As pennant races heat up, so does the competition for Major League Baseball’s year- end awards. Last week we looked at the top candidates for Most Valuable Player in both leagues. Now we turn our attention to MLB’s premier pitching prize with a similar sneak peek at the contenders for the Cy Young Award in the National and American Leagues.

National League

Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds

The diminutive Reds ace has an appropriately tiny ERA (2.58), a figure so small that he could absorb a couple subpar September outings and remain the league leader. He’s also on pace to win 20 games, still an important benchmark with Cy Young voters. His luck indicators are more difficult to parse: Cueto’s succeeding even with a somewhat- high .290 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but his 7.0 home run per flyball percentage (HR/FB%) is a revelation for a guy who calls the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark his home.

R. A. Dickey, New York Mets

Then there’s Dickey, the 37-year-old knuckleballer who raised eyebrows with a torrid first half, then disappeared from the spotlight as the Mets faded out of contention. That doesn’t mean Dickey stopped delivering the goods – he’s on pace for well over 200 punchouts and has almost 50 more Ks than Cueto in virtually the same number of innings. Dickey’s actually very similar to Cueto in many statistical categories, including walks per nine innings and wins. But he also has a shot at stealing the title of NL strikeout king, which would only build his case to supplant arguably the strongest contender…

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

While his numbers aren’t quite as dominant as last season’s 2.28 ERA/0.98 WHIP masterstroke, Kershaw is still humiliating National League hitters with nearly 9 strikeouts per nine innings. While he probably won’t catch Cueto for the ERA title, the Dodger southpaw is tied for the league lead in WHIP with a shiny 1.02. But the kicker is that Kershaw’s 2.85 ERA is nearly identical to his 2.92 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) number, a stat that strips away the contributions of a defense to find how well a pitcher does with the three outcomes he has the most control over – walks, strikeouts, and home runs. In other words, it means that Clayton Kershaw is who we thought he was: a staggeringly dominant pitcher who could give any team a comfortable chance of winning every time he takes the mound.

Honorable Mentions: Stephen Strasburg is racking up strikeouts like crazy, but the innings limit imposed by the Nationals will keep the young flamethrower out of contention this year. His time is coming, though. Meanwhile, San Francisco rotation mates Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner both have ERAs hovering around 3.00 and more than 8 K/9 for a playoff-bound squad, with the former’s perfecto in June as icing on his cake.

American League

David Price, Tampa Bay Rays

Price is keying the Rays’ second-half surge to playoff contention, but he’s been spectacular all year. With a 2.54 ERA and 175 strikeouts to date, the Vanderbilt product is staking his claim as one of the best hurlers in the game. Price still has to work on his control (2.69 BB/9), but he’s on pace for his third straight season of at least 200 innings pitched, 200 Ks, and 4.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a stat that measures a player’s aggregate contributions compared to a typical minor league call-up. It’s an impressive peak performance that suffers only because the AL is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to pitching talent. Case in point…

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

The last two American League Cy Young winners are in a class of their own, but it’s nigh impossible to tell which one is unequivocally better. King Felix currently has the edge in ERA, home runs allowed, and winning percentage; Verlander’s got more Ks and is the more accomplished strike-thrower (fewer HBP and wild pitches than Hernandez) pitching in front of a much less accomplished defense. The Seattle ace is coming off a scorching August where he tossed 4 shutouts including a perfect game; Detroit’s favorite son could be the most valuable player on a playoff-bound team with a penchant for outings of 120+ pitches and nary a day on the DL. A Verlander win would give the AL its first back-to- back Cy Young winner since Pedro Martinez in 1999-2000. Hernandez ignited the long- overdue debate about fickle and misleading stats like pitcher wins, capturing his 2010 Cy with a 13-12 record. It’s a dead heat at this point, meaning that every September start bears close examination. This one will be a fight to the finish.

Honorable Mentions: Chris Sale has performed above all expectations in his conversion from reliever to starter, but his innings pitched deficit (due to a short-lived return to the bullpen and recent arm soreness) hurts his chances. It’s a shame because without him, the White Sox likely wouldn’t be front and center in the AL Central race. CC Sabathia is quietly having another superlative year fronting an uncharacteristically thin Yankees rotation, while Fernando Rodney is putting up an Eckersley-like ERA (0.73) as the Rays’ closer and could potentially post up to 2.5 WAR – a remarkable feat for a relief

Who do you think will win the Cy Young? Let us know in the comments!