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August 4, 2005

Prospectus Today

The Debate Begins

by Joe Sheehan

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On ESPNews yesterday with Dave Revsine, I got asked about the NL Cy Young race, which has become a two-man issue.

Actually, perhaps I should say that it's become a two-track issue. For as great as Roger Clemens has been, every Chris Carpenter outing that ends with him notching a "W" makes it less likely that the award voters are going to see it as a two-horse race. So what we're talking about here is who will win versus who should win.

Let's start with some numbers:


           W  L   ERA     IP   BB   SO  HR   OBP   SLG  BABIP   VORP  SNLVAR
Carpenter 16  4  2.26  163.1   37  151   9  .260  .314   .272   58.3     6.8
Clemens   10  4  1.45  149.0   42  135   6  .249  .261   .240   66.3     7.4
In everything but wins and ERA--you know, the things that the voters look at--the two pitchers are Tom-and-Katie close. Carpenter has pitched a few more innings, usually at the end of games, giving him an edge in complete games and shutouts. He has the better strikeout and walk rates, while giving up a shade more homers. His higher GB/FB ratio (2.14, vs. Clemens' 1.35) accounts for some of the difference between their respective batting averages on balls in play, but doesn't keep him from allowing more extra-base hits and a higher isolated power (.100 vs. .073). Both pitchers have allowed four unearned runs, so nothing's being hidden.

Plugging all of this into the metrics that Keith Woolner generates for us yields a slight sabermetric edge, around 3/4 of a win, for Clemens. That's a small gap, certainly one that can be surmountable over the last eight weeks of the season. Going a little bit deeper, into the player cards, shows Clemens with small edges in translated ERA and Wins Above Replacement, the numbers that Clay Davenport developed. Overall. It's fair to say that the advanced numbers show Clemens as ahead of Carpenter at this point.

I don't think we're talking enough about what Clemens is doing. His road ERA seems to be getting attention, but his overall mark of 1.45 would be the lowest since 1968, or put differently, the lowest since the era of 20-inch mounds and ears-to-ankles strike zones. The low mark since then is Dwight Gooden's 1.53 in 1985, and just 17 pitchers have posted season ERAs below 2.00 while qualifying for the ERA title. Clemens himself did it in 1990. This isn't just a Cy Young season; it's making a run at one of the best pitcher seasons in history.

That's not to slight Carpenter, who has come back from multiple shoulder surgeries to reinvent himself as a power/groundball pitcher. That 2.14 GB/FB ratio is nearly double his rate before he missed the 2003 season, and he's cut his walk rate from his Blue Jays days by more than 30%.

And let's face it: Carpenter is much more likely to take home the hardware. Clemens' historic lack of run support in the early part of the season cost him critical wins. His ERA edge and his chance to set a post-1968 record in that category are fascinating, but even if he does that, he'll have to close the gap between him and Carpenter in the wins column to garner votes. ERA aside, there's virtually no precedent for giving the Cy Young Award to a candidate who has many fewer wins than the league leader, and it's not like Carpenter is some Bob Welch creation of a great offense and bullpen.

Setting aside years in which a reliever won, the only time a starter won a Cy Young Award despite having five or more wins separating him and another pitcher was Randy Johnson in 1999. The Big Unit went 17-9 that season, against Mike Hampton's 22-4. Of course, Johnson led the league in ERA, strikeouts (with a whopping 364), and had a highly publicized midseason stretch of non-support from his Diamondback teammates; they were shut out in four straight Johnson outings.

A handful of pitchers have overcome three-win gaps, usually by having an ERA a run lower than the competition. Rick Sutcliffe's 1984 award might fit; he was 16-1 in a National League that included 20-game winner Joaquin Andujar, although he did win 20 games overall, having gone 4-5 in the AL before a May trade.

For Clemens to win the Cy Young Award, one of two things will have to happen. He will have to keep his ERA so low that the number itself becomes his case. If the hook becomes, "best ERA since Bob Gibson," that will be the kind of thing that can get voters excited. If he can't do that, he'll have to close the gap between him and Carpenter in the wins column. If the edge at the end of the season in 23-17 or something, it's going to be an uphill battle. 22-18 or so may get him in the picture.

Is it logical? No, but until pitcher wins are seen as an accounting tool with odd parameters rather than a performance metric, they're going to have an impact on Cy Young voting.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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