Monday, August 04, 2008

Worst Cy Young Winners (AL)

The Cy Young Award has been handed out to the best pitcher(s) in baseball since 1956. It started out as one award given to the best pitcher in MLB. Don Newcombe was the first winner. In 1967, the award split into two separate awards given to the best pitchers in the American and National Leagues. The award is supposed to go to the “best pitcher” but since it is voted on by humans—by definition—it is a purely subjective award. In most cases, voters get it right. However, as you might expect, there have been a number of votes ranging from highly questionable to downright horrible. Of the 95 Cy Young Awards that have been handed out, 24 have gone to the wrong pitcher—12 in the American League and 12 in the National League. That’s a 76% success-rate which isn’t too bad. However, in a world rules by statistics, poor decisions stick out like Brian Knobbs’s beer belly.

Cy Young voters love them some “wins.” Voters seem content with voting illogically as long as there is a high-win total involved. In virtually every instance that the award was given to the wrong pitcher, the winner had a higher win total than the pitcher who should’ve won. I would suspect that most knowledgeable baseball fans would admit that the most meaningful pitching statistic is ERA. “Wins” is a function of the strength of a team. ERA, while somewhat affected by defense, is on the pitcher. Wins are important but they are not always indicative of the best pitching performance. Before I get to the American League’s worst winners, I want to clarify that this isn’t a knock on the winners. There is no question that winning a Cy Young Award—whether it was the right decision or not—means that the winner had an excellent season. However, the award is supposed to go to the “best” pitcher in the league. A good season is commendable but only the best should win the Cy Young.

Worst Cy Young Votes in American League History (winner listed first)


Bartolo Colon3.4812272%222.7211.18157
Johan Santana2.8715570%231.716.97238

As you can see, the 2005 AL Cy Young voting is the classic case of favoring flare over substance. Santana clearly had the better season. He had a considerably better ERA than Colon and he even pitched more innings. Santana’s WHIP was an unbelievable .97. Colon’s was a pedestrian 1.18. While Colon won more games, Santana clearly performed the best. It’s a shame that Santana was denied being honored as the best pitcher in the American League in 2005; it prevented him from becoming only the third pitcher to win three consecutive Cy Young awards (Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux are the only two to do it). Colon is easily one of the least deserving winners of all-time.


Barry Zito2.7515882%229.3231.13182
Pedro Martinez2.2620283%199.3320.92239

The only thing keeping the 2002 Cy Young voting from being worse than 2005 is the fact that Barry Zito pitched 30 more innings than Pedro (or five more starts). Pedro’s numbers for ’05 were staggering. His WHIP was astronomically low at .92. His ERA+ was 44 points better than Zito’s. Pedro even had a better winning percentage. Zito’s season was pretty good but it paled in comparison. In fact, Pedro’s ’02 campaign was one of the most dominating pitching performances in MLB history.


Roger Clemens3.5112887%220.33201.26213
Mike Mussina3.1514261%228.7171.07214

At first glance, the 2001 AL Cy Young voting doesn’t look that bad. However, it is a perfect example of how screwed up the thinking of Cy Young voters can be. Clemens and Mike Mussina played for the same team. Mussina beat Clemens in every statistical category with the exception of wins and winning percentage. Those are the categories that pitchers have the least control over. Mussina had the better ERA, ERA+, and WHIP. In fact, it really wasn’t close. Mussina also pitched more innings. How a pitcher can have a considerably better ERA over more innings than a pitcher on his own team and lose to that pitcher is unfathomable.


Jack McDowell3.3712569%256.7221.29158
Randy Johnson3.2413670%255.3191.11308

Sometimes pitchers win Cy Young Awards because their teams make the playoffs. In ’93, McDowell had the golden combination of leading the league in wins while pitching for a playoff team. That virtually guarantees a Cy Young. However, he wasn’t the best pitcher in the AL in ’93. Randy Johnson was. The Big Unit was denied a sixth Cy Young because of politics. Johnson owned McDowell in all of the most telling statistics including ERA, ERA+, and WHIP. Johnson also struck nearly twice as many batters for a whopping total of 308. However, McDowell got more run support and was deemed the better pitcher.


