When AL Cy Young candidates collide

Joe Schultz, the manager of the 1969 Seattle Pilots made infamous in Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” wasn’t exactly Tony La Russa when it came to breaking down the game. “Well, boys,” he once said, “it’s a round ball and a round bat and you got to hit the ball square.”

I wonder what advice Joe would give his hitters when facing CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver or Justin Verlander. My guess is not much more than, “Well, boys, let’s go pound some Budweiser.” That or a combination of two four-letter words I can’t publish here.

Those three guys all pitched Tuesday, a perfect alignment of the three leading Cy Young contenders in the American League, three pitchers who have been mowing down hitters like a Stanley 62-Inch Zero Turn ($9,370 on Amazon!). Yes, we’ve got two months to go, but it’s shaping up as one of the most heated Cy Young debates in years.

In fact, the AL hasn’t had a close Cy Young race in a decade, since the 2002 vote in which Barry Zito got 17 first-place votes to Pedro Martinez’s 11 and outpointed Martinez 114 to 96. The last time there was a three-man race in the AL was 1977, when Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle edged out starters Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan and Dennis Leonard, with all four pitchers getting at least five first-place votes. For all the debate over Felix Hernandez last season, he ended up winning in a landslide, collecting 21 of 28 first-place votes.

Verlander has received the most hype and front-runner attention, but let’s review what each guy did Tuesday and where they stand (not to completely dismiss Josh Beckett, who has been terrific, but he has at least 35 fewer innings pitched than the others, making him a clear fourth at this point in my mind).

CC Sabathia

Sabathia battled a midgame rain delay to take a perfect game against the lowly Mariners into the seventh inning. He struck out Ichiro Suzuki on a 1-2 hanging slider for the first out but fell behind Brendan Ryan 2-0 and threw a fastball that Ryan lined into left-center for a single. Sabathia sat through another rain delay before finishing with a season-high 14 strikeouts, one hit and one run in seven-plus innings. He is 9-1 over his past 10 starts and has allowed two runs or fewer in seven consecutive starts.

Season stats: 15-5, 2.56 ERA (2.94 runs per nine), 168.2 IP, 143 H, 45 BB, 156 SO, 6 HR, .228/.280/.300.

Starts of 0, 1 or 2 runs: 12.

Starts of 7-plus innings: 17.

Jered Weaver

In a tight duel against Josh Tomlin in Cleveland, the game was 0-all in the seventh. The Angels took a 2-0 lead before Weaver surrendered a solo home run to Matt LaPorta in the bottom of the inning. Weaver left after seven innings and 113 pitches, and Jordan Walden escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the ninth for the save. Weaver tossed his 13th consecutive quality start (at least six innings pitched with three runs or fewer) and improved to 8-0 over his past 10 starts.

Season stats: 14-4, 1.79 ERA (1.84 runs per nine), 161 IP, 116 H, 37 BB, 134 SO, 6 HR, .201/.248/.285.

Starts of 0, 1 or 2 runs: 16.

Starts of 7-plus innings: 15.

Justin Verlander

Verlander dug himself an early hole when Adam Dunn blasted a 3-2 fastball 451 feet to right-center for a 2-0 first-inning lead. Later, with Detroit up 4-2, Paul Konerko smoked a hanging breaking ball over the left-field fence for another two-run homer. But the Tigers regained the lead, and in the bottom of the eighth, Verlander fanned Konerko on a 100 mph fastball and then froze Dunn with a nasty 82 mph curve. On a night when he didn’t dominate and made a couple of bad pitches, Verlander still managed to gut out eight innings and 125 pitches and saved that big heater for when he needed it.

Season stats: 14-5, 2.34 ERA (2.55 runs per nine), 173 IP, 120 H, 34 BB, 169 SO, 14 HR, .193/.237/.304.

Starts of 0, 1 or 2 runs: 13.

Starts of 7-plus innings: 16.

* * * *

We’re not done yet. A couple of questions to consider.

1. What about quality of opponents?

Weaver gets to pitch in the AL West, against the weak-hitting Mariners and A’s, while Sabathia pitches in the AL East (although he doesn’t have to face the Yankees, of course). Baseball Prospectus tracks opponents’ OPS. Entering Tuesday’s game, Sabathia’s opponents' OPS was .753, Verlander’s .737 and Weaver’s .728. Sabathia’s will go down a bit after facing Seattle, but Weaver has played a slightly softer schedule. He’s made six starts against Oakland and Seattle and gone 4-1 against them, with eight runs in 45.2 innings (28 percent of his innings have come against the A’s and Mariners).

2. Isn’t Verlander more dominant?

With his triple-digit heat and no-hitter, the public perception is Verlander has been more “dominant” in the Nolan Ryan sense of just blowing hitters away. His strikeout rate, however, isn’t that much higher: 8.7 per nine compared to Weaver’s 7.5 and Sabathia’s 8.3. Verlander has had three 10-strikeout games, Weaver two and Sabathia three. Slight edge here to Verlander, but I consider it a minor one.

3. What about home runs?

Verlander has allowed 14 home runs -- more than Weaver and Sabathia combined. There’s no denying the velocity of his fastball, but it also can be a little too straight at times, like the one he grooved to Dunn. Weaver has been the guy most fortunate on home runs; after allowing 20-plus homers each of the past three seasons, he’s allowed only six in 2011, remarkable for an extreme fly ball pitcher. He does benefit from his home park -- he’s allowed one home run in Anaheim all season -- but his 1.94 road ERA nearly matches his 1.71 home ERA.

So how do I see it? Right now, by the slightest of margins, I give it to Weaver. He’s allowing fewer than two runs per nine innings. Only one AL starting pitcher has done that in the expansion era: Pedro Martinez in 2000. When you can be mentioned in the same breath as Pedro At His Peak, you get my vote.

By the way: Weaver versus Verlander on Sunday at Comerica. Let the debating begin.