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November 10, 2004

Prospectus Matchups

NL Cy Young Voting

by Jim Baker

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As is often the case with award voting, I find myself much more puzzled by the second- and third-place votes in this year's National League Cy Young balloting than I am by those for first. This isn't to say there wasn't anything interesting about the first-place tallies, because there certainly was, it's just that I often wonder if as much care is put into the show and place portions of the ballot as is given the win.

With that in mind, let's focus on the seven starting pitchers who received votes in this year's National League Cy Young Award balloting.

First of all, I don't expect the Cy Young voting crowd to pay attention to something like Value Over Replacement Level - at least not in the year 2004. Maybe ten years from now, yes. Having said that, all of the seven starters who received first-, second- or third- place votes finished in the top ten in VORP:

Randy Johnson, 69.3
Ben Sheets, 66.8
Carl Pavano, 62.4
Roger Clemens, 61.3
Carlos Zambrano, 61.3
Jason Schmidt, 60.1
Livan Hernandez, 58.3
Jake Peavy, 57.5
Oliver Perez, 54.5
Roy Oswalt, 51.8

The three starters on this list who did not receive any Cy Young consideration whatsoever are Hernandez, Peavy and Perez. Clemens, the winner, tied for fourth with Carlos Zambrano. VORP is science fiction to most voters, though, so let's judge their voting on more traditional terms: the Triple Crown stats of pitching (Wins, ERA and strikeouts). Did the voters stay loyal to even these time-honored measurements?

I took the ten pitchers listed above and ordered them in each of the three Triple Crown categories and then gave them points on a 10-9-8, etc. basis in each column. Johnson aces the field using this method:

Johnson, 24.5
Clemens, 20
Sheets, 19.5
Schmidt, 19
Oswalt, 17
Zambrano, 16.5
Peavy, 16
Perez, 14.5
Pavano, 13
Hernandez, 5

At least Clemens, the award winner, came in second, so a strong case can be made for him when using these traditional markers. The one pitcher who scores quite well in both reckonings but who is conspicuous by his near non-existence on the ballots is Ben Sheets. He had the second-best VORP in the league (fourth-best in baseball) and third-best showing in this more archaic accounting.

The most inexplicable ballot moves belong to the three men who left the Big Unit off their top three entirely. We can only assume that these people are slaves to winning percentage. After all--as we can see by the second chart above--Johnson excels in every worthwhile traditional category but that one, and a person of even the most basic of intelligences can grasp that he was a bit up against it pitching for the Diamondbacks this year. Of course, the men who left Johnson off their ballots were probably the same ones who would make sport of the 7-16 won-loss record of his unfortunate teammate, Brandon Webb.

Eight folks showed the sense to forget the fact that Johnson was just two games over .500 and slot him in for first place. One voter was bright enough to place Sheets in third, overcoming the long-standing prejudice against starters with losing records. (Relievers have long been voted upon in spite of their won-loss records.) This is by no means an endorsement of Sheets for first, but he clearly should have registered a lot more third-place votes. Personally, I think a Johnson/Clemens/Sheets or Clemens/Johnson/Sheets ballot sounds pretty damn rational.

Starters with losing records garnering votes of any kind to become the Cy guy are pretty rare. Sheets is only the fourth such animal:

.333 Nolan Ryan, 8-16; 1987 Astros (12 points)
.423 Mike Mussina, 11-15; 2000 Orioles (1 point)
.452 Dave Roberts, 14-17; 1971 Padres (2 points)
.462 Sheets, 12-14; 2004 Brewers (1 point)

Getting back to wins and winning percentage, the showing of Oswalt can be placed squarely at the feet of those two team-dependent accountings. How anyone can examine the records of Oswalt and Sheets and conclude that one was the best or second-best pitcher in the league and the other doesn't rate a mention is beyond me. It is votes like this that make me question the credentials of some of those so empowered. Either that, or there is a codicil in the voting directive to which I am not privy that reads:

"The Cy Young Award is for the pitcher who has the best record provided his team supports him in a generous manner."

In 1984, Dave Stieb received five first-place votes with a 17-14 record. Until Johnson's showing this year, that's the most support received by a starter whose record was that close to the bone. Usually, though, to win, place or show, starting pitchers have to clear the .500 hurdle by more than that. Here are more exceptions, a continuation of the list started above:

.500 Fred Norman, 13-13; 1973 Padres & Reds (3 points)
.500 Orel Hershiser, 15-15; 1989 Dodgers (7 points, one first-place vote)
.500 Orel Hershiser, 16-16; 1987 Dodgers (14 points, two first-place votes)
.500 Gaylord Perry, 19-19; 1973 Indians (1 point)
.512 Phil Niekro, 21-20; 1979 Braves (1 point)
.514 Phil Niekro, 19-18, 1978 Braves (10 points)
.515 Bill Stoneman, 17-16; 1971 Expos (1 point)
.515 Bert Blyleven, 17-16; 1985 Indians & Twins (9 points, one first-place vote)

Does Johnson's high finish in spite of his .533 winning percentage mark the beginning of a new era of voter enlightenment? Let's hope so.

A total of four third-place votes were given to relievers. Last year's winner, Eric Gagne, netted three of them and Houston's Brad Lidge got the other. Picking Gagne to win last year was nothing like a stretch. This year, though, his VORP fell from 39.4 to 28.2, making him an iffy candidate for a claim on best reliever in the league, let alone one of the top three pitchers. It was probably not a good year to include a reliever among the top three, and if one had to do so, then why Gagne? Wasn't Armando Benitez as deserving? Yes, he blew four saves to Gagne's two, but he saved two more games, had an ERA nearly a run better and out-VORPed him 33.1 to 28.2. Lidge had the highest VORP among relievers with a figure of 39.0, so his inclusion on a ballot is, at least, defensible from that viewpoint.

Am I quibbling too much over third-place votes? Perhaps, in that the race wasn't close enough for third-place votes to matter, but a voter doesn't know that when they mark their ballot. When a voter has only three names to place, they should be well-considered. (As an aside, I wish the Cy Young ballots contained ten places rather three. It would make writing observations such as this one as multi-layered as those for the Most Valuable Player awards.)

Related Content:  The Who,  First Place

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