Back in the day, as the current idiom goes, only one Cy Young Award was given out at the end of the major league baseball season. This went on from 1956 until 1966, only eleven years. The goal was to pick the very best pitcher in all of baseball, to honor Mr. Young who had passed away in 1955. After 1966, for some dim reason, MLB decided that there was no such thing as the “best” in pitching, and thus, we began to have two Cy Young awardees, as though Cy had a twin brother, I guess. One could then argue whether, in 1967, Jim Lonborg was better than Mike McCormick or not, just as one could argue whether or not the N.L. MVP was better than the A.L.’s.
About four minutes later, if my timeline memory is accurate, Steve Boras insisted that all the pitchers he represented in both leagues have Cy Young balloting clauses in their contracts…which, of course, gave rise to sabermetrics and the discovery that a pencil-necked geek with a pocket protector is the actual authority on the best anything in baseball. (“Best” didn’t interest Steve, though; he just wanted that extra $100,000 for his guy who finished third in the Cy Young race unless, naturally, the geek said his boy somehow was the best despite his third place finish.)
And everything’s better for all of this, we’d all surely agree.
What if, for nostalgia’s sake, though, we went back to the notion of one Cy Young Award, and we decided it the way they did way back then when Ed Sullivan, rather than Lady Gaga, was the principal Media Royal?
We have become very scientific with our baseball data now – to the point of obscuring greatness, I’d argue, what with “things” like WHIP and other such obscure acronyms. Actually, WHIP (BB+H/IP) isn’t that bad, but they surely didn’t calculate WHIPs back in that stretch when Sandy Koufax won three of those available eleven, singular Cy Youngs.
Why? It’s simple: Back then, there were a lot of people knew that there really are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics. Yes, yes, Billy Beane did figure out a few cute things, but back when John F. Kennedy took office, everybody understood that what counted for pitchers was wins, earned run average, and strikeouts (in that order). Period. That we can now figure out WHIPs is nice, but – sometimes – really meaningless. To pick a day at random – September 15th – one could see that Mat (Where’s My Other T?) Latos led all of baseball with a WHIP of 0.99. Swell, but was this helping his team? Seemingly not: the Padres were collapsing. On the other hand, on September 14th, Phillies ace Roy Halladay threw a pug ugly winning game against Florida for his 19th victory, but wasn’t even in the WHIP top five the next day. His team, however, added a game to their lead over Atlanta in the N.L. East with that pug ugly win. As they would have told WHIP Boys in 1960, it’s the win total that counts most.
There was a fourth factor in deciding those early Cy Young winners – team standing – but an examination of those winners is telling: The win totals for those eleven, earliest Cy Young winners ran between twenty (Vern Law, 1960, and Dean Chance, 1964) and twenty-seven (Don Newcombe, 1956, and Sandy Koufax, 1966). It was a time of the four-man rotation, rather than the modern five, but still, six of these eleven trophies went to pitchers with at least twenty-five wins. All three of Koufax’ C-Y wins were twenty-five-plus win efforts. In terms of ERA, two winners were below 2.00; seven were below 3.00, and of the four who were over 3.00 (but below 3.22), well, they lost an average of only 7.5 games per year.
So, what would we have if we decided on one Cy Young winner this year, the so-called Year of the Pitcher? How do the best pitchers line up in late September, when the wins can only increase by one every five days out, and the other two meaningful numbers don’t move dramatically in terms of percentage among the best?
(Oh and yes, that means forget relief pitchers in this, the Year of the Sometimes Cheesy No-Hitter.)
At the top of the wins list are C.C. Sabathia (NYY), Roy Halladay (PHI), Adam Wainwright (STL), and Ubaldo Jimenez (COL). Jimenez threw a perfect game April 17th against Atlanta; Halladay threw a perfect game May 29th against division rival Florida. Halladay is also the only pitcher of those four who seems to maintain a top five standing as well in ERA and strikeouts. (Wainwright seems to bounce in and out of the ERA top five.)
In other words, if things don’t change much between now and the end of the season (and they likely won’t), Doc Halladay should win the 2010 “JFK” Cy Young Award as baseball’s best pitcher – by a whisker.
“2010 No-Hitters.” Yahoo! Sports. 16 September 2010.
“Most Valuable Player MVP Awards & Cy Young Awards Winners.” Baseball-Reference.com. 15 September 2010.
“Philadelphia at Florida,” MLB Baseball. CSN. 14 September 2010.”Pitching Leaders.” MLB.com. 20 September 2010.