Every so often in this crazy sports racket, you can't help but feel like the conversation has changed ever so slightly ... and changed for the better. Zack Greinke won the American League Cy Young Award on Tuesday. More than that, he breezed to the award. He was named first on 25 of 28 ballots. He was the runaway winner.
And he did it with only 16 victories.
This is kind of amazing, if you think about it. Before I begin, I should probably explain quickly to those who have missed it that I cannot stand the pitcher's victory as a prominent baseball statistic. I quote victories more often than I should because they are inescapable. But crediting the pitcher for a victory has always been somewhat absurd and also -- as Crash Davis said in Bull Durham about strikeouts -- fascist. Why would you give one guy a "victory?" A pitcher has only so much control over how many hits/runs he allows, and he has almost no control over how many hits/runs his team scores. If a third baseman hits three home runs and makes two great plays, shouldn't HE get the victory?
As ridiculous as the pitching victories thing was in the 1970s and before, when pitchers threw complete games with regularity, it's even more ridiculous now because they don't. Starting pitchers generally go five, six or seven innings ... why in the hell should they get a VICTORY for that?
But I digress. Before Greinke, only one starting pitcher in the history of the American League Cy Young had won the award with as few as 16 victories. That, surprisingly enough, was also a Kansas City Royals pitcher -- David Cone in 1994. Of course, the big difference is 1994 was a strike year. Cone went 16-5 in only 23 starts that year.
Four National League starters have won the Cy Young with 16 or less. FernandoValenzuela won 13 in the 1981 strike season -- a season which mostly exists to force sportswriters to use the words "Except for the 1981 strike season" in their stories. Greg Maddux won 16 in the 1994 strike year. Rick Sutcliffe went 16-1 after being traded to the Cubs in 1984 and won the National League Cy Young (he actually won 20 games with the Cubs and Indians). And then there was Brandon Webb in 2006 -- he too won the Cy Young with 16 victories, but that was a weird year because Webb's 16 victories actually LED THE LEAGUE (well, he was part of a six-way tie at the top).
So, this is a little bit different -- this is the first season, I think, when a starter with 16 victories won the award over a viable Cy Young choice with more victories. And there was a very good choice -- Felix Hernandez went 19-5, had a great 2.48 ERA, pitched incredible baseball in the second half and so on. There's little question in my mind that King Felix would have won the award in years past, and I'm not even saying that's wrong. I'm saying it's fairly incredible that the way we watch and study baseball has changed so much that he did not win it this time around.
No, the winner was Zack, with 16 victories. He had a great, great year as we have written here many, many times -- led the league in ERA, WHIP and homers per nine innings, was second in strikeouts, shutouts, complete games and hits per nine. On top of that, he won the Cy Young while pitching for a terrible hitting and fielding team. He won the Cy Young while pitching in a Kansas City market without much media exposure*. He won it while pitching for a team that lost 97 games.
*Even as I typed those words, I realized that the whole "not much media exposure" cry for Kansas City is probably as obsolete as judging a pitcher by his victories. I would guess that for a young fan raised on the Internet, the Royals probably feel preposterously OVEREXPOSED, what with Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli and Bill James and Jeff Passan and Sam Mellinger and, you know, others, having a Kansas City slant.
In fact, I wonder -- and you can e-mail me your answer if you like -- who you think are the five most overexposed teams in baseball. You can include everything -- TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, Internet, people in your office who will not shut up, etc. Rank the teams in order, Top 5. And if you are just about to send me an e-mail with this ...
1. Yankees 2. Yankees 3. Yankees 4. Yankees 5. Yankees
... you don't have to. Really.
The Greinke award -- especially him winning so easily -- feels something like progress. Or at least it feels that way to me because (A) I have been in the tank for Greinke since before the season began and (B) I probably am a hard-liner when it comes to using victories as a way to measure pitchers. Of course, I have been saying for weeks that he WOULD win the Cy Young. But was I as confident as I wrote? Probably not. I kept looking at King Felix's 19-5 record and thinking: That could definitely change things.
