Anybody else think Russ Ortiz looks a little like Pete Vuckovich?

Ortiz was credited with his 18th win yesterday, which gives him three more Ws than any other National League pitcher. Now, while there can be a lot of legitimate debate about who the best hurler in the NL is this year, Ortiz really shouldn’t be part of any of it. His win total is entirely a function of durability and a great Braves’ offense, which has scored 134 runs in his 179 1/3 innings pitched, good for third in the league in run support. In most other categories, he’s unimpressive: 11th in Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement, 13th in ERA and 19th in strikeouts (with a poor 121/83 K/BB ratio).

This is a weird year in the NL. The best pitchers in the league by Support-Neutral measures are all lacking in the traditional statistics, mostly because almost all of them have spent time on the disabled list or been hampered by insufficient run support.

                     SNWAR   W-L      IP     ERA    SO
Brandon Webb          5.3    8-6    143.2   2.51   141
Curt Schilling        4.5    7-7    135.0   2.60   160
Jason Schmidt         4.5   12-5    163.1   2.37   164
Kevin Brown           4.1   12-7    172.0   2.15   151
Hideo Nomo            4.1   15-9    190.1   2.70   154

There’s no precedent for a starting pitcher with 12 or 13 wins in a full season winning the award. That means Brandon Webb and Curt Schilling are pretty much eliminated from consideration, despite being the two best pitchers in the league by SNWAR. Jason Schmidt was the league’s best arm for most of the first half, but with just 12 wins, he’s bucking history: no starting pitcher has ever won the award in a full season without at least 17 wins (Rick Sutcliffe is a partial exception, having gone 16-1 with the Cubs in 1984, although he did win 20 total that year). The same applies to Kevin Brown, who leads the league in ERA for a team that can’t score. Teammate Hideo Nomo hasn’t been as dominant, but he’s gotten more support and thrown more innings, which could make a difference to the voters.

The reason Ortiz looms large as a mistake selection is that historically, it is very difficult for a pitcher to be the only guy in his league with 20 or more wins and not win the Cy Young Award. Denny Neagle turned the trick in 1999, also for the Braves, when it was clear he wasn’t the best pitcher on his team and Pedro Martinez put up an ERA more than a run lower than he did. Mike Scott in 1989, Joaquin Andujar in 1984 (technically, to Sutcliffe), and Ron Bryant in 1973 are the only NL pitchers to do it. Mike Boddicker is the only AL pitcher who ever pulled it off, doing so in 1984.

The lack of clear candidate starters has led to speculation that a relief pitcher could walk away with the award. There are two strong entries in John Smoltz and Eric Gagne, both of whom have high save totals and microscopic ERAs. Neither will reach 100 innings this season, but because few of the league’s best starters will get much past 200, it’s easier to make the argument that the higher leverage of the relievers’ innings makes up the gap.

         W-L   SV/Opp   ERA     IP   SO  BB   HR   AVG   OBP   SLG
Smoltz   0-2   44/47   0.89   61.0   67   8    2  .203  .229  .275
Gagne    2-3   43/43   1.50   66.0  113  17    2  .133  .198  .182

Choosing between these two isn’t easy, but for me, Gagne’s dominance–reflected in his strikeout total and opposition batting numbers–outweighs Smoltz’s advantage in ERA. Smoltz had a larger saves lead when the month began, but hasn’t gotten many opportunities in August, which has enabled Gagne to close the gap in that category and may have cut off Smoltz’s best route to the award: the saves record, currently 57. Given the pool of starters, both of these pitchers have a reasonable case for the Cy Young Award.

Ortiz, however, is certain to stand out from the crowd. He is providing bulk innings for the best team in the league, one that’s leading the circuit in runs. He’s not putting up impressive numbers outside of innings pitched and wins, and he’s certainly not the best pitcher in the league. He’s even a bit on the heavy side. If that’s not the recipe for a Pete Vukovich–who won the AL Cy Young in 1982 for the Brewers with much the same profile–comparison, I don’t know what is:

           Year   W-L    ERA     IP    SO   BB
Ortiz      2003   18-5   3.56   179.1  121   83
Vukovich   1982   18-6   3.34   223.2  105  102

At this point, I’m pretty sure we can narrow the field to three candidates: Ortiz and the two relievers. Schmidt or Brown could win it by picking up five wins down the stretch, and I guess Nomo could do that as well, although it’s rare for someone off-radar–Livan Hernandez?–in August to collect hardware in November. I don’t think there’s much question that both relievers have stronger cases than Ortiz does, but the history of the award favors pitchers with impressive won-lost records. Given that Gagne and Smoltz could split the reliever vote, there is an excellent chance that this year’s NL Cy Young Award will go to the 12th-best pitcher in the league.

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