Halladay still favorite in NL Cy Young race

The other night I wrote about the heated battled for the AL Cy Young Award among Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and CC Sabathia (with Josh Beckett peeking through the window). The AL hasn't had a close vote since 2002 (Barry Zito over Pedro Martinez) and hasn't had a close vote among more than two pitchers since 1977.

The NL, however, has seen several reasonably close votes in recent years:

2009: Tim Lincecum 100 points, Chris Carpenter 94, Adam Wainwright 90.

2006: Brandon Webb 103, Trevor Hoffman 77 (15 to 12 in first-place votes).

2005: Chris Carpenter 132 points, Dontrelle Willis 112.

This could be another year like 2009, when the first-place votes were split among three guys. Right now, I see four leading candidates. Let's take a look.

Roy Halladay

12-4, 2.55 ERA (2.67 runs per nine), 155.1 IP, 144 H, 19 BB, 147 SO, 9 HR, .245/.270/.325

HalladayHalladayHalladay has allowed more than three runs in a game just three times in 21 starts -- a six-run start against the Brewers in April and two four-run games. For sake of comparison, he had nine such games in his unanimous Cy Young season last year. While he had nine starts where he allowed no runs in 2010, he has just two this year. In other words, he's been more consistent in 2011, although the overall numbers are a near replica of 2010.

Cole Hamels

12-6, 2.61 ERA (2.61 runs per nine), 152 IP, 116 H, 30 BB, 140 SO, 8 HR, .210/.254/.315

HamelsHamelsHamels has taken his game to a higher level thanks to improved command and a better groundball rate. He's cut his walks by nearly one per nine innings from 2010 and his groundball rate of 52 percent is better than his career rate of 44 percent. He's done this while maintaining an excellent strikeout rate and it's helped him reduce his home runs. He's allowed just eight after allowing at least 24 each of the past four seasons. His opponents' batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are all lower than Halladay's.

Clayton Kershaw

12-4, 2.72 (3.01 runs per nine), 152.1 IP, 118 H, 40 BB, 173 SO, 10 HR, .213/.268/.298

KershawKershawKershaw's ERA is similar to the past two seasons, but don't let that fool you: He's better than ever. His control has vastly improved, his strikeout rate has increased and he's pitching deeper into games. After averaging about 6.4 innings per game last year, he's at 6.9 this year. He leads the majors in strikeouts and only Beckett and Weaver have allowed a lower slugging percentage. He's not pitching for a playoff contender, but he's been dominant.

Jair Jurrjens

12-3, 2.38 (2.52 runs per nine), 128.2 IP, 111 H, 33 BB, 84 SO, 9 HR, .239/.289/.346

JurrjensJurrjensJurrjens leads the NL in ERA, although he's clearly gone about his business without dominating in the same fashion as the other three guys. While they all average at least eight K's per nine, Jurrjens sits at a less impressive 5.9. Everyone keeps waiting for the dam to break, and he did have two shaky starts recently, a six-run game against the Nationals on July 17 and a three-homer game against the Reds on July 27. But he's allowed two runs or less in 14 of his 19 starts (he was sidelined for a short spell, so he also has fewer starts and innings than the others). I would rank Jurrjens a clear fourth in this race, especially since he's unlikely to maintain his .157 average allowed with runners in scoring position.

Right now, it's really too close to call. Hamels has pitched well in three games against the Braves, the Phillies' biggest rival -- 2-1, 2.57 -- while Halladay is 0-1, 3.00 in two starts. Halladay has six complete games versus one for Hamels. Kershaw is 5-0 in five starts against the Giants and Diamondbacks, allowing just four earned runs. And he hasn't even faced the Padres yet -- Hamels and Halladay both beat them twice.

If I had to vote? I guess I give a very, very slight edge to Halladay, as the few extra nights off for the bullpen can be valuable.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.