Here’s the thing about the pitchers in the AL this year. The very best of the group can be sectioned, loosely, into two categories: the guys who have been best on a per-inning basis, and the guys who have provided the most value. And unlike most years, there’s not much overlap between the two.

This isn’t a relievers thing, either. Despite the midsummer murmurs about Mariano Rivera and the great work being done by Huston Street, there’s no AL reliever who’s likely to end up in the mix. Relievers garner Cy Young Awards largely on the basis of massive save totals, microscopic ERAs and a muddled starter pool. While the latter exists, neither Rivera nor Street has the kind of mainstream numbers that are likely to sway voters.

No, the strange layout is about some unfortunate injuries suffered by great pitchers, and the time they missed making for a confusing group. Consider the following chart, which lists the best pitchers in the AL according to Value Above Replacement Pitcher:

                   ERA     IP    W-L    H   BB   SO   VORP
Roy Halladay      2.41  141.2   12-4  118   18  108   53.1
Johan Santana     3.22  181.2   13-6  150   33  189   50.2
Freddy Garcia     3.54  183.0   11-6  176   49  120   43.0
Mark Buehrle      3.07  181.2   13-6  183   31  109   42.2
Jarrod Washburn   3.29  150.1    7-7  164   46   81   41.8

This list would have looked a bit different before last night, when Johan Santana and Freddy Garcia staged one of the best pitchers’ duels of the young century. That Halladay still rates an edge over the field after missing more than a month with a broken leg is a credit to his performance in the season’s first half. That said, the voters aren’t going to give the Cy Young Award to a guy with 15 wins and 26 starts, and that assumes Halladay can reach even those modest figures. With his leg still not right and the Blue Jays plummeting from wild-card contention, Halladay may not pitch much the rest of the way.

Halladay’s situation, in a nutshell, is the problem with this field. Take a look at a different chart, which rates the best pitchers in the league by RA+, or runs allowed average adjusted for park and league (min. 80 IP):

                   ERA     IP    W-L    H   BB   SO    RA+
Roy Halladay      2.41  141.2   12-4  118   18  108   2.02
Rich Harden       2.63  123.0   10-5   90   42  114   1.56
Erik Bedard       3.12  101.0    6-4   92   30   91   1.45
Johan Santana     3.22  181.2   13-6  150   33  189   1.44
Kenny Rogers      3.27  151.1   11-7  149   40   69   1.41

Rich Harden missed six weeks in the spring with a strained oblique muscle. Erik Bedard has a strained ligament in his knee that cost him nearly two months. Kenny Rogers, of course, was suspended for three starts in the wake of his assaulting a cameraman. Four of the five best pitchers in the league on a per-inning basis aren’t likely to approach the kind of counting stats that win awards.

Santana is the one active pitcher in the top five in both categories, and as such, is probably the favorite for the award. He’s third in the AL in ERA, leads the league in strikeouts and the only pitchers ahead of him in wins (Jon Garland, Bartolo Colon and Jeremy Bonderman) are pretty clearly inferior by most other measures, sabermetric and traditional. Santana, for what it’s worth, is pitching nearly as well in 2005’s second half as he was in 2004’s, when he buried the league and ran away with the award.

Is there anyone we’re missing? Well, Garland and Colon share the league lead in wins with 16. Garland’s success, like that of Rogers, comes with a strikeout rate so low that it is unlikely that even the BBWAA would vote him an award. His best chance is to be the only pitcher in the league wth 20 wins; it could very well happen. Colon, 16-6 to Garland’s 16-7, is a darkhorse candidate who could steal the award if he gets to 20 wins, especially if the Angels finish strong and draw attention to him. Kevin Millwood is fourth in the league in ERA, but at 7-10, has no chance of garnering support.

Unless Santana wins, though, the AL Cy Young Award for 2005 is likely to go to a compromise candidate in a fractured vote. There just aren’t enough pitchers in the league who have combined durability and performance this year, certainly nothing along the lines of what the top contenders in the NL have done.

My best guess, however, is that Johan Santana will win the award over the next six weeks. He’s the best pitcher in the league, will face a fairly weak slate of offenses down the stretch, and even with an ERA above 3.00, has superior peripherals.