez, and number three is his teammate Stephen Strasburg, just one hundredth of a point behind. The gap between Strasburg and RA Dickey, the league leader in fWAR and wins, is wider though. Strasburg's FIP is 2.69, compared to the 2.87 mark of Dickey.
Dickey is having a fantastic year, and I'd put money on him being the winner right now. However, because he plays on a bad team, there will likely be some backlash towards him. Remember Felix Hernandez in 2010? Yeah. But Dickey smashes the Hernandez issues with a 15-3 record, the best in the NL. Dickey's top contenders are a pair of Nationals, Gonzalez and Strasburg, and Johnny Cueto of the NL Central leading Reds. Cueto leads the league in ERA, but his 7.26 strikeout rate is much lower in comparison to his top competitors. However, if the "best pitcher on the best team" credo falls into place again, Cueto could win. Also, the lack of an another dominant arm in the Reds rotation helps Cueto's chances as well. Remember last year, when the presence of both Halladay and Lee ended up costing both pitchers the award.
It's an interesting situation in DC, because of the impending Strasburg shutdown. Despite throwing just 127 1/3 innings, the lowest of any current NL pitcher in the top 20 in fWAR, Strasburg has been dominant. He's striking out more than 11 batters per nine, and walking a little over two. His 4.71 strikeout to walk ratio is third best in the NL, behind the departed Joe Blanton and the win-averse Lee. Dickey is fifth, while Gonzalez and Cueto are further down the list.
Speaking of Gonzalez, he could sneak into award contention in his first year in the National League. His strikeout rate is second in the league behind Strasburg, but he's also walking more hitters than his teammate. Gonzalez also has a higher ERA and xFIP than Strasburg, while his FIP is a hair lower. Gonzalez has thrown more innings than Strasburg, but both pitchers pale in comparison to players like Dickey and Cueto, who eat innings like it's no one's business.
There's also the issue of relievers. I personally only think a reliever should win the award if they are soul-crushingly dominant, like Eric Gagne was a decade ago, and there isn't much of a better starting pitching option to go with. The two relievers in question this year are Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. Both pitchers have absurdly high strikeout rates, and are keeping their walks down pretty low as well. However, here's the thing…both are essentially one inning pitchers. Kimbrel has thrown 43 innings in 43 games, and Chapman has thrown 53 2/3 innings in 50 games. When Gagne won the award in 2003, he threw 82 1/3 innings in 77 games. When Dennis Eckersley won in 1992, he threw 80 innings in 69 games. When Steve Bedrosian won in 1987, he threw 89 innings in 65 games. If Kimbrel or Chapman can get to the 70 inning mark while maintaining this level of performance, I'd feel a lot more comfortable seriously talking about one of them as a Cy Young contender. Due to Chapman's history as a starter, I'd think he has a better chance at keeping up this performance for another 20 innings than Kimbrel does over 30 innings. Remember last season, when Kimbrel had 65 2/3 innings and a 1.64 ERA going into September. He finished with 77 innings and a 2.10 ERA after allowing six runs, two homers, and seven walks in the final month, after allowing three runs, no homers, and 12 walks over the prior three months and 38 2/3 innings.
So, in summary…I think Dickey is the front-runner for the award right now, but it's still a totally wide open race. If the Nationals throw Strasburg's innings limit out the window, and he continues to dominate the league, I think he'll take the award. If Dickey slags off a little bit and the Reds finish with the best record in the league, I think Cueto will get the trophy. If Gonzalez kicks his game to a higher gear if Strasburg is shut down, I can see him winning. And if none of the starters in the league take a substantial step forward, and each continue to dominate, I think Chapman or Kimbrel has the possibility of winning the award. It's going to be a very interesting time over the season's final month and a half, that's for sure.
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