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Hartnett: Breaking Down Five NL Cy Young Candidates

'Hart of the Order'
By Sean Hartnett
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As many as five candidates could realistically be awarded the 2012 National League Cy Young.  One leading candidate is in action tonight.  R.A. Dickey is set to face Jacob Turner of the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park.  Gio Gonzalez of the Nationals was scratched from his Tuesday start against the Pirates to prepare for the playoffs.

There isn't a clear slam dunk favorite, so allow me to give you the rundown on each compelling candidate.

Candidate No. 1: R.A. Dickey -- New York Mets

R.A. Dickey
(credit: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

R.A. Dickey is the people's choice, not just in New York but around the nation.  His improbable late career success story, engaging personality and unusual control of the knuckleball has captured the hearts of baseball fans from coast-to-coast.  In all likelihood, this could be Dickey's final shot at winning the Cy Young as he will turn 38 in late October.

All of these reasons could factor into Dickey's chances at winning the 2012 NL Cy Young.  He is not only a terrific story, but his statistics are undoubtedly worthy of a Cy Young winner and has an outside chance at winning the Triple Crown of Pitching.

Dickey has an impressive record of 20-6 and leads the National League in complete games (5), shutouts (3) and strikeouts (222).  His ERA of 2.69 is only bettered by Clayton Kershaw.  Dickey's strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.15 is significantly better than his Cy Young rivals.

Believe it or not, Dickey actually receives high run support.  The Mets average 4.66 runs per game when Dickey is on the mound.  That statistic neutralized by the Mets having the majors' worst bullpen ERA of 4.69.

Candidate No. 2: Gio Gonzalez - Washington Nationals

Gio Gonzalez
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Gio Gonzalez is currently one win ahead of Dickey, leading the majors with 21 victories and his 9.35 strikeouts per nine innings is the best in the National League.

In the absence of Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez's efforts have kept the Nationals on pace for the NL's best record at 96-46.  Washington is currently even with the Cincinnati Reds.

Gonzalez was pulled from his Tuesday start, so he'll finish 2012 with an ERA of 2.89 which is 20 points higher than Dickey.  His 207 strikeouts are also 15 behind Dickey.

What could also damage Gonzalez's chances is his NL-best run support of 5.38 per game.  His numbers aren't nearly as dominant as Dickey's and his WAR is 0.8 lower than the knuckleballer.

Candidate No. 3: Clayton Kershaw -- Los Angeles Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Dodgers are hanging on for dear life in the NL Wild Card race, and 2011 NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw is a big reason why they're still alive.

Kershaw only allowed two earned runs in September for an 0.67 ERA in the season's final full month of play.  He currently ranks first in the National League in ERA (2.58), component ERA (2.30), WHIP (1.03), WAR (5.8) and base-outs runs saved (36.88).  Kershaw is only a single strikeout behind National League leader R.A. Dickey.

On top of all of this, Kershaw has been pitching with a bum hip.

The obvious knock against Kershaw is that the Cy Young tends to be given out to starters who win 16 or more games.  Through 32 starts, Kershaw's record stands at 13-9.  Keep in mind that Felix Hernandez won the 2010 AL Cy Young Award with a record of 13-12 and Tim Lincecum took home the 2009 NL Cy Young with a 15-7 record.

Kershaw's lack of victories can be explained by the 3.91 runs per game he receives from the Dodger batters when he's on the hill.  His lack of victories shouldn't be held against him.  Kershaw toes the rubber on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium against Ryan Vogelsong of the San Francisco Giants.

Candidate No. 4: Johnny Cueto - Cincinnati Reds

Johnny Cueto
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Some say Johnny Cueto's stock is falling, but he has helped the Reds capture the NL Central and Cincinnati is currently tied with the Nationals for the NL's best record at 96-64.

Cueto is just behind Kershaw with a WAR of 5.7 for second-best in the NL.  Even though Cueto pitches in the hitter's paradise that is Great American Ball Park, his ERA is 3rd-best in the NL at 2.78.  His ERA+ of 152 is the best of all National League pitchers.

He's one win short of 20 victories.  The difference between 19 and 20 wins is immaterial to my determination, many Cy Young voters place importance on the landmark of 20 wins.  Cueto just missed out reaching 20 wins on Sunday.  He threw 7 innings and only surrendered one earned run, but was saddled with a no decision as the Pirates beat the Reds 4-3.

September was an up-and-down month for Cueto.  He went into September with an ERA 0f 2.48.  In the middle of the month, his ERA swelled to 2.92 after three rough starts.  Cueto finished the month strongly to lower his ERA to 2.78.

Interestingly, Cueto is first pitcher since Luis Tiant in 1968 with 200 innings pitched not to allow a runner to steal second or third base.

The Reds have never had a Cy Young winner in their 122 years in the National League.  Perhaps, Cueto will the be first Cy Young winner in Reds' history.

Candidate No. 5: Craig Kimbrel  -- Atlanta Braves

Craig Kimbrel
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Craig Kimbrel is the wild card candidate in the 2012 NL Cy Young race.  Kimbrel has been simply unhittable in September with an unblemished 10 saves and no earned runs against.

Kimbrel's 1.02 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 61.2 innings pitched are stats that leap off the page.

His 42 saves are the highest in the majors, but he's also blown three saves.  Why is that important?  Eric Gagne was the last closer to win a Cy Young Award in 2003.  His perfect save conversion rate of 55-for-55 swayed voters toward naming Gagne the first Cy Young closer since Dennis Eckersley in 1992.

That's not a good omen for Kimbrel and neither is the fact that Kimbrel pitches one-third less innings than other leading Cy Young candidates.

Who's my pick?

As I am not a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, I don't have an official vote.  If I had a say, my choice would be Johnny Cueto of the Reds.

Cueto's statistics at the launching pad of Great American Ballpark are truly remarkable.  He doesn't pitch in a pitcher-friendly environment like Dickey or Kershaw, but is every bit as dominant.  That combined with his influence on the Reds gunning for the National League's best record makes him the most deserving candidate in my eyes.

Gonzalez shares the Nationals' load with Jordan Zimmerman, while Cueto has carried the Reds' rotation.  I have a soft spot for Kershaw, but I think a lot of people will hold his record against him as well as the fact that he won the award last year.

Who will win the 2012 NL Cy Young?

My feeling is that most voters will be enticed by Dickey's story and age.  There isn't a lot separating Dickey from his Cy Young competitors, but he's truly a unique case and generates high interest whenever he takes the mound for the hapless Mets.

No one will be disappointed if the personable knuckleballer comes away with the 2012 NL Cy Young Award at the age of 37.

Who do you feel is the most deserving NL Cy Young candidate?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.

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