Friday, June 21, 2013

Early Cy Young Predictions

Recently I posted my views on who I thought would win the MVP awards at the end of the season with the promise that I would do the same for the Cy Young. Since that particular post was one of the most-read that I've written that didn't receive a boost from Chicago's 670 The Score's Boers and Bernstein Show, I thought I'd follow up sooner rather than later. These are much tougher to make.

In 1984 I was a young 21-year-old Kmart manager transferred to Evanston, IL. As I made that move, another person was transitioning to Chicago, Rick Sutcliffe, who had a 4-5 record, 5.15 ERA and an ungodly 1.664 WHIP (an unknown stat at the time). I remember the trade being favorably received, but the price did seem steep, Joe Carter and Mel Hall. The Cubs were in first place in the NL East, uncharted waters for a team that had famously collapsed in 1969 and hadn't seen the postseason since 1945. Sutcliffe was acquired to add to what was already a solid rotation of Steve Trout, Dennis Eckersley and Scott Sanderson, and did he ever perform, going 16-1 and pulling the Cubs along with him to the NL East championship--interesting times to be in Chicago. The Cy Young voting that year wasn't even close--he received every first place vote and won it over some rookie named Dwight Gooden, but at around this point in the season, he was just another pitcher. That's what makes predictions like this dicey, but fun to make nonetheless.

I will reference only starting pitchers, with some notes on relievers at the end. Both tables I'll show will be sorted by WAR, beginning with the American League:
Both Clay Buchholz and Max Scherzer are undefeated, and yet Buchholz has a WAR value almost 60% higher than Scherzer's, due to the difference in ERA--Scherzer's is quite  good, Buchholz's is outstanding. Let's do some early pruning--there's no way (absent drastic changes in team fortune or stunning second halves) that Chris Sale, Hiroki Kuroda, Ervin Santana or James Shields will win. I'll say pretty much the same thing about Hisashi Iwakuma, but I won't write off Felix Hernandez just yet since he did win in 2010 with a 13-12 record, implying that at least SOME Cy Young voters can see past a stat that doesn't even come close to telling the whole story in modern baseball. But we'll table Hernandez for the moment.

What does it say about the Royals that having two of the best starters in the AL has them at 34-36 and 5 games back of the Tigers and 6 out of the wild card? It's a testament to anemic hitting--7th in the AL in batting average but 12th in OPS and dead last in home runs--no wonder Santana has a WHIP below 1 and a .500 record. But what about the Mariners, with the second and third-best starters in the AL and a miserable 32-41 record? At least they have the Astros for cushion in the AL West, but they're just as woeful at the plate, last in average and second-to-last in OBP. Pitching gets you to the postseason, but a little bit of hitting never hurts either.

So who's left? If Hernandez can maintain that kind of record and end up something like 18-8, he could have a shot, but it will be Buchholz or Scherzer's to lose. In the end, I'll go with Buchholz for no other reason than he has a body of work to build on and Scherzer is more of an unknown to me. 
AL Cy Young--Clay Buchholz

Here's the National League table:
There are far fewer players I can reject out of hand in this group--only Jorge De La Rosa and Travis Wood are tossed out immediately in my mind. Wood will be a core part of the Cubs rotation if the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer plan comes to fruition, and De La Rosa is just waiting for the curse of the Rockies pitcher to rise up and bite him. Every other pitcher on this list is on a contender (or in Cliff Lee's case, WILL be).

Cliff Lee put up that record for a mediocre Phillies team and is owed over $50 million through 2016, so who would be interested--pretty much has Yankees or Rangers written all over it. I have a hard time seeing him staying in the National League, so I'll rule him out of the NL Cy Young race, with the caveat that a Rick Sutcliffe-like record for his future AL team could propel him into that race. Shelby Miller is eligible for the Rookie of the Year, Matt Harvey is not (he should be sure to thank the Mets for pitching him 9 innings over the threshold last year), and neither is going to win the Cy Young. Patrick Corbin, Jeff Locke and Mike Leake all represent young players on teams that will figure heavily in the playoff  picture, and if Corbin can stay as hot as he has been and the Diamondbacks can stay in the chase (get it, CHASE, you know, they play at Chase Field...forget it), he could have a shot.

Clayton Kershaw won the Cy Young in 2011 and was the runner-up last year, leading the majors in ERA in both years and doing the same in the NL this year. The Dodgers (and to varying extents, ALL West Coast teams) play in pitcher-friendly environments, but unless that win-loss record gets better, he'll get votes but no trophy. That leaves Adam Wainwright--solid record, excellent ERA for a team that is arguably the best in the majors. The Cardinals lineup from top to bottom is the definition of solid, and unless he breaks down or something extremely unfortunate happens to the Cardinals, he'll be a key member of an outstanding team.
NL Cy Young--Adam Wainwright

Some notes on relievers--in the AL, nobody really jumps out at me for Cy Young consideration. Relievers need to have seasons like Jose Valverde had in 2011, and even saving 49 of 49 games got him all the way to 5th in the Cy Young voting. Eric Gagne was the last reliever to win the Cy Young in 2003, and even that looks like a fluke now--the days of Willie Hernandez and Rollie Fingers winning have come and gone. Having written that, I'll never miss an opportunity to comment on Mariano Rivera--25 saves and 1 blown save, not too shabby for a 43-year-old pitcher who essentially missed 2012. When he retires after this year, he'll be one of the few that people will seriously state could have hung on a little more, but after his career, what left does he have to accomplish? Absolutely nothing.

I hope the Pirates feel lucky with Jason Grilli, because he sure has never done what he's doing before. He's been everything they need, 25-for-26 in save opportunities, but I wonder if they'll be shopping around for a closer at the trade deadline (Carlos Marmol will be available--REALLY available), but they'll probably settle for shoring up their middle relief and perhaps adding another starter. Edward Mujica has the most saves without having a blown opportunity with 21, but no relievers will receive serious consideration for the Cy Young. The day is coming when a simple realization will be made--when teams enter the 9th inning with a lead, they win at a .945 winning percentage. This includes blowouts as well as nail-biters, but the knowledge is entering baseball thought that the save might be as overblown as the win. That's  how pitchers like Grilli end up being thrust in the role and succeeding.

Someday I might write up the ultimate "What If" awards and see how things might have turned out if the season-ending awards were given out after 70 or so games. For example, in 2011 I'm pretty sure I would have given the AL MVP to Adrian Gonzalez without a second thought, and I'm pretty sure I felt the same way about Matt Kemp last year at this time--he eventually fell apart, and those things just can't be predicted. The main reason I want to do this is to see if my memories of that summer of 1984 are anomalous or if it happens more often than I realize, that the Cy Young winner usually wins it with a blistering end of the season.


  1. That's not a realistic view of the cy young race at all. None of the above playets should or WILL warrant a vote. From the national point of view, we believe that Brian Anderson will win. Put money on it, its fixed, and we are always right.