Debunking Cy Young Myths – Carpenter vs. Clemens

Brian Walton digs into the recent history of the Cy Young voting to look for clues about the Carpenter – Clemens race.

It wasn't all that long ago, coming into the All-Star break, when there was a boatload of seemingly well-qualified 2005 National League Cy Young Award candidates. Since then, however, many have jumped ship or have been thrown overboard, such as Florida's Dontrelle Willis, who posted a 7.14 ERA while going 2-3 last month.

 

As a result, there are but two front-running contenders for the NL Cy Young remaining on the raft. They are Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals and Roger Clemens of the Houston Astros, of course.

 

To help us sort out an objective comparison, let's look at prevailing arguments for and against a particular type of player for Cy Young. If you believe that the past can help predict the future, there are a couple of criteria that stand out:

 

1. Most wins. As Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch recently told me, winning is the bottom line for Cy Young candidates. Some believe that being on a good team, even a runaway team, does not harm a players' Cy Young status. We'll check that out.

 

2. Best stats. Unlike MVP, which takes into account contribution to one's team, the Cy Young is really for the best pitcher in the league. As a result, there are other measures to consider other than solely wins.

 

Here are the basic numbers for this year's candidates:

 

2005 through

Aug. 16

Won - Loss

Complete Games

Complete Game Shutouts

K/Nine Innings

ERA

Team Status

Full year W-L pace

Carpenter

17-3

6

4

8.43

2.25

Likely division winner

23-4

Clemens

11-4

0

0

8.12

1.32

Wild Card contender

15-5

 

A couple of miscellaneous factoids: When the two players' teams met the same day each was pitching, the Cardinals and Carpenter were victorious. From Elias and ESPN: The most 1-2-3 innings in the majors this year - Carpenter 85, Clemens 74, Pedro Martinez 73.

 

While one cannot debate seven-time Cy Young winner Clemens' exceptional ERA, one has to wonder why the weightings of the criteria seem to slip and slide from year to year. Just last year, Randy Johnson posted superior stats compared to Clemens in every area except one - won-loss record.

 

Yet, Clemens was voted the 2004 Cy Young in polling that wasn't even close. Rocket had 23 first-place votes compared to Johnson's eight and 140 points overall to just 97 for The Big Unit.

 

2004

Won - Loss

Comp. Games

Comp.

Game Shut

outs

K/9 IP

ERA

Team Status

Cy Young score

Cy 1st place votes

Johnson

16-14

4

2

10.62

2.60

Missed playoff

97

8

Clemens

18-4

0

0

9.15

2.98

Wild Card winner

140

23

 

Why should the 2005 award again go to a player who has an advantage in only one category? Last year, Clemens rode an emphasis on wins to victory. This year, it could be ERA.  (It should also be noted that at this point, there is no guarantee that Houston will be playing come October.)

 

To shed more light on the subject, I went back and looked at the last ten years, since Wild Card play began, starting with the standings and playoff status of each Cy Young winners' team.

 

1995 through 2004

Cy Young on Divisional Winner

Cy Young on Wild Card

Cy Young missed playoffs

Cy missed playoff's team in divisional standings / games out of first

National

6

1

3

#2/15.5 games, 3/12, 4/23

American

4

1

5

#3/15, 2/2.5, 3/26, 5/22, 4/18

 

Championships do not assure a Cy Young

 

What this shows is that unlike Most Valuable Player, where there was at least a partial correlation between the award winner and the strength of his team, Cy Young voters tend to devalue how good or how poor the player's team might be. For example, in the three years that the NL winner's team missed the playoffs, their teams averaged over 17 games out of first place!

 

Still, 12 of 20 recent Cy Young winners played ball in October.

 

Small advantage: Carpenter

 

Given that didn't tell us too much, let's now turn our attention to wins and ERA, as those seem to be at the top of Cy Young criteria. During those ten years, I have to throw out one of the 20 Cy Youngs. That is the 2003 NL winner, closer Eric Gagne. As a reliever, his stats stand separately from a comparison of starters.

 

Starting with wins:

 

1995 through 2004

Yrs.

