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It’s somewhat daunting to discuss a vote in which 23 of the 28 ballots were exactly identical, but that’s the challenge with this year’s American League Cy Young Award. There isn’t much wiggle room to look for what-ifs, but let’s give it a shot anyway.

First of all, did Johan Santana deserve to be a unanimous choice? The easy answer is: “Sure, why not?” Unanimous decisions have been, occasionally, reached in more crowded fields than this one.

There have been 13 unanimous selections since 1970, when the Cy Young Award voting was expanded to allow voters to place second- and third-place votes in addition to naming the winner. On 12 of those occasions–including this one–the unanimous winner was also the league leader in VORP. In cases of unanimity, it’s important to look at the margin between the leader and the runner-up. As margins for unanimous awardees go, Santana’s bulge over Curt Schilling skews to the lower end:

Year Lg         Winner            VORP   2nd   Diff.    Next-best VORP
2000 A.L.       Pedro Martinez   116.5  70.8    45.7    Mike Mussina
1999 A.L.       Pedro Martinez   101.0  63.8    37.2    Brad Radke
1995 N.L.       Greg Maddux       94.0  58.4    35.6    Hideo Nomo
1972 N.L.       Steve Carlton     95.8  63.5    32.3    Don Sutton
1994 N.L.       Greg Maddux       84.3  54.6    29.7    Bret Saberhagen
1978 A.L.       Ron Guidry        95.7  77.7    18.0    Mike Caldwell
1985 N.L.       Dwight Gooden    100.0  82.1    17.9    John Tudor
2002 N.L.       Randy Johnson     80.9  63.5    17.4    Curt Schilling
2004 A.L.       Johan Santana     88.8  72.9    15.9    Curt Schilling
1988 N.L.       Orel Hershiser    64.8  51.8    13.0    David Cone
1986 A.L.       Roger Clemens     84.3  75.9     8.4    Mike Witt
1998 A.L.       Roger Clemens     85.5  80.8     4.7    Pedro Martinez

Some comments on this chart:

  • Notice that no reliever has ever won the award with every first-place vote. Also note that absent from this list is 1984, the season in which the unanimous choice, Rick Sutcliffe, did not have the best VORP in the league. In fact, he finished 16th in the National League that year. A lot of this was owed to his not arriving in the league until June 13. He did post the fourth-best ERA in the N.L. once he arrived, although he didn’t qualify for the ERA title. It was a league ripe for a guy with a 16-1 record on a division-winning team to claim the prize, in that the highest finisher in VORP–Rick Rhoden of Pittsburgh–only totaled 49.4. Rhoden was not mentioned on any ballots. The one 20-game winner was Joaquin Andujar, but he lost 14 and had an even more pedestrian VORP of 39.0; he finished fourth. Nobody else had the gaudy won-loss record that attracts voters, nor was there a reliever with Cy Young-worthy ostentation, so Sutcliffe pushed his way in for the win. He also finished fourth in the voting for MVP that year.

  • On five of these occasions, the pitcher who finished second in VORP also finished second in the voting: 1978, 1985, 1998 A.L., 2002, and this year. On three occasions, that pitcher finished third: 1986, 1988 and 1994. The ’88 vote is interesting in that only three men got any votes at all: Orel Hershiser, the winner, David Cone who finished third and Danny Jackson who came in second. They were the top three finishers in VORP, with Cone and Jackson reversed in the voting.

  • Hideo Nomo finished fourth in 1995 when Greg Maddux aced the field. Mike Mussina came in seventh in 2000. We touched on this last time when discussing pitchers who had gotten Cy Young votes in spite of losing records. Don Sutton finished eighth in ’72. Among VORP runner-ups to unanimous awardees, though, the biggest discrepancy belongs to Brad Radke, the pitcher who finished third in VORP this year without getting mentioned on any ballots. The same thing happened in 1999. In both years he was done in by two factors: his unremarkable strikeout totals and a couple of very pedestrian won-lost records. The mark in ’99 was 12-14, and this year Radke registered only 19 decisions in 33 starts, going 11-8 in the process. It’s going to take a long time before a majority of voters can look past that kind of freak occurrence when they only have three places on their ballots.

  • The only other starter mentioned on a ballot this year was Pedro Martinez, who got one third-place vote. Here is the 2004 American League VORP count for pitchers:

    Johan Santana, 88.8
    Curt Schilling, 72.9
    Brad Radke, 60.1
    Jake Westbrook, 54.4
    Kelvim Escobar, 53.3
    Pedro Martinez, 51.2
    Mark Buehrle, 50.8
    Tim Hudson, 48.6
    Rodrigo Lopez, 47.3
    Ted Lilly, 44.6

    Martinez seems a little low for consideration, but there is a rationale here that works. As I did for the National League top 10 finishers, I assigned points on a sliding scale for where these 10 finished in the traditional pitching Triple Crown stats of wins, ERA and strikeouts. While Santana and Schilling still finished one-two, Martinez came up third by this accounting–something that is bound to appeal to a voter not keen on relievers and still beholden to more time-honored metrics.

  • Speaking of relievers, how does the third-place finish of Mariano Rivera hold up under scrutiny? Keith Woolner weighed in with this take:

    Rivera’s a legit third-place candidate based on the leverage of the innings he threw. He virtually tied with teammate Tom Gordon for the highest Wins-Added among relievers (and Gordon–because of the non-closer role–wasn’t going to get votes). Francisco Rodriguez was third in this category and Joe Nathan fifth among relievers (B.J. Ryan was fourth), so they at least arguably voted for the right relievers. (Keith is referring to the single third-place votes cast for Nathan and Rodriguez.)

    As an aside on Rodriguez, I’d be much more excited if he were following in Santana’s footsteps rather than Rivera’s. I think the Angels have done a nice job of bringing him along slowly and they’re a lot closer to the situation than I am, but a young starting pitcher is–to my mind, anyway–a much more exciting prospect than a closer. As we have seen, closers can be found just about anywhere. A talent like Rodriguez’s is a far rarer commodity.

Getting back to the Cy Young, I think the results reflect well on the voters. Nobody tried to get cute or to make a statement with their vote. It was fairly apparent who should win and they got it right. For our purposes, though, here’s hoping that next year’s race is a lot more complicated.

Thank you for reading

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