NL All-Star Report: R.A. Dickey Leads Up Starting Pitchers

If you want to talk about the race for the National League Cy Young Award, it’s an open field with any number of pitchers in close enough range to take the honor with a strong second half. But if you want to talk about who is leading the race as of this very moment—and therefore, who should start for the NL in next Tuesday’s All-Star game, then it’s an open-and-shut case. The New York Mets’ R.A. Dickey is more than just a great story. He’s a great pitcher who’s at the top of the National League by any reasonable measurement.

The 37-year-old Dickey only made more than 10 starts in a season three times prior to getting a chance with the Mets at the start of 2010. Over the past two seasons, the knuckleballer has gone to the post 58 times, averaged 191 innings per season and at an ERA of 3.08. Then in 2012 he picked it up even further. Dickey comes into the final week before the break with a 12-1 record, a 2.15 ERA that’s third in the league and 113 innings pitched, only two off the league lead. He’s in position to become first Mets’ pitcher to win the Cy Young Award since Dwight Gooden did so in 1985 and just the third in team history (Tom Seaver won three times between 1969-75).

Dickey is at the top of the list and if we want to fill out a complete All-Star rotation, there are other choices that are similarly cut-and-dried. Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto is 9-4 with a 2.26 ERA and 107 IP. Right now the top eight pitchers in the NL for innings pitched—a benchmark that accounts for the top of half of the league’s #1 starters if talent were equally distributed—are over 106, so Cueto has the workload to match the sharp ERA and solid win totals.

San Francisco’s Matt Cain has a perfect game under his belt this year and while 2.53 ERA is a hop up from Cueto’s, it’s still in the league elite and Cain has won nine games and racked up 113 innings. If you take Cain & Cueto and join them with Dickey, you have a top three for NL pitchers that I would consider beyond serious argument.

TheSportsNotebook uses ERA as the first statistical sorter for pitchers, so anyone who’s up in the top five gets the benefit of the doubt for earning All-Star selection, but I do want to see innings pitched, and while sabermetricians might frown on this, I still think there’s something to be said for wins. It’s not an ideal stat, but a pitcher doesn’t work in a vacuum and until something better comes along, wins are the best measurement we have of a pitcher’s ability to handle himself in a close game and lead the way to his team’s ultimate objective.

The National League’s ERA leaders are Brandon Beachy for Atlanta and Ryan Dempster for Chicago, but we have to eliminate both. Beachy is done for the year with an elbow injury and his 81 IP are way too low to even consider an honorary mid-season choice. Dempster is on the disabled list with back problems and has the same 81 innings. Perhaps if he makes it back by early this month, as is expected, makes all his starts the rest of the way and continues to pitch well, Dempster can merit inclusion on this list when TheSportsNotebook makes final season-ending selections.

So if Beachy and Dempster are out, we have to move down the list of ERA candidates. Last year’s Cy Young winner, Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw has a 2.65 ERA and is at the top of the list with innings pitched, at 115. While I’d like to see a better record than 6-4, the ERA is good enough and given how important saving bullpens is these days, I’m not going to leave off the league’s top horse. Kershaw gets the fourth selection.

Now we come to San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong, who by virtue of his 2.26 ERA has first claim on the final spot in an All-Star rotation. He’s won seven games, and against just three losses, that’s certainly good enough. The 103 innings are good, but not in the league’s elite. Let’s do a quick rundown of some other worthy candidates…

*Pittsburgh’s James McDonald has an All-Star caliber ERA of 2.44 and the same 7-3 record as Vogelsong. But not only is his record the same and his ERA a little higher, McDonald’s 96 innings are not All-Star worthy.

*if we’re looking for wins and innings, Cole Hamels with the Phils is 10-4 and 111 IP, but his ERA has jumped to 3.08 of late. That’s way too big a gap between him and Vogelsong in the most important measuring stick for a pitcher. Vogelsong’s teammate, Madison Bumgarner is 10-4 and 110 IP, although even his 2.85 ERA is a little too high for the purposes of this discussion.

*Zack Greinke in Milwaukee (9-2, 2.82 102 IP) and Stephen Strasburg for Washington (9-3, 2.81, 93) have good resumes and both are close enough to make runs at the top five by the end of the season—well, Strasburg could if he weren’t about to get shut down anyway—but neither is quite All-Star level right now.

*Lance Lynn (St. Louis) and Gio Gonzales (Washington) have double-digit wins, but the innings are below 100 and the ERAs over 3. Great for a regular staff, but not for an All-Star rotation.

*And we’ll give a little honorable mention to Dickey’s teammate in New York, fellow vet Johan Santana, whose comeback has produced a no-hitter and a 6-4, 2.76, 98 IP stat line.

All of these pitchers are having seasons worth mentioning and all could be All-Stars by season’s end, but none should take away the fifth spot in the National League rotation from Vogelsong, who would join Cueto, Cain and Kershaw, all in support of R.A. Dickey, the best arm in the National League as we approach the All-Star break.