This year the National League as a whole has averaged 4.18 runs per game, its lowest mark since 1992. The league ERA is under 4.00 for the first time in that same period. NL pitchers have compiled a 2.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the senior circuit's best of the modern era. One would expect, then, a great tangle of worthy Cy Young candidates and some tough decisions facing the BBWAA down the stretch. With only a month of regular-season baseball remaining, though, it might already be a two-man race.
No disrespect intended, of course, to the array of stellar pitchers on what could probably be considered 2011's second tier. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ian Kennedy, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee, to name just a few, have all handled impressive workloads with commendable results. Johnny Cueto, had he not missed all of April due to injury, would have found his way into the discussion. But it's Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay who have built a bit of separation from the rest, in both traditional and advanced metrics.
Besides Cueto, who lags well behind both in innings pitched, Kershaw and Halladay have the two lowest ERAs in the National League, at 2.45 and 2.47 respectively. Kershaw has been striking out hitters at a greater rate (27 percent) than any qualified pitcher in the league besides Zack Greinke. That well outpaces Halladay, who has whiffed 24.4 percent of his batters faced following Tuesday night's nine-strikeout performance in Cincinnati. Doc, for his part, has been stingier with his free passes. For the second straight year, he has the lowest walk rate of qualified NL pitchers, at 3.2 percent. Kershaw has posted twice that rate (6.4 percent), and also trails Halladay (and two other Phillies starters) in strikeout-to-walk ratio. For Cy Young voters with an eye toward history, Halladay's 7.64 figure in that category merits consideration; just 11 other qualified pitchers since 1950 have managed a ratio of seven or higher. Only Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez have done it twice, as Halladay is set to do.
Viewing the race from a more traditionally tinted lens, it's still difficult to divine a leader. Kershaw, as noted, only holds a two-point advantage in ERA. Most voters will still look at win totals, but there isn't an obvious edge there -- Kershaw has logged 17 in 28 starts, Halladay 16 in 27. Halladay has two more complete games than Kershaw, but Kershaw has two more shutouts. The raw counting stats that traditional voters tend to gravitate toward reflect the same offset that we observed in the per-batter versions: Kershaw has fanned the most batters in the league, and Halladay has surrendered the fewest walks. If neither pitcher separates himself from the other over the remainder of the regular season, we could be looking at a very close vote come November, particularly considering the usual variety of unpredictable selections that will work their way into the second and third spots on many ballots.
Glancing at the remaining schedules, each pitcher appears to be in line for five more starts (although, with rotation shuffling and double-headers, it's impossible to know for sure). Kershaw may have an easier go of things. Assuming regular rest, three of his remaining starts will come against the two worst offenses in the league by runs per game, the Giants and Padres. Entering play Tuesday, Kershaw's probable remaining opponents had hit a collective .242/.307/.372 (.679 OPS). Meanwhile, Halladay's likely slate sits at .261/.326/.400 (.726 OPS). It includes the Mets, Brewers, and Cardinals, all well above-average offenses. Don't be surprised if Kershaw emerges from the 2011 season with his first piece of hardware. Either way, the NL Cy Young vote figures to be hotly debated and narrowly decided.
Ryan Sommers writes for Crashburn Alley, the Phillies' blog on the SweetSpot network.