What a great season in the AL! The meek inherited the Earth as the Rays won the AL East, Boston happily took the wild card and the Yankees followed their ballpark and crumbled by the end of the season (Is that the quiet laughter of Joe Torre I hear?). The Angels ran away with the AL West with 100 wins and no obvious weaknesses. In the AL Central, the Tigers proved you can't buy a division and finished last (based on opening day payroll, Detroit's average costs per win: $1.87M; Kansas City's: $777K, or more than $1 million less per win), which meant it would take 163 games for the White Sox to become the AL Central champion over the Twins.
But here's the fun part. Sometimes I'm right and sometimes I'm wrong, but I figure if I'm one-out-of-three for my career, that puts me in Cooperstown. So in my first SI.com column this year last March (March, I say!) I listed John Danks as a sleeper and said, "Danks may be the key to the entire AL Central." Face it, with the Tigers looking as beefy as they did and the Indians primed for a run, saying the White Sox could win if their 6-13 pitcher played better was not the conventional wisdom. But Danks' masterful division-winning extra start Tuesday night made me look like Nostradamus on Red Bull. So thank you, John. Now if only the lottery were as obvious to me.
OK, enough self horn tooting: Let's get to the AL Cy Young.
When I wrote the NL CY Young column I said there were three criteria to consider:
1. Wins, saves and ERA -- they should be downgraded from the sole criteria considered because each of them was intensely team dependant;
2. K/9, K/BB, WHIP -- the statistics that examine a pitcher's ability to keep men off base, and hence keep them from scoring;
3. Relative stats -- because the pitcher shares the same offense, defense and bullpen with his rotation mates, he should be compared to them. He should also be compared to his peers in terms of their teams' run-scoring and run-preventing abilities.
For the third criterion, I also pointed out these relative comparisons are geared more toward starters than relievers. However, all flavors of pitchers should be considered, namely starters, closers and middle relievers.
In the AL, the presumptive favorite is Cliff Lee (CLE), but taking a quick look through the stats, other pitchers that should be considered are: Roy Halladay (TOR), Francisco Rodriguez (ANA), Joakim Soria (KC), Daisuke Matsuzaka (BOS), Mike Mussina (NYY), Jonathan Papelbon (BOS), Ervin Santana (LAA), A.J. Burnett (TOR), and Jose Arredondo (ANA). Here's how their numbers stack up using the three criteria, with starters followed by relievers:
Remember from last time that the stats are:
W%(Rot): Win Percentage of Rotation, or W(starter)/W(rotation)
ERA (Diff): ERA Differential, or [ERA(starter)-ERA(rotation)]/ERA(rotation)
ERA(BP): Bullpen ERA
R/G: Team runs scored per game
SV%: Percentage of team wins that were saved by the reliever
Looking at the starters, Lee's numbers show that he had the toughest time of it with a horrendous bullpen and defense, which out-weighed the relatively strong offense. And anyone who watched him pitch this year saw a confident man who was not going to let me get on base and score. He worked fast and confidently. I was ready to make a case for Halladay, but Lee beats him on all levels except at WHIP, but the difference isn't enough to overcome the other disparities. Lee's amazing -38.9% ERA (Diff) is on the order of my NL CY Young pick, Tim Lincecum's -40.0%.
While I like Burnett's health this year, his ERA being higher than the rotation's knocks him out. Matsuzaka and Santana both had good years (Santana's year was slightly better), but to not get 20 wins with their teams was a weak effort. That just leaves a man who isn't getting any love this award season -- Mussina -- who did a lot with less than we thought. The Yankees are usually a win machine for whomever they put on the mound, but this year they only amassed 59 wins by their starters, so 20 is an accomplishment.
Arredondo deserves mention because of his numbers and steadiness late in the game, but I can't make an argument he's better than Soria, so out he goes. That leaves our three closers, who were all key parts of their teams. However, Soria and Papelbon picked a bad year to be good as Francisco Rodriguez (or K-Rod) broke an almost two decades old record for most saves in a season.
K-Rod had 62 saves in 69 save opportunities, or an 89.9 percent success rate. While 7 blown saves are appreciable, the key number in that sentence was the 69 SVO, or exactly 50 percent more than Papelbon, the man in second in the AL. K-Rod's 69 were 5 more than Bobby Thigpen's in 1990, when he set the previous seasonal high-water mark of 57 saves (87.7 percent). In the past 10 years, the highest SVO was John Smoltz's 59 in 2002. In fact, Thigpen and K-Rod both have mortal save percentages compared to the next two highest single season saves: 100 percent for Eric Gagne in '03 (55 Sv in 55 SVO) and 93.2 percent for Smoltz in '02 (53 in 59).
So K-Rod was the recipient of opportunity, but his season begs the question, "How valuable is a save compared to a win?" As we know, wins come in all flavors, and pitching five innings with a 10-run lead can lead to a win just like a complete game 1-0 shutout. That's why the spundits in 1985 came up with the much-maligned Quality Win stat: start a game, pitch at least six innings, give up three earned runs or less. So the obvious next step was to create the Quality Save (QS), which I started to do. That is, until I discovered such a stat already exists (or in the words of Bill Blazejowski, "Did I tell you I invented wet-naps, but they already had them?").
