Sometimes, 20 wins are simply 20 wins.
In some baseball seasons, particularly in the ones that haven't seen it in a while, 20 wins correctly reflect the body of work, April to September.
After a year of quiet introspection, the 20-game winner returned to baseball on Friday, and brought with it evidence that it was neither fluke nor fancy.
In his second season in Boston, Josh Beckett generally avoided career-long tendencies toward blistering and overthrowing. He took nearly two runs off his 2006 ERA as a result, and nearly halved his walks, and stopped grooving those hard but untidy fastballs, and became the reasonable answer to two questions that gripped Red Sox Nation:
How'd we miss the playoffs last year?
How do we get back this year?
Pitching. And pitching.
In a season in which Beckett went out 9-0, in a season in which he'll go out 7-1 (pending one more start), the Red Sox improved their team ERA over last season by a run.
Beckett did something for that. He got better. And he won 21 games.
AL CY YOUNG AWARD:
Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox. He's the American League's first to win 20 games since Bartolo Colon won 21 – and the Cy Young Award – for the Los Angeles Angels in 2005, and the first for the Red Sox since Curt Schilling (21) in 2004. Beckett benefited greatly from the 6.66 runs per start the Red Sox scored for him, about a run more per game than received by C.C. Sabathia, two runs more than Fausto Carmona, and a run-and-a-half more than John Lackey. Still, he was in the top five in WHIP and ERA, and the top 10 in strikeouts and quality starts. At the end of last season, the impression of Beckett in Boston was that he was a "stuff" guy who wouldn’t think his way through a game, and therefore, in the absence of Martinez and the aging of Curt Schilling, would never be the ace the Red Sox needed. Now he's the ace.
C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland Indians. Sabathia had his best season, setting career highs in wins, starts, innings, strikeouts and, assuming no troubles in his final start Friday, will establish bests in ERA and walks. The Indians offense didn't always treat Sabathia well: In seven starts from July 24 to August 24, Sabathia allowed 12 earned runs, and his record in those starts was 1-3. He matched up against Johan Santana three times, twice in the final five weeks, and won all three games. For a big, left-handed guy, Sabathia has uncommon command, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.69) better than all AL starters.
Fausto Carmona, Cleveland Indians. Carmona underwent one of the astonishing one-year makeovers in memory, turning a forgettable 2006 season (1-10, 5.42 ERA) into a Cy Young candidacy. At 23, the Dominican right-hander won 18 games and had a league-leading 3.03 ERA. He won early (4-0 in May), he won late (4-0 in September) and he won in the middle (5-1 in July), turning a sinker-slider-changeup repertoire into a league-high 415 ground balls.
John Lackey, Los Angeles Angels; Dan Haren, Oakland A's; Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers; Chien-Ming Wang, New York Yankees; Erik Bedard, Baltimore Orioles; Johan Santana, Minnesota Twins; J.J. Putz, Seattle Mariners.
NL CY YOUNG AWARD:
Jake Peavy, San Diego Padres. Peavy should succeed last year's AL Cy Young winner – Johan Santana – as a unanimous choice, the first in the NL since Randy Johnson in 2002. He leads the league in wins (18), ERA (2.36), strikeouts (233), quality starts (27, of 32) and WHIP (1.03). While Peavy has the advantage of the big, pitcher-friendly ballpark, he has been better on the road (9-1, 2.13 ERA) than at Petco Park (9-5, 2.51). Peavy gutted through a difficult 2006, when a sore shoulder didn't keep him from the mound, but reflected in his record and ERA. Healthy again, Peavy competes as hard – or harder – than any pitcher in the game.
Brandon Webb, Arizona Diamondbacks. Webb has won more games, has a better ERA, has more strikeouts and allowed fewer hits than last season, when he beat out Trevor Hoffman and Chris Carpenter for the NL Cy Young. But, there was no Peavy candidate last season. Just another reliably effective season for the sinkerballer, who has made at least 33 starts and pitched at least 208 innings for four consecutive seasons. He's tied for second in wins, third in ERA and first in innings.
John Smoltz, Atlanta Braves. Nineteen years in, Smoltz continues to bring wins and innings and character to the Braves. Smoltz, 40, has his lowest ERA as a starter since 1998, and seemingly won't let the Braves fall out of the postseason without a fight. Beginning in early August, he's made 10 consecutive quality starts. Smoltz has lost seven games and the Braves have scored eight runs in them. In the NL, he is second in ERA, fourth in strikeouts and sixth in WHIP. And, if you had to win one game on one night, he'd still be in the conversation.
Brad Penny, Los Angeles Dodgers; Tim Hudson, Atlanta Braves; Aaron Harang, Cincinnati Reds; Jeff Francis, Colorado Rockies; Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs; Jose Valverde, Arizona Diamondbacks; Takashi Saito, Los Angeles Dodgers.