And in other years, yes, I think it would have changed things. There are a few examples of great pitchers getting little or no Cy Young support because they did not win games.
• Kevin Brown lost the Cy Young to John Smoltz in 1996 by a landslide despite his remarkable 1.89 ERA. That ERA was a full run better than Smoltz (2.95). Brown walked just 33 batters in 233 innings, he led the league in WHIP (.944), shutouts (3), fewest homers per nine innings (.309) and his 216 ERA+ that year is the 11th best since the deadball era. But Smoltz had 24 wins for a 96-win Braves team while Brown only had 17 victories for an 80-82 Marlins team. And Smoltz has mentioned, won the Cy Young running away.
*Brown hit 16 batters and walked 33. I had to believe this is a W/P (walk-to-plunk ratio) record (min. 200 innings pitched). Pedro Martinez in 2000 walked 32 and hit 14 (2.29 W/P). Bronson Arroyo in 2004 walked 47 and hit 20 (2.35). And David Bush in 2006 walked 38 and hit 18 (2.11). But Brown's 2.06 walk-to-plunk is special.
A bonus mention should be given, however, to OrelHershiser's 2000 season. It doesn't count because he only pitched 24 2/3 innings. But that year, his last year, Bulldog walked 14 and hit 11.
• Dave Stieb went 14-13 with a league leading 2.48 ERA in 1985 -- and he finished seventh in the Cy Young voting. Admittedly, it's hard to understand how he could have gone 14-13 with a league-leading ERA while pitching for a Blue Jays team that won the American League East ... well, it was hard to understand then. Looking back now, you can see that six of his losses and eight of his nine no-decisions were what we now call quality starts. His team also allowed 16 unearned runs. So despite pitching 30 more innings than Cy winner Bret Saberhagen and allowing fewer earned runs, despite allowing the fewest hits per nine in the league, he got practically no Cy support.
• In 1993, Cincinnati's Jose Rijo was second in ERA (2.48), first in strikeouts (227), second in innings pitched (257), third in strikeouts to walk ratio, and third in hits per nine innings (7.6) but finished a distant fifth in the Cy voting. He had only 14 wins.
• In the American League in 1993, Kevin Appier led the league in ERA (2.56) and home runs per nine innings, was second in WHIP ... but he won 18 games and finished third in the voting. Jack McDowell won 22 and took the award.
• In 1978, Jon Matlack had a 2.27 ERA for Texas (second in the league) and he was Top 5 in WHIP, walks per nine, complete games (18, if you are counting at home) and strikeout to walk ratio. He did not get a single Cy Young vote. His record was 15-13.
And so on. This is not to say that these players got cheated -- my feeling on it is that you either win the Cy Young or you don't. Second or third place, while fun to talk about, are not especially memorable for most. And I would say the only one of these five who SHOULD have won the Cy Young was Kevin Brown. I'm just saying that wins have always played at least some role in the voting. But with the game changing -- there were no 20-game winners again this season, just like 2006 -- and with people (fans, writers, analysts, everyone it seems except a few former players) attempting to go deeper with pitching analysis, I think this year wins played very little role in people's thinking. And that's why Zack Greinke won.
Of course, because of my crazy mind, I do wish we could come up with something like wins and losses (but better) that would tell us at a glance just how effective a season a pitcher had. Bill James' Game Scores and Season scores are fun. Win Probability Added -- which, to wildly oversimplify, adds up an entire season's worth of winning/losing plays to estimate how many wins a player adds to a team -- is extremely helpful.
But, yes, I can see why people would be drawn to pitchers wins (and losses). It's simple, it's clear-cut and appeals to the certainty we want from baseball. Who is the best winner? If he was so good, why didn't he win more? If he was so bad, how did he win so many? And so on. Wins have had a powerful pull on the American baseball fan and writer for a long time, and I do not doubt that it will again. But for now, the win is humbled. Zack Greinke wins the Cy Young -- a rare victory without many victories.