Bob Welch2.9512682%238271.22127
Roger Clemens1.9321378%228.3211.08209

The three worst Cy Young votes that I have seen happened in 2005 (Colon over Santana), 1993 (McDowell over Johnson), and 1990. Bob Welch wowed voters by amassing 27 wins which was the highest win total in MLB in 22 years (Denny McClain won 31 in 1968). Most voters had their minds made up before a statistical breakdown even entered their consciousness. Welch had the lethal combination of leading the league in wins on a playoff team. Unfortunately, nobody paid attention to Roger Clemens who had one of the great seasons in MLB history. His 213 ERA+ is one of the great marks of all-time. Only Clemens in ’05 and Kevin Brown in ’96 posted better ERA+ marks without winning the Cy Young. Clemens also destroyed Welch in WHIP. There is no question—given the same run support—that 100% of smart people would’ve chosen Clemens to pitch for them over Welch in 1990--unless, of course, your name is Rachel Phelps and you own the fictitious Cleveland Indians.


Bret Saberhagen2.8714577%235.3201.06158
Dave Stieb2.4817252%265141.14167

Dave Stieb has been more adversely affected by poor Cy Young voting than any other pitcher in MLB history. He should have won two Cy Young awards. Instead, he has zero. If it’s any consolation, even with the two that he deserved, he still wouldn’t have been a Hall of Famer. He simply would’ve joined Denny McClain as the only two-time winner not in the Hall of Fame. Instead, Saberhagen won it and he joined McLain as the only two-time winners not in the Hall of Fame. Still, I’m sure Stieb wouldn’t have complained. He was clearly the better pitcher in the AL in 1985. Stieb’s ERA was 27 points higher and he pitched 30 more innings. Unfortunately for Stieb, the voters were made up of a group of people who obviously didn’t understand that having better run support doesn’t have anything to do with pitching.


La Marr Hoyt3.6611571%260.7241.02148
Jack Morris3.3411761%293.7201.16232

If Pitcher A has a better ERA and ERA+ and pitches 33 more innings than Pitcher B, shouldn’t it be a fact that Pitcher A pitched better? Unfortunately for Jack Morris, there were enough voters in 1983 who would’ve answered “no.” Hoyt had the highest ERA of any Cy Young winner in MLB history but he led the league in wins and his team made the playoffs so Morris was S.O.L.


Pete Vuckovich3.3411475%223.7181.50105
Jim Palmer3.1312975%227151.14103
Dave Stieb3.2513855%288.3171.2141

The 1983 Cy Young voting was so bad that there were two pitchers who deserved to win ahead of the actual winner, Pete Vuckovich. Jim Palmer had a much better ERA and ERA+ than Vuckovich and he did it over more innings. If it were just between Palmer and Vuckovich, Palmer should’ve been the guy. However, Dave Stieb’s season destroyed Palmer’s season. He clearly should’ve won the Cy Young in ’83. He pitched 55 more innings (or eight more starts) than Vuckovich and had a much better ERA+ than both Palmer and Vuckovich. Amazingly, Stieb only garnered enough votes for fourth place.


Steve Stone3.2312378%250.7251.3149
Mike Norris2.5314871%284.3221.05180

It was more of the same in 1980. Mike Norris had a much better ERA, ERA+ and WHIP and did it over 34 more innings. Yet, Steve Stone took home the hardware.


Sparky Lyle2.1718272%137131.206826
Jim Palmer2.9113265%319201.141930
Nolan Ryan2.7714154%299191.343410

I don’t know who should have won the award in 1977 but it shouldn’t have been Sparky Lyle. Lyle pitched a not-so-whopping total of 137 innings. Nolan Ryan went for 299 and Jim Palmer went for 319. Ryan struck out 341 batters which was the 8th highest total since 1905. Ryan and Palmer split the votes allowing Lyle to sneak away with the award without even receiving 1/3 of the first-place votes. Together, Ryan and Palmer accounted for 12 first-place votes which were more than Lyle’s nine. Ryan famously won zero Cy Young awards but he arguably should have won in ’77. Either that, or Palmer should’ve picked up his fourth.


