Last week, we went over the early contenders for the National League Cy Young Award. We still have a lot of season left, but there have been a few pitchers who have already separated themselves from the pack in the American League. Shockingly, only two players who received votes in last year's AL Cy Young balloting made the top five on my list through two and a half months. In fact, none of last year's top three -- David Price, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver -- made it.
Hisashi Iwakuma (7-1, 1.79 ERA, 95.1 IP, 64 H, 87 SO, 14 BB)
Iwakuma nudges out Clay Buchholz for No. 1 on my list for two reasons: He has made two more starts (and tossed 11 more innings) and has better defense-independent numbers, which make him a slightly better candidate going forward. Iwakuma has the second-best ERA at 1.79 and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio at 6.21. He is one of five starters across baseball with a walk rate below 4 percent. The only question with Iwakuma is if he can maintain a low BABIP, as he's currently at .222. As most pitchers tend to hover around .290 to .300, Iwakuma would have to have some abnormal batted-ball ability (such as Matt Cain’s ability to generate infield pop-ups) or play behind an elite defense to maintain it.
Clay Buchholz (9-0, 1.71 ERA, 84.1 IP, 57 H, 29 BB, 81 SO)
Buchholz is a perfect 9-0 and has baseball's best ERA at 1.71. By traditional measures, he's the no-brainer favorite right now, but we will dig a bit deeper. The one factor that has led to Buchholz's success most has been his ability to limit home runs. Over his career, one out of every 10 fly balls Buchholz allowed has left the yard, a normal rate. This year, though, it is only 3 percent despite inducing fly balls at the same rate. Last season, Gio Gonzalez had the lowest HR/FB rate among all starters at 5.8 percent.
Buchholz also has walked batters at more than twice the rate of Iwakuma, 9 percent to 4 percent. Both strike out hitters at the same rate, so Buchholz, simply, is allowing more baserunners. He is clearly a much better pitcher than he has been in the past (he increased his strikeout rate by about 50 percent), but he is just a shade behind Iwakuma thus far.
Anibal Sanchez (6-5, 2.65 ERA, 78 IP, 66 H, 19 BB, 98 SO)
Only two pitchers in baseball have tossed at least two games with a game score of 88 or better: NL Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright (89, 91) and Sanchez (88, 94). Sanchez's first was a 17-strikeout outing against the Braves on April 26, a start that officially put him on the map. The second was a no-hit bid May 24 against the Twins, broken up by Joe Mauer's one-out single up the middle in the ninth inning.
Sanchez, acquired by the Tigers last July from the Marlins and then re-signed as a free agent in the offseason, is a markedly better pitcher now, at the age of 29. His strikeout rate is a terrific 31 percent, the second-best rate among all starters. His previous career-high was 24 percent. He is also walking 6 percent of hitters faced, 2 percent below his career average. Like Buchholz, he has limited home runs at 5 percent of fly balls. Even if that rate regresses back to the mean, though, Sanchez should still be among the league leaders in ERA, which should pull in some of the more traditional-minded voters.
As with Buchholz, who has missed some time with a sore neck, keep an eye out for Sanchez's health. He missed his last start with shoulder stiffness.
Yu Darvish (7-2, 2.64 ERA, 95.1 IP, 61 H, 29 BB, 127 SO)
Darvish is the only pitcher this year to have at least five starts with at least 10 strikeouts. To say he has been impressive would be an understatement. Darvish has made improvements in his defense-independent metrics, increasing his strikeout rate over last year by 7 percent and cutting his walk rate by 3 percent.
Perhaps most stunning, he is on pace to strike out 267 batters over 200 innings. If he gets there, it would be the most strikeouts since Verlander's 269 in 2009, and he would be one of only four pitchers (Verlander, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia) to cross the 250-strikeout barrier since 2005. Strikeouts have been on the rise since 2005 (6.3 per game to 7.6), but innings pitched by starters have been on the decline. Darvish's array of pitches has turned him into the game's premier strikeout pitcher.
Compared to the other candidates, Darvish has actually been hurt by home runs, allowing nine in 88 innings. Despite that, he still has a 2.75 ERA, which ranks sixth in the AL.
Felix Hernandez (7-4, 2.49 ERA, 97.2 IP, 83 H, 19 BB, 102 SO)
We are looking at arguably the best King Felix we have seen to date. His 2.49 ERA ranks third in the AL, but he has bumped his strikeout rate to a career-high (27 percent) and his walk rate to a career-low (5 percent), giving him the third-best K/BB in the league, behind teammate Iwakuma and Doug Fister. Hernandez has done all of this while eating a ton of innings -- his 97.2 innings pitched is second-best in the league behind James Shields' 100. Hernandez had tossed at least 230 innings in each of the previous four seasons, so this is nothing new for him.
That Hernandez is only No. 5 on this list and that he may not be the favorite going forward should not diminish the tremendous improvement in his effectiveness this year. At just 27 years old, he will have plenty more opportunities to add a second Cy Young Award to his mantle as he stakes his claim as one of his generation's best arms.
Bill Baer writes about the Phillies at Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.