So Clay Buchholz is now 14-5 with a league-leading 2.36 ERA.
Seven more shutout innings on Tuesday for the Artist Formerly Known as The Guy Who Might Get Us Adrian Gonzalez, just another brilliant outing in a second half that has seen Buchholz go 4-1 with a 2.18 ERA.
We have witnessed the very definition of a breakout season. An evolution, even. In four months Buchholz has gone from battling Tim Wakefield for the fifth spot in the rotation to an All-Star and potential Cy Young winner.
Yup, it's true. If (big if, as we all know) the season ended today Buchholz -- who entered 2010 with a 12-14 career record -- would be a legitimate candidate for the Cy Young Award.
Now there are still six weeks or so left in the season -- call it eight or nine starts left for Buchholz and the other guys with a shot -- and things can really change in that span (no better example: A year and four days ago Rob Bradford wrote a column about Josh Beckett's Cy Young chances. And it was far from crazy at the time, Beckett really was on the short list. But a 5.03 ERA in August and a 4.14 ERA in September cooked his chances. Of course, most Sox fans would sign for a 4.14 ERA from Beckett for the rest of the year, but that's an aside for another time).
But I think we are at least at the point where we can at least figure out who has a real shot at the Cy Young Award. And I count (including Buchholz) seven pitchers with a chance. Let's take a look at the other six and see how Buchholz matches up with a month and half to go in the season.
Trevor Cahill (12-5, 2.50 ERA)
Raise your hand if in April you thought Buchholz-Cahill would be one-two in AL ERA on August 18. As under the radar as any pitcher in baseball this year (not just nationally, either -- 10,047 watched Cahill's shutout vs. the Royals in Oakland two weeks ago), Cahill is second in the AL in WHIP (0.98) and leads in hits per nine innings (6.1). Buchholz, though, has the edge in wins (14-12,) ERA and strikeouts per nine innings (6.0-5.2). Here's the eye-opener for me, though.
8-2, 2.23 ERA
5-3, 3.33 ERA
The top numbers are Buchholz on the road this season, the bottom numbers Cahill on the road.
I think if Cahill keeps this up he'll be in the mix, but he's going to need to win games. 15-16 wins on an Oakland team no one is paying attention to is not going to get it done. I'm not saying that's fair, but that's how it goes with Cy Young voting. Wins -- as arbitrary a statistic as it can be - has always been a huge factor for voters (Zito over Pedro, Welch over Clemens, Bartolo Colon and his 21 wins and 3.48 ERA over Johan Santana and his 16 wins but 2.87 ERA in 2005). If Buchholz and Cahill were the two left standing and Buchholz had more wins and the ERA was even close he would win.
Felix Hernandez (8-10, 2.62 ERA)
Why win-loss records mean almost nothing. John Lackey is 10-7, Felix Hernandez is 8-10. Of the AL pitchers who qualify for the ERA title, Hernandez ranks 3rd out of 52, Lackey 38th? WHIP? Hernandez 6th, Lackey 47th.
But as good as Hernandez has been on a truly lousy team, they aren't giving the Cy Young Award to a guy who goes 12-12. Could happen someday, but the other numbers would have to be so far superior to any other pitcher in the league that season. And that isn't the case for Hernandez (to this point) in 2010.
Cliff Lee (10-6, 2.77 ERA)
Would be my pick if the season ended today, I think, and still the best bet to end up the winner. He leads the league in WHIP (0.95), walks per nine (0.5) and SO/BB (14.7). It's hard to put into words how good a 14.7 K/BB ratio is. Pedro Martinez's best was 8.9, same for Greg Maddux. And both of those seasons rank in the top five of all-time. Lee's 14.7 would be the best of all-time by a pretty healthy margin (Bret Saberhagen is the current leader with an 11.0 in 1994). Lee has walked 10 batters this season in 169.0 innings, 40 fewer than Buchholz in 35.2 more innings.
Sure, Buchholz has the edge in ERA and wins, and that matters, but if Lee can keep up this pace and finish with 15-16 wins and an ERA in the 2.50 range I think the sheer magnitude of some of his other numbers (he has seven complete games, four more than the Red Sox staff) would get him the award. Plus I think there's a lot of heat around Lee, after the playoffs last year and the multiple trades. People think he might be the best pitcher in baseball. Again, stuff like that shouldn't matter but it does. But he's only been OK for the Rangers (3.44 ERA) and if that doesn't turn around he's in trouble.
Jon Lester (13-7, 2.80 ERA)
Lester has a better WHIP than Buchholz, he has a much higher K per nine ratio and has allowed fewer walks and fewer hits. The home runs allowed per nine are basically the same. So how does Buchholz have an ERA nearly a run lower?
Uh, luck? I think it's a factor. Opponents putting a ball in play vs. Lester this season are hitting .285 vs. .260 vs. Buchholz. Fly balls? .287 vs. Lester, .195 for Buchholz. I'm not saying that it's all luck but it's hard to believe it isn't part of the answer to why Lester has the edge in nearly every number but ERA. And remember those numbers next year if Buchholz takes a small step back.
I think Lester is the better pitcher of the two and has had the better season, but the Cy Young voters would look at a (slight) win and (big) ERA edge and go with Buchholz. If he keeps the lead in both he won't need luck to finish ahead of his teammate come voting time.
David Price (15-5, 2.85 ERA)
If he gets to 20 wins and keeps his ERA right around 2.80 it's going to take a lot of good pitching from Buchholz over the next six weeks to stay in the race. The kind of guy they love to give the award to -- hard-throwing, pitching for a contending team, on the cusp of stardom, all that stuff. He walks too many guys for me to put him at the top of the list (he walked nine batters last week, one fewer than Lee has all season), his WHIP is 25th in the AL. But you're telling me if he ends up, say, 20-7 with a 2.72 ERA for a playoff Tampa team he won't be in the top two or three?
CC Sabathia (16-5, 3.12)
Not sure if he were pitching for the Royals you would see his name on this list. Sabathia is 21st in WHIP, ninth in ERA and K's. OK, but not enough on its own to get a guy on the short list. But he leads the AL in wins with 16 and is a pretty good bet to get to at least 20. If Sabathia can get to 22 wins and no one else wins more than 18 (not an impossible scenario) it's not going to matter where he ranks in WHIP or ERA -- he'll get some votes.
(This isn't a knock on Sabathia -- who has been worth every penny for the Yankees over the first year and three-quarters of his deal, no small feat at $23 mil a year, but a comment on how wins are way overvalued historically with Cy Young voters. Though to be fair it's been a little better over the last few years. Put it this way: If this was 1990 instead of 2010 and Sabathia had a 22-7 record with a 3.20 ERA for a 100-win team and no one else had more than 18 wins it would be a done deal for CC.)
So there you go. It's August 18 and we don't have a runaway winner. This isn't Pedro in 1999 or Clemens in 1986, when it was over by the time the kids we Every pitcher we've looked at -- including Buchholz -- has a real chance to win the Cy Young.
My ballot, if I had to fill one out today? I'll give you the top five:
2. Lester (again, beats Buchholz in nearly every category)
No shame in third place. After all, it's a long way from trade bait and battling Knucksie for the fifth spot.
(Jered Weaver, Carl Pavano, Mariano Rivera (don't count out a "no one really jumps out and they toss Rivera a lifetime achievement award Cy Young" scenario and Francisco Liriano just missed the cut as candidates.)