The voting bloc in the Baseball Writers' Association of America has made some fairly egregious mistakes in selecting awards in the past, all of which its critics dissect with cynical glee. Contrary to some of my peers' opinions, this is a good thing.
The best kind of voter is the educated one, and plenty of times, the BBWAA has turned awards into one-issue races. This is most apparent with the Cy Young Award, which historically boils down to the most impressive win total.
So consider this year's National League Cy Young voting not only a wonderful test on that pattern but also a dipstick on whether an influx of younger writers – likelier to embrace statistical metrics that discount wins themselves – has reached a level of influence.
Now, before the hard-liners start Photoshopping me into this picture: Wins are important. They are the crux of the game. They also are a function of team as much as pitcher. To decide strictly on wins can be like casting a vote for a president because he'll lower gas prices, even though he might also raise taxes and unilaterally attack Iran.
Now, this is not to say Brandon Webb would hike taxes and start a war. He is just that candidate. His 19 wins lead the National League, and for most of the summer, he seemed a lock to win his second Cy Young.
Then he had a couple rough outings and the rest of his numbers started to pale compared to the other top candidate, San Francisco right-hander Tim Lincecum. In nearly every category that indicates dominance from a pitcher, Lincecum leads Webb. Earned-run average. Batting average against. Opponent OPS. Strikeouts. Home runs allowed. And, if you want to look at wins, then losses should be weighted equally, and Lincecum's won-lost percentage is more than 100 points higher than Webb's. The only area Webb leads is groundball-to-flyball ratio, and he is so far superior to anyone in the NL, that should count for something.
Still, this would be a runaway were it not for the complicating factor of CC Sabathia and his dream (half-)season in Milwaukee. What, baseball gods, it wasn't enough to give the voters a straight-up wins-against-numbers case and see if they could get it right? You had to complicate it like this?
Thing is, this shouldn't muddy the voting too much. For how great Sabathia has been – and it's difficult to understate his brilliance with the Brewers – he has still been in the NL for only 13 starts. Lincecum will make his 30th start Saturday, and so the real race comes to a simple question: a full season of greatness or a half of other-worldliness?
History says the half-season wins. On June 13, 1984, Rick Sutcliffe, in the midst of a terrible season with Cleveland, was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Over his next 20 starts, he went 16-1 with a 2.59 ERA and led the Cubs to the NL East title. Sutcliffe received all 24 of the first-place votes in that year's Cy Young voting.
Never mind that there was a pitcher in the NL who was every bit as good as Sutcliffe, and had done it for a full season. Dwight Gooden was a phenom. He was 19 years old. He threw 98 mph. His curveball froze hitters. His ERA was one-hundredth of a point higher than Sutcliffe's. He struck out 276 hitters in 218 innings. He even had one more win than Sutcliffe.
So there is precedent, even if it was somewhat misguided. Though you'd like to think the voters will refrain from considering a starting pitcher who, at most, will throw 129 innings in the league in which he's being considered. And that is if Sabathia throws complete games in his final three starts, which not even Ned Yost is doltish enough to allow.
Which leaves us with Lincecum. He has faced bias throughout his short career. He wasn't tall enough. He was too skinny. His motion was too weird. He'd blow out his arm. He was too wild. Nine teams passed on Lincecum – for Luke Hochevar and Greg Reynolds and Andrew Miller, to name a few – because of these concerns, because it's a lot easier to go with what's been right in the past rather than forge a new path.
I have no idea how this year's NL Cy Young voting will turn out. Any of the three could take it. Maybe Webb's wins win out. Perhaps Sabathia's grand 3 1/2-month turn, and the Brewers' likely playoff appearance, puts him on top. If the voters want to get it right, though – if they want to accept the past for what it was and move on by using the right kind of analysis, much like the majority of teams around the game have – then Lincecum is the guy.
No need to give the critics anything else to nitpick.
- Rick Sutcliffe
- Cy Young