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09/01/11 11:16 AM ET

NL Cy Young Award a three-man race

In a pitcher's league, during yet another Year of the Pitcher, it's especially tough to pick the pitcher.

The National League's cumulative ERA and on-base percentage are each on pace to be the lowest since 1992, and spotting a legitimate ace in the Senior Circuit has become as easy as finding tanning oil on the set of "Jersey Shore."

Picking the NL Cy Young Award winner -- not so much.

But alas, it's September now, which means it's probably a good time to whittle down the competition.

Cliff Lee has coupled 15 wins with a 2.59 ERA and Cole Hamels leads the NL in WHIP, but each are victims of being teammates with a pitching machine named Roy Halladay; Ian Kennedy is tied for the league lead in wins, but Clayton Kershaw -- the other man with 17 victories -- is having the better all-around year; and while guys like Tim Lincecum, Jair Jurrjens, Matt Cain and Yovani Gallardo are having spectacular seasons, it's tough to make a legitimate Cy Young case for any of them right now.

Barring the unforeseen in this season's final month, this is a battle between the reigning champ (Halladay), the up-and-comer (Kershaw) and, perhaps, a dark-horse ERA leader nobody seems to be talking about -- Johnny Cueto.

Each of them brings up an important question.

The Pied Piper of ERA

With Cueto, it's all about ERA. The question is: How much is it worth? While Cueto's lead in that department is a sizable one, a limited workload has made it the only thing he has going in his favor.

Cueto's ERA -- in case you hadn't noticed -- sits at just 2.05. It's the lowest in all of baseball among those who qualify, and it's far lower than any other starter in the NL. Second lowest? The 2.45 mark that belongs to Kershaw.

That's quite the margin; a gap that could give Cueto a chance at the hardware if it continues through September. But will it be enough to make up for the fact Cueto has pitched nearly 60 fewer innings than Halladay and Kershaw after spending the first six weeks of the season on the shelf, and thus he has fewer than 10 wins and 100 strikeouts?

For what it's worth, only half of the 10 league ERA leaders since 2005 have gone on to win Cy Young Awards. But since 2000, only two starters -- Pedro Martinez in '00 and Roger Clemens in '05 -- have finished with ERAs lower than where Cueto's stands right now.

You can argue that guys like Lee, Hamels and Kennedy have had better all-around years. But nothing really sets them apart from Halladay and Kershaw -- Cueto's ERA does. Whether that can be enough remains to be seen.

Mr. Everything

If you're looking at the Cy Young Award as a two-man race between Kershaw and Halladay, one important question comes up: Does it really matter if a starter pitches for an out-of-contention team?

Apparently not, when you consider that seven of the past 12 Cy Young Award winners represented clubs that didn't go to the postseason, and one of them each of the last three years -- Lincecum in '08, Zack Greinke in '09 and Felix Hernandez last season -- pitched for teams that finished no fewer than 12 games back of first place.

Perhaps Kershaw's case is helped if you look at it this way -- regardless of the sub-.500 Dodgers team behind him, he has found a way to match the NL lead in wins and rank at or near the top in basically every category. Kershaw is first in the NL in strikeouts (212), first in innings (198 2/3), second in ERA (2.45), second in WHIP (1.02), second among pitchers in Wins Above Replacement (5.8) and tied for second in complete games (five).

Over his past 28 innings, Kershaw has given up two runs -- two! -- while striking out 28 batters and walking only five.

If the Cy Young Award is a race to the finish, the 23-year-old lefty has an edge -- three of his last five starts are scheduled to come against teams with two of the NL's worst offenses -- the Giants and Padres.

The King

However you stack it, the numbers for Halladay and Kershaw are close. The question here is: Is Halladay at a point where you have to clearly outpitch him to knock him off the podium?

For the last few years, Halladay has been the guy -- the one you want on the mound more than anybody else if you have to win one game. Last year, he was validated that with his second Cy Young Award. Now, he may be in the midst of a run similar to the one Greg Maddux went on when he won four straight Cy Young Awards from 1992-95, or Randy Johnson when he also notched four in a row from 1999-2002, or Roger Clemens when he reeled off three in five years from 1997-2001.

There certainly isn't any reason why Halladay shouldn't go back-to-back.

He ranks slightly behind Kershaw in ERA at 2.47, has one fewer win and trails him in strikeouts per nine innings (9.6 to 8.74). But Halladay leads all Major League starters in WAR (7.2), strikeout-to-walk ratio (a ridiculous 7.64) and complete games (seven) for a Phillies team that boasts baseball's best record.

If he stays on schedule, Halladay will finish the season pitching against the Marlins, Brewers, Astros, Cardinals and Nationals, respectively.

Looks like we'll need to witness every one of those starts to get more clarity on this Cy Young picture.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.