The pitching era continues, as aces loom larger than ever with Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, and Felix Hernandez annually challenging each other for the American League Cy Young award. There is greater variety in the National League as Clayton Kershaw and Matt Cain form a nice rivalry with Johnny Cueto joining the mix and RA Dickey perhaps running away with the National League Cy Young award.
A couple of hurlers in Washington also were up for the challenge and even when Steven Strasburg was shut down, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman still carried the first place franchise. On the other hand, the Phillies were a major disappointment as Roy Halladay never was himself and Cliff Lee struggled due to a lack of run support.
5) Matt Cain, Giants
Matt Cain finally got his due this season, surpassing Tim Lincecum as the Giants ace and earning national headlines with one of the more dominant perfect games in Major League history (14 strikeouts). In many ways this was a banner season for the 28-year-old right-hander. He established career-bests with 16 wins, 193 strikeouts, and a 2.79 ERA while sharpening his control.
A lack of run support continues to plague the 2002 first round pick, as he averages just 12 wins per season despite a lifetime 3.27 ERA, resulting in a 85-78 career record. However, with Buster Posey’s bat in the lineup, the Giants look like they could be winners for a long time, thrusting pitchers like Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and usually Tim Lincecum in the win column more often.
4) David Price, Rays
After a breakout 2010 campaign that consisted of 19 wins and a 2.72 ERA, Price was a tad off last season with just 12 wins, 13 losses, and a 3.49 ERA. The top pick of the 2007 draft battled back this season in a performance that could bring him his first Cy Young award.
Price led the American League with 20 wins while fanning 205 batters with a 2.56 ERA. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider his opposition. Price went 3-1 against the Bronx Bombers and allowed just one earned run in three starts against the Baltimore Orioles. He also went 5-1 in the hitter-friendly confines of the Red Sox and the Blue Jays.
Price, a 27-year-old southpaw, is the complete package and in his prime, making him a popular top-five pitcher for next year’s fantasy drafts.
3) Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Expectations are so high for Clayton Kershaw that he is not even in the Cy Young conversation this season after picking up the hardware last season due to a mild statistical regression. Truth is even with the numbers in a slight decline, he was the second best pitcher in the National League. His 14-9 record was clearly a reflection of poor run support, as Kershaw’s ERA was an outstanding 2.53. Kershaw also fanned 229 batters while limiting the opposition to a .210 batting clip.
The scariest aspect of Kershaw for Major League batters is the fact that he is just 24 years old! He should be in the same conversation as much-hyped phenom Steven Strasburg. We just don’t get to see many hurlers who are this precocious and dominant early in their careers. Kershaw did miss a start late in the season because of a hip ailment, but for now fantasy managers should not be in panic mode, as he has been incredibly reliable throughout his career, making at least 30 starts in each of the past four seasons.
2) Justin Verlander, Tigers
Justin Verlander is also a victim of his past dominance. He falls under the radar this season after a sensational 2011 campaign that resulted in the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. Sure, he was not able to repeat 2011’s monster season when he racked up 24 wins, 250 strikeouts, and a 2.40 ERA, however, 17 wins, 239 strikeouts, and a 2.64 ERA is certainly worth consideration for the hardware.
Verlander has now picked up at least 17 wins in six of his last seven seasons. He was particularly strong this season down the stretch, winning his final four starts while surrendering just two runs in total to force the Tigers back into the playoffs. Against the division rival White Sox, Verlander had just two starts, but won them both with just three runs surrendered in 16 innings.
At 29 years old, Verlander already has 124 wins under his belt, but is clearly in the midst of his prime. If Verlander can sustain the success while staying healthy for another five seasons, he should be Hall of Fame worthy.
1) RA Dickey, Mets
The success of RA Dickey is such a great story that his autobiography instantly became a bestseller. There are not many 37-year-olds who find themselves on top of the game of baseball after struggling for well over a decade. Dickey dealt with many slights and struggles over that period and even this season was no exception as there was controversy when Dickey did not get to start the All-Star game despite being the most dominant pitcher in baseball all because he throws a pitch that the All-Star game’s starting catcher lacked familiarity with.
A former first round pick who had an ERA north of 5.00 in each of his first six seasons in the Majors, Dickey started to show some signs of potential dominance in 2010 when he offered a 2.84 ERA through 27 games including 26 starts for the Mets. Last season, his first full season in the Majors, Dickey was again solid with a 3.28 ERA though he lacked much run support resulting in an 8-13 record.
This season Dickey took the step to superstardom. He suddenly started racking up strikeouts, as his league-leading 230 K’s were 96 more than last season. He also limited the opposition to a .226 average resulting in a 2.73 ERA that now takes his career ERA to 3.98.
The only blemish on Dickey’s candidacy for the NL Cy Young award is that the Mets were not contenders this season. This is of no fault to Dickey who gave the Mets every chance to surprise and compete in the first half of the season. With three shutouts including back-to-back one-hitters, Dickey dominated and anything less than a trophy to celebrate his season would be another sign of disrespect.
3) Ricky Romero, Jays
Just one season after earning some Cy Young consideration, Ricky Romero imploded and now is far from dependable as the Blue Jays look to 2013. Romero actually enjoyed a solid start to this season with an 8-1 record and 4.34 on June 22. However, things got ugly quickly as he lost 13 of his next 14 decisions to finish with a 9-14 record and 5.77 ERA.
If seeking answers for the mess of a season, look no further than Romero’s lack of control. The 27-year-old southpaw could not throw strikes as he issued 105 walks, 10 more than any other pitcher in the American League. The walks are a major issue when pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark and the opposition made Romero pay on 10 home runs with runners on base.
Considering Romero’s stellar first three and a half years in the big leagues, there is still a good chance that his struggles were a result of something that can be adjusted such as fundamentals, during the off-season. However, for the first time in four years Romero was not a sure thing and that’s a big issue for the Blue Jays fortunes.
2) Jon Lester, Red Sox
A pitcher who had overcome cancer to become one of the top pitchers in baseball, Jon Lester was a popular preseason pick for the Cy Young award coming into the season. Lester racked up four straight seasons with at least 15 wins and 150 strikeouts, becoming the ace of the Red Sox. He then struggled a bit out of the gate with a 5-5 record, but it wasn’t until July 8 that the wheels came off.
From July 8 to August 7, Lester surrendered a minimum of four runs in five of his six starts, as his ERA soared to 5.49. Lester did pitch much better for the remainder of the season, but following the Red Sox blockbuster deal with the Dodgers, the run support declined and he finished with a 9-14 record.
1) Tim Lincecum, Giants
Arguably the most dominant hurler from 2008 to 2011, Tim Lincecum picked up a pair of Cy Young awards, 62 wins, and nearly a thousand strikeouts. Even though his record was just 13-14 last season, Lincecum was still very effective with 220 strikeouts and a 2.74 ERA. Then suddenly with his fastball velocity in decline, Lincecum was hit hard this season.
The Giants long-time ace established several career-highs that he would have preferred to avoid including 15 losses, 23 home runs, 90 walks, and a 5.18 ERA. Aside from the final two months of the season, Lincecum had a monthly ERA north of 5.00 all season. The walks were particularly devastating when you consider that 25 of 27 stolen base attempts were successful against the right-hander.
Expect to find Lincecum available in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts in 2013 after this disappointing season.