09/09/08 10:00 AM ET
Tribe's Lee leads AL Cy contenders
Left-hander's impressive record, ERA makes him front-runner
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
And even though -- accepting the popular notion that the award should be subtitled "Most Valuable Pitcher" -- there hasn't been a more valuable pitcher in the American League this season than the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez.Discounting relievers, however, does little to polish the crystal ball. Not because the field of Cy-worthy starters is so crowded; on the contrary, only eight have 15-plus wins, a remarkably low number in a 14-team league. Rather, because the cream at the top is so rich. Cliff Lee and the remarkable season he is having has many calling him a lock for the hardware. But consider Daisuke Matsuzaka, who may not have been nearly as dominant but whose 16-2 record translates to a winning percentage of .889, compared to the .913 of Lee (21-2). Never in AL history have two starters completed a season with winning percentages of .850-plus. In 1978, the only time two pitchers were in that stratosphere, Boston reliever Bob Stanley (15-2, .882) joined New York lefty Ron Guidry (25-3, .893). (Incidentally, almost as if to attest to our original point, Guidry that season was a unanimous winner of the Cy Young Award -- and Stanley attracted one fifth-place vote.) THE FAVORITE Cliff Lee, Indians: The 30-year-old left-hander didn't have a breakthrough so much as a break-back. Three seasons ago, Lee also led the AL with a .783 winning percentage while finishing fourth in Cy Young voting. His woes -- some health, mostly mechanical -- since that 2005 peak merely underscore his astounding return to dominance. From day one, when on April 6 he held the A's without an earned run for 6 2/3 innings in his first start after breaking camp on the fringes of the Cleveland rotation, Lee has been on. He has been untouchable, allowing five or fewer hits in seven starts. He has been flawless, issuing no walks in 10 starts, and only one in 10 others. He has been clockwork consistent, going at least seven innings in 18 starts. And don't even talk about quality starts: 22 of Lee's 28 qualify, impressive whether or not you buy the idea that going at least six without surrendering more than three earned runs is an acceptable definition of "quality." Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the position in which Lee finds himself is this: It would now be an upset if he didn't give Cleveland consecutive Cy Young winners a year after CC Sabathia had become the first Tribe pitcher to cop the award since Gaylord Perry in 1972. THE CONTENDERS Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox: A year removed from the buzz of his Major League entry, Dice-K was expected to make second-season adjustments, but he has turned it into an art form. With only three weeks to go, he has shaved more than a run and a half off his ERA, has allowed 80 fewer hits and has served up 40 percent as many homers (10 vs. 25). Despite a perception that Matsuzaka is carried by the Boston offense, his ERA (2.88) ranks third in the league. He has pitched into the seventh inning on a yield of two runs or fewer 10 times. The Sox's 21-4 record in his starts compares favorably with Cleveland's 22-6 mark in those of Lee. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels: Despite the debate whether he is a better-suited candidate for the MVP award, K-Rod will receive Cy Young votes, just as he did when he finished fourth in 2004 and 2006.
Rodriguez is two saves shy of the season-season record of 57 set by Bobby Thigpen in 1990. Opponents are hitting .207 against him.
Roy Halladay, Blue Jays: In just about any other season, the AL's marathon man would be a front-runner for his second Cy Young. When the Doc is in, he stays in: His eight complete games are the most of anyone in the league since 2003, and more than the totals of 27 teams this season.Stamina is hardly the only thing going for Halladay. A routine finish would land him in the 20-win circle for the second time, and he's only a few Lee hanging curveballs from taking over the ERA lead. But that precisely is Halladay's obstacle: he can't win it; only Lee can lose it. THE DARK HORSES Ervin Santana, Angels: He and Lee must have the same biorhythm. A season after pitching so poorly he had to be returned to the Minors for a month, Santana has reduced his ERA by 2 1/2 runs and is second in the league in strikeouts. The 25-year-old righty hasn't been just valuable but invaluable to the Angels: He gave them wings with his 6-0 start while both John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar (who never did pick up a ball) were injured. Mike Mussina, Yankees: The only guy around who walks even fewer batters than Lee, who is becoming legendary for his control. Getting the three wins he needs to reach 20 for the first time -- at 39 and in his 18th season -- would be a stunning achievement that could swing the sentimental vote in Moose's favor. Getting 20 wins, however, is the only way he would have a bona fide shot. He has obviously towered over an otherwise depressed rotation -- but Lee has that vote locked up, too.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.