Pitching in the National League this season has seen its fair share of surprises; both the good and the bad. Former stalwarts have seen injury (Roy Halladay) and inexplicable decline (Tim Lincecum), but into those voids have stepped other hurlers looking to establish their own legacies. The result has been some inspired pitching, contributing to what looks to a tight race for the National League Cy Young Award. With half the season left to play there are still 10-12 pitchers who have positioned themselves as potential contenders for the hardware. They have the next three months to prove if their hot starts are the real deal and not just flukes. So far I see the race breaking down as follows:
1st- R.A. Dickey- New York Mets: In something that could not have been predicted at the beginning of the season, Dickey is looking strong as the current frontrunner for the NL Cy Young. His first half has been reminiscent of when Tim Wakefield first broke in with the Red Sox in 1995, and went 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA in his first 17 games. Dickey has been just as dominant in 2012, going 12-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 16 starts. He also leads the NL with 3 complete games and a 0.885 WHIP, while showing unheard of control and consistency for a knuckleballer. He is simply putting up video game numbers, even going through a month stretch where he didn’t allow an earned run. With the exception of a game against Atlanta in April, where he allowed 8 earned runs, his ERA on the season is a microscopic 1.57. The Mets are 14-2 in his starts, but just 28-34 in all other games, making him a viable MVP candidate as well.
2nd- Matt Cain- San Francisco Giants: Even with Cain’s excellent numbers and his perfect game where he struck out 14 he is still second on this list; although not too far behind. In 16 games the sturdy right-hander has posted a 9-3 record with a 2.53 ERA and 0.950 WHIP. He has struck out 114 in a league leading 113.2 innings, all while allowing just 85 hits. He has replaced Lincecum as the ace of the Giants and will be primarily responsible if the team makes this year’s playoffs. With a more traditional arsenal of pitches, he may be better equipped to sustain his production over the course of the season than Dickey, but still has other stuff competition in trying to capture his first Cy Young.
3rd- Stephen Strasburg- Washington Nationals: If Strasburg really is shut down after he hits the 160 inning mark his Cy Young candidacy will come to a screeching halt. However, with nothing yet being set in stone, and given what he has produced as of today, he is still very much in the conversation. The powerful righty is 9-2 in 15 starts, with a 2.60 ERA and a league leading 118 strikeouts in 90 innings. His filthy stuff is made even more intimidating by his excellent control, and he is more than capable of making a run that could leave his final numbers look even more ridiculous by the end of the year.
4th- James McDonald- Pittsburgh Pirates: Many believed that the Pirates would be an improved team this season, but their sustained success this late in the year has been a pleasant surprise. A major reason for their improvement has been the development of McDonald into a bonefide top-of-the-rotation starter. Now in his fifth major league season he finally appears to have tapped into his vast potential. In 15 starts he is 7-3, with a 2.44 ERA and a 0.979 WHIP. His won/loss record would be better if not for the anemic Pirates offense (the team has been shut out in all three of his losses). If the Pirates continue to linger near the top of the NL Central, it will only raise McDonald’s profile and make him an even more viable candidate if he keep pitching at a high level.
5th- Clayton Kershaw- Los Angeles Dodgers: If you only went by his 5-4 record, you might wonder why Kershaw is ranked so highly on this list, but looking at his other numbers will eradicate any doubt. He leads the NL with 102.1 innings, has a 2.74 ERA, 103 strikeouts, and a 1.043 WHIP. He gets the nod over Wade Miley for the fifth spot because he has thrown 18 more innings. Kershaw’s excellent season has been overshadowed somewhat by the team effort of the Dodgers, which has been one of the feel-good stories of the year. As one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball, Kershaw will be in the Cy Young conversation all year and is a near lock to get his numbers. He may not end up with 21 wins like 2011, but that stat doesn’t tell the entire story of a pitcher, so don’t sleep on his candidacy.
Still in the picture (in no particular order): Gio Gonzalez, Lance Lynn, Cole Hamels, Ryan Dempster, Wade Miley, Zach Greinke, Chris Capuano, Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Craig Kimbrel.
The pitchers in my top five and those who didn’t quite make the list are proof positive that the National League has had a lot of great pitching so far in 2012. This season has already been described as the year of the pitcher, and the number of Cy Young contenders does nothing to refute that assertion. Whoever ultimately takes home the award is certain to have had an amazing season. With every pitcher on my list playing for a team in serious playoff contention, the stretch run will include some great pitching match-ups with a lot at stake- all to the benefit of us baseball fans.
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