It’s easy to forget just how beholden the Cy Young Award was to pitcher wins. Sure, wins are still plenty important in the Cy Young voting, but you look back a couple of decades and you realize: Wins used to mean pretty much everything. It’s no wonder that the last few years have been such a shock to the system for some people, as wins have lost their kung fu grip on the Baseball Writers of America.
Look: From 1961 through 1985 -- 25 seasons -- you had 45 Cy Young winners (it’s an odd number because Denny McLain and Mike Cuellar shared the American League Award in 1969). Of those 45 winners, 40 were starting pitchers. The five relievers were Mike Marshall, Sparky Lyle, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Willie Hernandez. We’ll talk about relievers and the Cy Young Award in a minute.
For now: Forty starters. Do you know how many of those 40 did not either lead or finish second in the league in wins? Take a second. Think about it.
Answer: Zero. They all either led the league or finished second in wins.
Yep. Every single year, the award went to the pitcher with the most wins ... or, if he could not fulfill his duties because of a high ERA or an unseemly won-loss percentage, it went to the first runner-up. Mike Scott in 1986 was the first Cy Young winner in a quarter century to not finish first or second in wins.
Scott finished third, so, um, that wasn’t exactly a quantum leap forward. But it was something. Scott led the league in ERA, struck out 300 and allowed a mere 5.9 hits per nine innings. The combination overwhelmed the voters. On top of that, the two pitchers with higher wins totals -- Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Krukow -- did not finish in the Top 10 in ERA.
It would be another five years before the Cy Young voters chose a starter who did not lead the league in wins (that was Roger Clemens in 1991, who dared to finish fourth).
I would argue that pitcher wins were the most powerful statistic in sports -- powerful like the old tobacco lobby. I think the name of the stat had something to do with it. “Win” is a powerful word for a statistic. It pretty bluntly insinuates that the pitcher won the game. Well, heck, it doesn’t just insinuate it ... it SAYS it. The pitcher won the game. You know: Singlehandedly.
That’s how we use the word “win.” Nobody says: LeBron James won his 34th game Sunday night in Portland. Nobody says: Tom Brady earned another win as the Patriots beat the Lions. That would just sound wrong.
But that kind of language has just become a fundamental part of baseball. It’s pretty obvious that pitchers don’t really win games by themselves. The game is basically divided into two parts -- scoring runs and preventing runs -- and that cuts 50% off the pitcher’s contribution right there. And of course, winning pitchers can’t get the whole 50% because we know that defense plays a big part in the game too. And, of course, pitchers can’t even get what’s left over because they rarely go nine innings, so they have to share some of the credit with relief pitchers.
In other words: Pitchers do not win games by themselves. We all know it. And yet, we use that same terminology all the time. We keep talking about pitchers getting the win and taking the loss and what their won-loss record is and so on. The language matters.
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Have we moved past pitcher wins as a nation? In 2010 Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award with a 13-12 record. This was, supposedly, the break from the past. Traditionalists shrieked. Modernists cheered. Hernandez, I think, was the best pitcher in baseball -- he led the league in innings and ERA and finished just one back in strikeouts. But he was much more than that, he was a cause celebre, and nothing would ever be the same. Or so we were told.
Last year the leaders in wins, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, both won Cy Young Awards. Verlander was the only choice in the AL, but Kershaw was not as clear a choice. There were some pretty powerful arguments that Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee both had better years.* Kershaw had an amazing season -- he won what has become known as the pitcher’s Triple Crown (most wins, most strikeouts, lowest ERA). But ask yourself this: Was Kershaw’s 21-5 record the deciding factor (compared to Halladay’s 19-6 and Lee’s 17-8)? The Eight Ball says “Very Likely.”
*Among those arguments: Kershaw’s numbers were greatly aided by pitching half his games in the cavernous pitcher’s park that is Dodger Stadium. Kershaw went 12-1 with a 1.69 ERA in L.A. The fact that Halladay and Kershaw put up virtually identical numbers while pitching half their games in the much more hitter-friendly Citizen’s Bank Park speaks pretty loudly.
This year, I predict that David Price (20-5) will win the Cy Young over Justin Verlander (17-8). Price had a spectacular year -- but I don’t think the won-loss record has much to do with it. Was he the better pitcher overall?
Price did have the lower ERA ... though, because he pitches half his games in a great pitcher’s park, Verlander had a better ERA+ (that’s ERA adjusted for ballpark factors). Price also threw 27 fewer innings and struck out 34 fewer batters. Verlander’s WHIP and strikeout-to-walk were both better. It’s close. I think Verlander had the slightly better year.
Verlander’s 2012 season was very, very close to his 2011 season. He made one fewer start, struck out batters at the same pace, walked them at a slightly higher pace, allowed fewer home runs and led the league in complete games. In 2011 he won the Cy Young Award unanimously and won the MVP award. In 2012 I predict he will finish second in the Cy Young. Why?
I think it more or less comes down to this:
2011: Justin Verlander, 24-4.
2012: Justin Verlander, 17-8.
