Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cy Young Voters Finally Get It

A couple programming notes first: You may have noticed I've changed the name of the blog to "Backdoor Slider," one of my all-time favorite baseball sayings. "Can O' Corn" just didn't have the same ring to it. I started this blog over two years ago, and I finally realized how stupid and boring "Jake's Baseball Blog" was. For now, the URL stays the same.

Also, expect the first installment of my "Lists of the Decade" series to go up Wednesday morning for you to chew on through the holiday weekend. The first will be the Backdoor Slider MLB All-Decade Position Players, with rankings for first, second and third teams. Lists for the best starting pitchers, relief pitchers, teams and games will follow through the rest of 2009. I'm also pondering some "worsts" lists, like worst teams and most catastrophic contracts. Should be fun.

What I'd like to talk about today is what appears to be a fundamental shift in awards balloting for MLB, and we've seen it twice this week with Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum winning the 2009 Cy Young Awards for their respective leagues. Both of these young righty hurlers were the best candidates and most deserving winners this year. But, based on the nature of their statistics and the teams they played for, I feel like five or 10 years ago neither of these men would have captured their awards.

Let's start with Greinke. He had a phenomenal year by any stretch: a 2.16 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 242 Ks in 229.1 innings, a 4.75 K/BB, and a league-low 0.4 HR/9. It's one of the best seasons by an A.L. pitcher since Pedro Martinez was dominating for the Red Sox from '98-'00. But working against him were excellent seasons by Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, both of whom benefited by playing for much better teams.

Greinke finished '09 with just 16 wins while both Hernandez and Verlander had 19. The Royals won 65 games, while Detroit and Seattle won 86 and 85, respectively. Hernandez finished with the best quality start percentage (0.85), win percentage (.792) and the second-best ERA (2.48). Verlander pitched the most innings (240), had the most Ks (263) but was relatively far behind in ERA (3.45).

Even though Hernandez was spectacular, the only real edge he held over Greinke was the three extra wins. Greinke had more strikeouts, gave up fewer walks, hits and homers. These are all much more important stats than wins, which is something a pitcher ultimately can't control (a pitcher can't always control hits and homers either, but that's another debate). Greinke was the best pitcher in the A.L. this year regardless how how bad his team played.

So I was very pleased on Tuesday when Greinke was overwhelmingly voted to win the A.L. Cy Young. He received 25 of 28 first-place votes, with Hernandez getting two and Verlander one. It was historic in the sense that only David Cone had won the A.L. Cy Young as a starter with as few as 16 wins, and that was in a strike-shortened season.

In the past, I suppose Greinke could have still won, but not so convincingly. Voters would have talked themselves into the superficial wins deficit. It may have been impossible for Greinke to win at all had Hernandez or Verlander reached the magical 20-win mark. But like I said before, by any relevant statistical measure, Greinke had the best season, and the voters got it right.

The N.L. race was much closer, and more interesting. This wound up being one of the tightest Cy Young votes in history between three top-flight righties: Tim Lincecum, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Lincecum had the highest quality start percentage (0.81) and the most strikeouts (261). Carp earned the best winning percentage (.810), the lowest ERA (2.24) and WHIP (1.01). Wainwright had the most wins (19) and innings (233). Carp won 17 games and Lincecum just 15 pitching for an offensively-challenged Giants team.

I had Wainwright third because he finished behind in ERA (2.63) and strikeouts (212). To me, Lincecum beats out Carp because Carp pitched just 192.2 innings to Lincecum's 225.1. Lincecum's ERA might have been slightly higher (2.48), but his numbers are more impressive because he made four more starts than Carp. Throw in that Carp had only 144 Ks and clearly relied on his defense more than either Lincecum or Wainwright (which is why Keith Law left him off his ballot entirely) and I think it's obvious that Lincecum was deserving of his second straight Cy Young.

The voters, again, got it right, but barely. Just six points separated Lincecum from Carp and 10 from Wainwright. Wainwright actually beat Lincecum in first-place votes, 12 to 11. But like the A.L., voters discounted wins and gave the award to the best pitcher. Lincecum becomes the first starter to win a Cy Young Award with as few as 15 wins. Again, had Wainwright managed to get one more victory, he probably would have won.

This is truly hair-splitting because all three were deserving winners. Had either Carp or Wainwright won, I'd have been fine with it. It's just that Lincecum deserved it the most and it wouldn't have been right to discount him solely because he won just 15 games. Thankfully, it didn't happen.

I hope this means we're headed for a new era in baseball award balloting where common sense and meaningful statistics rule the day. It only took a hundred or so years, but it seems like we're finally here. Now if only we could fix the Gold Gloves so they weren't a complete joke.

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