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Dodger Thoughts: Kershaw sneaks into Cy Young race

A quick glance at the 2012 National League pitching leaders in Wins Above Replacement today finds an interesting name atop the list.

1. Clayton Kershaw

Now, not everyone's going to care about WAR, and there are other factors working against Kershaw, but it does signify that a repeat trophy for the 2011 NL Cy Young winner is in play. Here's how the Dodger lefty compares to the competition with 42 games to go in the regular season. 

PlayerWARxFIPERAIPK/9WHIPW-L
Clayton Kershaw 4.2 3.30 2.90 170.67 8.70 1.014 11-6
Johnny Cueto 4.1 3.67 2.45 161.67 7.07 1.16 15-6
Gio Gonzalez 4.1 3.25 3.29 147.67 9.63 1.14 15-6
Stephen Strasburg 4.0 2.80 2.91 139.33 11.17 1.13 14-5
R.A. Dickey 3.9 3.08 2.89 168.33 9.36 1.04 15-4
Josh Johnson 3.6 3.53 3.73 147.33 7.88 1.27 7-9
Wade Miley 3.6 3.71 2.96 143.00 6.55 1.13 13-8
Adam Wainwright 3.5 3.06 3.87 151.33 8.44 1.22 11-10
Jordan Zimmermann 3.2 3.56 2.38 151.00 6.79 1.09 9-7
Matt Cain 3.2 3.69 2.90 167.67 8.27 1.008 12-5
Cole Hamels 3.2 3.32 2.91 163.67 8.69 1.11 13-6
Madison Bumgarner 3.2 3.30 2.97 163.67 8.25 1.014 13-7

(An explanation of xFIP can be found here.)

Kershaw leads the league in innings and is a hair away from being the frontrunner in walks and hits per inning pitched. That puts Kershaw in the race, though – as was the case last year – he's going to need a strong finishing kick to win the award.

A key problem for Kershaw is one of narrative. Though his season ERA has risen above 3.00 only once this season, after he allowed eight runs (six in one inning) to St. Louis on July 24, Kershaw has mainly been an afterthought in this year's Cy Young conversation, most notably behind R.A. Dickey, Stephen Strasburg and Matt Cain. Strasburg will probably drop out of the picture if the Washington Nationals follow through on their plans to curtail the innings of the 24-year-old recovering from Tommy John surgery, but that still leaves Dickey and Cain to contend with, along Cain's teammate Bumgarner and the top two NL pitchers in ERA, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto – both of whom play for likely division champions.

At the All-Star Break, the award was arguably Dickey's to lose – but he might be in the process of doing so. Since July 14, Dickey has a 4.10 ERA. Nevertheless, he is still striking out more than a batter per inning and had a complete-game, 10-strikeout performance on August 9. He leads the NL in strikeouts, sports a 2.89 ERA and has the best win-loss record among the contenders. At age 37, he is probably the best story in NL pitching this year.

But Cueto can't be counted out, not while is second in the NL in ERA and shares the league lead in wins, all while pitching home games in a park known to favor hitters. The main mark against him is that except for Zimmermann, he has the lowest strikeout rate among the contenders. But that isn't likely to be an important factor for a majority of Cy Young voters, and he might be next in line behind Dickey at this point.

If Cueto isn't No. 2 in the race right now, many think Cain probably is. I'll confess, I can't quite figure out why Cain is a full win behind Kershaw in WAR. (For that matter, you could ask the same question about Bumgarner, whose stats are almost identical to Cain's). The Dodger lefty has only a slight edge in fielding-independent ERA and strikeouts. But in part because of mysteries like this, WAR hasn't yet become a preeminent stat – Baseball-Reference.com offers a different ranking altogether – so I don't know how much this matters compared with the idea, buoyed by his perfect game earlier this season, that Cain has been a leading contender all year. 

Still, it should say something about Kershaw's Cy Young chances that he is at worst a hair behind Cain (Kershaw has a 2.9003 ERA, Cain 2.8986) and arguably a hair ahead.

At this stage of the season, the NL Cy Young race is pretty wide open. Maybe voters decide that Strasburg has done enough through August to justify a first-place vote. Otherwise, anyone with an ERA below 3.00, a group that also includes such pitchers as Cole Hamels and Wade Miley, could win the award with the Secretariat-like finishing kick that Kershaw displayed in 2011. Beginning a year ago this week, Kershaw closed out 2012 with a 0.96 ERA in his final nine starts.

The award is there for the taking, and Kershaw has put himself in position to snag it. His quest resumes Monday ... at Dodger Stadium against Bumgarner and the Giants.

For more from Jon Weisman, visit Dodger Thoughts and follow @dodgerthoughts on Twitter.