First-third awards: 2011 NL Cy Young

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Following up yesterday’s look at the AL Cy Young race one-third of the way through the season, here’s the rundown on the NL.

First, the top 10 starters by ERA:

1. Jair Jurrjens (Braves): 7-1, 1.51 ERA, 38/11 K/BB in 65.2 IP
2. Josh Johnson (Marlins): 3-1, 1.64 ERA, 56/20 K/BB in 60.1 IP
3. Kyle Lohse (Cardinals): 7-2, 2.13 ERA, 47/15 K/BB in 80.1 IP
4. Tim Lincecum (Giants): 5-4, 2.22 ERA, 79/24 K/BB in 77 IP
5. Charlie Morton (Pirates): 5-2, 2.51 ERA, 37/29 K/BB in 68 IP
6. Roy Halladay (Phillies): 7-3, 2.56 ERA, 91/13 K/BB in 91.1 IP
7. Anibal Sanchez (Marlins): 5-1, 2.57 ERA, 74/23 K/BB in 73.2 IP
8. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers): 6-3, 2.62 ERA, 87/24 K/BB in 79 IP
9. Tommy Hanson (Braves): 5-4, 2.80 ERA, 65/21 K/BB in 64.1 IP
10. Shaun Marcum (Brewers): 6-2, 2.80 ERA, 67/17 K/BB in 70.2 IP

That’s everyone in the NL with a sub-3.00 ERA to date. Cole Hamels is 11th at 3.01.

Moving on to the Baseball Reference version of WAR:

1. Roy Halladay (Phillies): 3.6
2. Kyle Lohse (Cardinals): 2.9
3. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers): 2.8
4. Jair Jurrjens (Braves): 2.6
5. Cole Hamels (Phillies): 2.4
6. Josh Johnson (Marlins): 2.3
7. Tim Lincecum (Giants): 2.2
8. Ian Kennedy (Diamondbacks): 2.1
9. Anibal Sanchez (Marlins): 2.1
10. Jonny Venters (Braves): 2.1

Yes, that’s a reliever sneaking in at the end there. Venters has been incredible, giving up just two runs while working 33 2/3 innings, almost all of them in close games. He’s picked up three wins, and he’s only blown one lead all year, that coming when he entered a game with a two men on and none out.

Moving on to Fangraphs’ WAR. Since it’s based on strikeouts, walks and homers allowed, and not those pesky hits, it produces substantially different results:

1. Roy Halladay (Phillies): 3.3
2. Cole Hamels (Phillies): 2.4
3. Matt Garza (Cubs): 2.3
4. Daniel Hudson (Diamondbacks): 2.2
5. Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers): 2.1
6. Cliff Lee (Phillies): 2.1
7. Tim Lincecum (Giants): 2.1
8. Kyle Lohse (Cardinals): 1.9
9. Jaime Garcia (Cardinals): 1.8
10. Josh Johnson (Marlins): 1.8

FIP thinks Venters has been terribly lucky when it comes to allowing hits, so he’s at just 0.9 WAR here, ranking him slightly behind strikeout-happy teammate Craig Kimbrel.

Hamels posted strong showing in both WARs. His ERA is higher, but he has an exceptional 78/15 K/BB ratio and he’s yet to allow an unearned run.

I also like to check out quality of opponent here. Let’s run through the average OPS for hitters faced for the top contenders:

Johnson: .744
Jurrjens: .742
Sanchez: .741
Halladay: .729
Lohse: .728
Lincecum: .726
Kershaw: .724

That doesn’t really settle things, though it does make Jurrjens look like a stronger candidate.

Regardless, I do agree with WAR here: Halladay is the choice to date. He’s not quite there in ERA, but he’s pitched 11 more innings than anyone else. The Phillies are 9-3 in his starts, and they’ve scored a total of three runs in the losses. Four times already this year, they’ve scored three runs or fewer and come away with a victory with Halladay on the mound.