Years Cy winner won fewer than 20 games – number of games won

In those years, times / years another pitcher had 20 wins or more

Years Cy winner won most games in league

Most wins by Cy loser

National

9

5 – 18, 19, 17, 17, 19

6 times in 4 years

4

22 games 3 times

American

10

2 – 18, 18

2 times in 1 year

5

21 games 3 times

 

20 wins don't assure Cy Young, but it helps

 

This debunks the theory that 20 wins is a guarantee or even a requirement to win. In eight of the nine years, at least one NL pitcher had 20 wins, yet only five of the nine Cy Young winners had 20. Overall, eight different 20-game winners in the last ten years lost the Cy Young to another pitcher who had fewer than 20 wins.

 

Still, 12 of the 19 Cy Young winners had 20 or more victories.

 

Most wins doesn't assure Cy Young, but 23 is a winner

 

Another myth to be broken is that being the winningest pitcher each season translates to a Cy Young victory. In fact, in less than half of the time, nine of 19, was that the case.

 

During this period, no player won 23 games or more and did not win the Cy Young (four times). However, three 22-game winners and five 21-game winners lost out.

 

17 wins seem to be the minimum to win

 

It should be noted that the fewest number of wins that any Cy winner had since 1995 was 17 wins, which occurred only twice. Reminder that Clemens' projected 2005 season-ending total is 15 wins. Even if he can overachieve and reach 17, will that be enough? Back to that in a bit.

 

Advantage: Carpenter

 

Now, let's look at ERA:

 

1995 through 2004

Years

Years Cy Young winner was also ERA champion

Years Cy Young winner was not ERA champion

National

9

5

4

American

10

6

4

 

In four of those eight cases when the ERA winner did not win the Cy Young Award, the difference in ERA between the two players was substantial:

 

Year

Cy Young winner (wins)

ERA

ERA champion (wins)

ERA

2004 Nat

Roger Clemens (18)

2.98

Jake Peavy (15)

2.27

2003 Am

Roy Halladay (22)

3.25

Pedro Martinez (14)

2.22

2002 Am

Barry Zito (23)

2.75

Pedro Martinez (20)

2.26

1996 Nat

John Smoltz (24)

2.94

Kevin Brown (17)

1.89

 

Wins override ERA

 

What does this say? First of all, when other factors are close, it seems that higher win totals are more important to sway Cy Young voters than lower ERAs.

 

Advantage: Carpenter

 

The Clemens Mystique

 

Why did Clemens win the Cy Young last season, again? He didn't have the most wins (his teammate Roy Oswalt had 20) nor did he come anywhere near to winning the ERA title.

 

One possible explanation is the Clemens Mystique, built up as a result of having won the hardware now seven times for four different teams plus one MVP award.

 

Advantage: Clemens

 

Case study: 1996

 

Let's take an especially close look at the last example above, 1996. That year in the National League, there was a pitcher, Kevin Brown, who registered a miniscule ERA below two, 1.89 to be exact. But, Brown was saddled with playing for team that only delivered 17 wins for him.

 

As a result, Brown lost the '96 Cy Young to a pitcher with an ERA over a run higher, but who won 24 games for a decisive divisional champion (96 wins and eight game margin). That was John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves. In a Cy Young landslide, Smoltz earned 26 first-place votes to Brown's two and totaled 136 points to Brown's 88.

 

All in all, with Carpenter on track for 23 wins and Clemens heading toward 15 (or 17, if you want to be aggressive), even with their current ERAs remaining constant, there is clearly past precedence for a pitcher with Carpenter's projected results to win the Cy Young over a pitcher with Clemens' type of stats.

 

Advantage: Carpenter

 

Doesn't that 1996 situation look a lot like Carpenter and Clemens this season, with Carpenter playing the role of Smoltz and Clemens playing the role of Brown?

 

Before you get too elated, however, there is one big difference. In 1996, Kevin Brown did not (and in fact, still does not and never will) have the reputation of Clemens. As unfair as that is, the Clemens Mystique is strong enough that there is risk of voters being swayed, despite better performances having been put up by another, Chris Carpenter.

 

As this article pointed out, there are plenty of other reasons, too, but here's hoping the NL Cy Young voters see enough of John Smoltz, vintage 1996, in Carpenter, 2005, to vote him the winner. It is time to leave the Clemens Mystique in the trophy case.

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

 

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