R.A. Dickey finished second to Gio Gonzalez in wins, but Dickey still won 20 and I think he will win the NL Cy Young. He led the league in strikeouts, complete games, shutouts and innings pitched, and his ERA was better than Gonzalez’s. Clayton Kershaw, the third finalist, is very similar to Verlander in that he, too, was just about as good this year as in his Cy Young Award season.
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If R.A. Dickey wins, he will become the first knuckleball pitcher to win the Cy Young Award. Others who got close:
• Bob Purkey finished tied for third in 1962. There was just one Cy Young for both leagues back then, and what’s interesting is that all four players who received votes pitched in the National League. It’s hard to say who would have won the American League Cy Young that year -- the wins leader was the Yankees’ Ralph Terry, but Cleveland’s Dick Donovan got more MVP support.
• Phil Niekro finished second in 1969 to Tom Seaver. He later finished third, fifth and twice finished sixth. Niekro was probably the best pitcher in the league in 1978, when he threw a ridiculous 334 innings and completed 22 games. But he went 19-18 and Gaylord Perry, with a 21-6 record, took the award.
• Wilbur Wood finished second in 1973. He led the league in wins that year, but the voters gave the award to Jim Palmer. Wood finished third the year before.
• Joe Niekro finished second in 1979. He led the league in wins with 21, but for some reason the writers decided that year to go with a reliever, Bruce Sutter. Niekro finished third in the voting in 1980.
• Tim Wakefield finished third in the voting in 1995.
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Here’s a pointless aside:
I must admit that learning how to throw a knuckleball, a real knuckleball, is on my list of things I must do soon. I know how to juggle, do a few card tricks, play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on the piano, hit the through-the-legs tennis shot, do various yo-yo tricks and drive a stick shift. If I’m reading my, “Things a Dad Should Know How to Do” manual correctly, I’m pretty much down to spinning a basketball on my index finger and throwing a knuckleball. I’ll never spin the basketball, so knuckleball is it.
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People sometimes ask this question: Should relief pitchers be eligible for the Cy Young?
Well, of course they should be eligible -- the award is for the best pitcher, and they are pitchers. But would I ever vote for a reliever? I wouldn’t make a hard and fast rule about it, but I doubt I would vote for a pitcher who threw fewer than 100 innings. I just don’t think there’s enough value there.
Here’s my point. Let’s look at the relievers who won the Cy Young Award with fewer than 100 innings pitched (not counting strike years):
Steve Bedrosian, 1987 (40 saves, 2.83 ERA, 89 innings)
The next year, Bedrock had a 3.75 ERA, the next year he was traded, the next year he was traded again.
Mark Davis, 1989 (44 saves. 1.85 ERA, 92 2/3 innings)
The next year, he signed for a big deal with the Kansas City Royals, and instantly became unpitchable. He posted a 5.11 ERA, then a 4.45 ERA, they Royals dumped him, the Braves dumped him, the Phillies released him, the Padres released him, and he was never able again to regain the magic.
Dennis Eckersley, 1992 (7-1, 1.91 ERA, 51 saves, 80 innings)
The next three years, he posted ERAs higher than 4.00 for the A’s, who finally traded him to St. Louis. Eck finished his Hall of Fame career in Boston, a good trivia question.
Eric Gagne, 2003 (55 saves, 1.20 ERA, 82 1/3 innings)
He had a good 2004, but not nearly as good as his 2003 season, and then he had arm troubles and though he kept trying to regain his place, he never again got 20 saves in a season.
Now, let’s be clear: What follows the season has nothing to do with whether or not a pitcher deserves the Cy Young Award (and plenty of starting pitchers have followed up Cy Young years with dreadful seasons).
But I do think that the numbers that relievers put up are very often illusory ... and you see it the very next season. Look: A pitcher who throws hard and throws strikes and gets on a roll can have a great season over 60 or 70 or 80 innings. But that doesn’t mean the pitcher is really great. Mariano Rivera, yeah, he did it year after year after year. Few others have.
I ran a little statistic you might find interesting: Who has had the most seasons with at least 30 saves and at least a 3.0 Wins Above Replacement? Mariano Rivera is the answer, of course, But even I didn’t expect it to be by this much.
Seasons with 30-plus saves and 3.0-plus WAR
1. Mariano Rivera, 10
2. Dan Quisenberry, 4
3. Jonathan Papelbon 3
(tie) Joe Nathan, 3
(tie) Keith Foulke, 3
(tie) Trevor Hoffman, 3
(tie) Bruce Sutter, 3
I love this chart for two reasons. One, it’s another bit of ammunition that I can use in my continuing effort to make everyone realize that Dan Quisenberry was a Hall of Famer. But two, it shows just how rare Mariano Rivera really is. Relief pitching excellence is, in almost every instance, a fleeting thing. One minute you are Jose Valverde closing out 49 saves in 49 opportunities. The next minute you are Jose Valverde, and you can’t get anybody out.
There should be a meaningful relief pitcher award given out by the BBWAA (the Dan Quisenberry Award!). But as great as Craig Kimbrel was this year, as magnificent as Fernando Rodney was, as awesome as Aroldis Chapman was ... I just don’t think their values stand up to the best starters in the game. They should be eligible for the Cy Young Award. I don’t think, though, that they should win it.