After that, it a tougher call. Johnson is probably the NL’s second-best pitcher, but he’s thrown just 60 innings. Jurrjens, the ERA leader, is at 66. Lohse and Kershaw are both around 80 innings. Neither has allowed an unearned run all year (Lincecum has given up five, Jurrjens one, Johnson two).

It’s close enough that I want one more stat.  I’m going to look at the team’s record in games pitched by each, and the team’s record in those games while scoring three or fewer runs.

Hamels: 9-2, 4-2
Johnson: 6-3, 2-3
Jurrjens: 7-2, 2-2
Kershaw: 7-5, 1-4
Lincecum: 7-4, 3-3
Lohse: 7-4, 1-2
Sanchez: 7-4, 3-2

That looks pretty good for Hamels. The Phillies have won 82 percent of his starts despite scoring more than five runs in just two of those games. On the other hand, the Cardinals have lost a couple of Lohse’s starts in which they scored five runs. One of those was Lohse’s fault, the other the bullpen’s when Lohse came out after six.

Anyway, there’s not a whole lot of margin here. I’m favoring Jurrjens second and Hamels third, but we’re still early enough that any of these guys could be second next week.

NL Cy Young
1. Halladay
2. Jurrjens
3. Hamels

Game 6: This is why the Astros traded for Justin Verlander

Associated Press
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Houston’s pitching has not been their biggest problem as they’ve watched their 2-0 series lead turn in to a 3-2 series deficit. It has not been good, mind you — Charlie Morton got rocked in Game 3, the bullpen collapsed on Game 4 and Dallas Keuchel was suddenly mortal in Game 5 — but even then it’s not been the biggest concern. The real problem has been the lack of offense.

The Astros led the majors in runs (896), batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.346) and slugging (.478) during the regular season and were second to the Yankees in homers. Despite that, they have scored just nine runs and have hit only one homer. The team’s ALCS batting line, those two wins included, is .147/.234/.213. As such, facing off against Luis Severino and a rested Yankees bullpen tonight can’t give them a ton of confidence.

They do have one thing going for them, however: Justin Verlander. The same Justin Verlander who received only two runs of support in Game 2 of the series but made it hold up thanks to his 124-pitch, 13-strikeout complete game victory. You can’t really expect a starter to do that sort of thing two times in a row, but that’s what the Astros acquired him for at the end of August. In a league where there are vanishingly few horses a team can ride to victory, Verlander stands as one of the few remaining old school aces. Expect A.J. Hinch to keep the bit in Verlander’s mouth for as long as this game is close and, even then, maybe an inning longer.

Is there any reason for optimism regarding the Astros’ lineup? Sure, of course. They didn’t suddenly all forget how to hit. Every team goes through a stretch of 3-5 games where the hits don’t seem to fall. There may, possibly, be some reason for hope in the man they’re facing too. Severino lasted only four innings in Game 2, having been removed early after taking a ground ball off his left wrist. Severino said he was fine and wished that Joe Girardi hadn’t taken him out, but (a) he was acting a little odd, shaking his arm out like he was trying to shake off some pain; and (b) starting pitchers almost always lie and say they’re better than they are. I’m certain Severino is healthy enough to go, but there’s at least a small chance that he’s vulnerable, somehow. At the very least Astros hitters can walk to the plate convincing themselves of it. Any edge you can either get or imagine, right?

Game 6 seems like it will have to be a matter of a small edge one way or another for both teams, really. The Yankees are rolling, but their assignment tonight is a tough one as they try to chase a guy who fancies himself — and has often shown himself — to be a rare throwback to those 1960s and 1970s aces who only seem to get better as the ballgame goes on. The Astros, meanwhile, are tasked with solving a young, fireballing stuff monster who has something to prove after his early exit in Game 2 and, even if he can’t prove it, a corps of relief aces who are among the most formidable in baseball. Add to that the notion that Major League Baseball, Fox and most commentators and casual fans outside of Houston want to see the 12th Yankees-Dodgers World Series matchup and the Astros have to be thinking everything’s against them.

Which is OK, though, right? Ballplayers love it when no one believes in them. That’s not better than six or seven runs of support, but the Astros will take anything they can get at the moment.