Jim Perry3.0412567%278.7241.13168
Sam McDowell2.9213463%305201.20304
Jim Palmer2.7113467%305201.19199

The 1970 vote again features Jim Palmer. On three occasions, Palmer had a better season than the eventual Cy Young winner. However, in all three instances, a third pitcher had a better season than the eventual Cy Young winner as well. Like the ’77 voting, I’m not sure who should’ve won the award in ’70 but I know it shouldn’t have been Jim Perry. Palmer and Sam McDowell both had better ERA’s and did it with nearly 30 more innings. Perry was clearly the least qualified of the three. Amazingly, Palmer and McDowell each had an ERA+ of 134, pitched exactly 305 innings, and won exactly 20 games. Separating those two is a chore that I want no part of. The silliness of the ’70 vote didn’t end with Perry winning. Two of Palmer’s teammates actually finished ahead of him in the voting even though Palmer pitched more innings with a better ERA. Palmer only managed a 5th place finish!


Jim Lonborg3.1611171%273.3221.14246
Joe Horlen2.0614673%25819.95103

I don’t know too much about either pitcher but I do know that Horlen’s ERA was more than a full run better than Lonborg’s. There is only so much a pitcher can control on a bad team. The Cy Young is supposed to be given to the best pitcher in the league. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity like there is with the MVP. Assuming the inning-totals are relatively close, if Pitcher A has an ERA that is a full run better than Pitcher B, then pitcher A was the better pitcher.

The 2008 AL Cy Young Race

The 2008 AL Cy Young will hopefully go to a deserving candidate. Unless something major occurs over the next two months, we should be looking at a four-pitcher race between Cliff Lee, Mike Mussina, Roy Halladay, and Francisco Rodriguez. Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders of the Angels will likely cancel each other out. Each of the four pitchers has a compelling case to be considered the favorite at this point. Halladay is second in the AL in WHIP, third in ERA and leads the league in Complete Games, Shutouts, and Innings. Cliff Lee leads the AL in Wins and Win % and is second and third in ERA and WHIP, respectively. Mike Mussina probably has the weakest “numbers” but probably has the best sentimental case (not that I advocate this). He is the third oldest starter in the AL. He has finished in the top six in the Cy Young voting eight times without winning the award. He is tied for the league-lead in wins. At this point, he doesn’t deserve to win but you can’t put a “good story” past the voters. The last remaining candidate—and likely winner—is K-Rod. He isn’t having his best season but all anyone will care about at the end of the year is that he destroyed the single-season saves record. Halladay and Lee are pitching for teams that are under .500. Mussina’s numbers aren’t good enough. That should mean any easy victory for K-Rod which would make him the tenth different reliever to win the award.

Best guess for 2008 AL Cy Young ballot (as of August 4, 2008)

1). Francisco Rodriguez
2). Cliff Lee
3). Roy Halladay
4). Mike Mussina
5). Joe Saunders
6). Ervin Santana

Worst Cy Young Winners (NL)


Bill Morran said...

I agree that K-Rod will win the award, but it pisses me off. He has a disgusting WHIP and ERA for a closer, and this saves record is all that will win it for him. I don't have any doubt that Roy Halladay should win it. I can't stand the Blue Jays (it's hard being a fan of another team in Toronto), but I can't deny that Halladay has been dominant.

He won't win because he plays for a Canadian team. Same reason Carlos Delgado has never won an MVP.

Anonymous said...

He might not have been a sexy name, but Appier probably deserved mention in 1993 over Randy Johnson. His ERA+ (179) and ERA (2.56) trumped Johnson that season.

Jake said...

Good call! Appier was certainly the most deserving in '93.


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