Is 20 wins no longer a magic number? It’s about time.
This is not the first time that the Cy Young voters have bypassed a 20-game winner like Josh Beckett for a pitcher who didn’t win 20, like the 19-7 C.C. Sabathia. It happened in 2004, when Roger Clemens (18-4) won the Cy over teammate Roy Oswalt (20-10). Likewise in 2003, when Eric Gagne became the first reliever to win the Cy in over a decade, with Atlanta’s Russ Ortiz (21-7) finishing in fourth place. And in happened in both leagues in 2000, when Randy Johnson (19-7) took the N.L. hardware before Tom Glavine (21-9) and Darryl Kile (20-9), while Pedro Martinez (18-6) unanimously won the A.L. Cy rather than Tim Hudson (20-6) or David Wells (20-8).
But this case was different, because the differences between C.C. Sabathia and Josh Beckett were otherwise very subtle. They finished with nearly identical ERAs (3.27 for Beckett, 3.21 for Sabathia), and the same number of losses (seven apiece). Both pitchers had outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratios (209-to-37 for Sabathia, 194-to-40 for Beckett). Each one led his team to 96 wins and the division crown. This was not the case in previous years; when Pedro Martinez won the 2000 award with 18 wins in 2000, his microscopic 1.74 ERA was less than half that of 20-game winners Tim Hudson (4.14) and David Wells (4.11).
Let’s take nothing away from Josh Beckett, who has a World Series ring to show for his efforts, and who is the best right-handed pitcher in his league right now. But the voters made the right choice. The principle reason is simply a matter of volume. Sabathia pitched 241 innings to Beckett’s 200.7, an advantage of more than 20 percent. He completed the 7th inning 24 times, as opposed to Beckett’s 15, a critical threshold for a team with a set-up man as effective as Rafael Betancourt, but inconsistent middle relief. As a result, Sabathia finished with a 65.2 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) to Beckett’s 58.6. The voters for the real thing have started to look at these statistics like the voters for the Internet Baseball Awards did in giving the award to Sabathia, and it’s giving them a more complete picture of pitcher performance.
Hazard Pay? Sabathia will take home a $3 million bonus for winning the Cy Young, and one of the prevailing themes in today’s media coverage is that this amounts to hazard pay. Sabathia, after all, appeared tired on the post-season, watching his ERA balloon up to 8.80 as the Indians succumbed to the Red Sox. Although there is believed to be nothing wrong with his arm, Indians fans will be at least a little bit nervous when he takes the mound again next spring.
At the same time, it would be a stretch to assert that the Indians made some kind of a trade-off between a Cy Young for Sabathia and a World Series appearance. Sabathia made five starts in September and threw 523 pitches; Beckett, who is slightly less efficient with his pitches, also made five starts and threw 553 pitches. Yes, Beckett pitched fewer innings on the season, principally because of a trip to the DL in May. But he was worked just as hard as Sabathia down the stretch run. Nor were Sabathia’s pitch counts especially high. He required fewer pitches on the season (3,581) to complete his 240.7 innings than the Rays’ Scott Kazmir needed (3,609) to complete his 206.7 innings.
Baseball can be a monkey-see, monkey-do sport, and the perception that Sabathia was overused, while Beckett was handled more carefully, could turn out to be a very powerful one. It wouldn’t surprise me if late September baseball comes to resemble Week 17 in the NFL, with playoff-bound teams resting their regulars and going with their taxi squads. If that is the case, then the 240.7 innings that Sabathia pitched, and the Cy Young Award that it earned him, will stand out even more in future seasons.