According the Elias Sports Bureau a QS is a save in which the tying run was in scoring position when the pitcher entered or in which a one-run lead was protected for at least one inning. OK, Elias, nice try, but I have a slight beef with that. To me, at the end of a game, the batter is in scoring position because he could park one over the fence. So I propose the Modified Quality Save: a save where the tying run is either on base or at the plate when the reliever enters. In other words, the QS is a subset of the MQS. Capice?
OK, let's take a look at the top three closers in the AL:
So even though K-Rod's underlying stats -- especially his WHIP -- don't look that impressive, his 50 percent MQS ratio is still much higher than Soria and Papelbon. However, if you use the Elias QS rule, the ratios fall to 39 percent, 38 percent and 34 percent, respectively. Is that good or bad? Well, when Eric Gagne (remember him?) had his streak of 84 saves in a row, his QS percentage was 45.2 percenrt, which is very high. So K-Rod's 39 percent is good, but not noteworthy.
And since the days of the Lennon/McCartney partnership of Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley in Oakland, closers have been maligned as being babied by managers. They only pitch at most one inning, and usually only enter when a save is in the offing. For Soria, he had seven appearances this year that were more than an inning. Papelbon, who was relatively abused compared to his elite brethren, had 12 multi-inning outings (note that this means Terry Francona has my undying respect for making managerial decisions that are best for the team, not individual stats). K-Rod? Zero. Yes, 69 appearances and not one for more than an inning.
Also, when one thinks about the pressure of a quality save, a top reliever would be less likely to blow a non-QS, right? Soria had only 3 blown saves all year, and all 3 were QS situations. Papelbon? Five BS in five QS situations. But as for K-Rod, only 4 of his 7 BS were QS situations. That doesn't exactly make the ninth inning a lock.
In his 76 appearances, K-Rod entered a game with runners on base 10 times and only entered with a runner at 3B three times. While he did amass more strikeouts than innings (77 K in 68.1 IP) and only gave up four HRs (none at home), he put men on base by walk or hit in a whopping 51 games (or 67 percent of the time).
So while the total saves are impressive, I just don't see being able to compare K-Rod's '08 campaign to that of Hernandez in 1984 or Eckersley in '92. K-Rod will have the record as his trophy for '08, but deserves no hardware.
So here is my final vote for the AL Cy Young:
1. Cliff Lee2. Mike Mussina3. Roy Halladay4. Francisco Rodriguez5. Joakim Soria
NL Cy Young update
As I said a couple of week ago, we still had half a month (or about 1/12th) of the season left, and pitchers could affect their standings in the Cy Young race by pitching well or not. I was ready to reassess my picks and even though I still wasn't going to place Brandon Webb ahead of Tim Lincecum, I starting believing more in Brad Lidge and had to consider whether he would be my pick for Cy Young, MVP or both (sorry, Ryan Howard, but you don't get an MVP the same year you were benched for stinking and Albert Pujols, you've been amazing, but the best your efforts got were a Cardinals team above .500).
Unfortunately for Lidge, I did the same analysis to his season as I did for K-Rod, Soria and Papelbon, and here's what I found:
The quality of the saves Lidge got is not impressive. And even though he was perfect in save opportunities, he entered one game behind by a run and gave up 5 ER, which made the Phillies subsequent rally fall short. He also had a game against the Braves where he tried to squander a 2-run lead but the tying run was thrown out at the plate. After finding these games, I dug a little deeper and found a disturbing fact:
Lidge only entered a game once all season with a man on base, AND THAT MAN SCORED.
Yes, he let 100 percent of runners he inherited score (Carlos Beltran, who was on first base on Aug. 27). Sure, the 100 percent stat means nothing, but the fact that he was asked to deal with one inherited base runner all season long means two things: (1) Charlie Manuel did his best to protect Lidge's fragile psyche by putting him in games where he could succeed; and (2) Manuel deserves to be NL Manager of the Year. There's no question in my mind that the Phillies are in the postseason due to Lidge, and that Lidge succeeded solely because of Manuel.
What this all means is that I keep Lidge fifth in my imaginary NL Cy Young voting, and I'd vote for CC Sabathia as MVP despite his splitting time between two leagues.
Before I go, let me throw at you my favorite quote of the year, uttered by Rays closer, Troy Percival, when supporting manager Joe Maddon's decision to walk Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded in the ninth with Marlon Byrd next in the order:
"You don't let Superman beat you when you have Wonder Woman on deck."
And since Byrd struck out, he should be doomed to forever wear the Lynda Carter moniker (but hopefully not the uniform). And also let me mention my favorite stat from 2008:
CC Sabathia finished the season tied for the league lead in both leagues in shutouts with 3 in the NL and 2 in the AL.
The answer to "When will we ever see that again?" is "Whenever we see another strong pitcher pitch in both leagues for teams with bullpens as terrible as Cleveland and Milwaukee." And until then, enjoy the playoffs and hopefully we'll see each other next year. Thanks for reading.