Fireballing Gagne a definite Cy Young candidate

LOS ANGELES -- It's still early, as far as these things go.

But if I had to vote for the National League Cy Young Award this morning, I just might vote for somebody who nobody's even been talking about (or at least not talking loudly enough that I've heard).

I just might vote for Eric Gagne, who collected his 37th save Wednesday night. And what's truly notable about those 37 saves is that they've come in 37 opportunities.

Gagne is, to this point, perhaps enjoying the best season that any post-Quisenberry/Hernandez closer has ever had (or at least the best non-Eckersley season).

I make that distinction because 1) in 1983, Dan Quisenberry saved 45 games, posted a 1.93 ERA ... and pitched 139 innings, and 2) in 1984, Guillermo Hernandez saved 32 games, posted a 1.92 ERA ... and pitched 140 innings.

So comparing Quisenberry and Hernandez to Eckersley and Gagne is like comparing kiwis to kumquats (unless kiwis are similar to kumquats, in which case it's like something else).

That said, Gagne was brilliant last year. He saved 52 games, and posted a 1.97 ERA.

He's been more brilliant this year. Here are last year's numbers and this year's numbers (with this year's projected through the end of the season):

IP Hits HR BB K W-L Sv Blown
2002 82 55 6 16 114 4-1 52 4
2003 80 36 1 19 133 1-4 54 0

A year ago, both Gagne and John Smoltz were outstanding, so outstanding that many observers considered both of them as viable Cy Young candidates. Smoltz finished third in the voting, Gagne fourth (actually, tied for fourth). Of course, neither had a chance to win because Randy Johnson (the unanimous winner) and Curt Schilling were both so outstanding.

Not this year, though. Last year, Johnson and Schilling accounted for 47 wins; this year, they'll be lucky to reach 20, together.

And it's not just Johnson and Schilling. There isn't any National League starter with anything like a strong claim on the Cy Young. Only two NL starters have won more than a dozen games; those two are Woody Williams (14-5) and Russ Ortiz (15-5), who rank 14th and 15th on the ERA list. If one of them wins 22 games or something, he might well take Cy Young honors because the voters like pitchers who win 22 games (or something). Otherwise, though, the best candidates among the starters are Kevin Brown (11-5, 2.13) and Jason Schmidt (12-5, 2.32), who rank 1-2 in ERA (granted, both do more than half their work in pitcher-friendly ballparks).

Basically, the guys with the ERA's don't have the wins and the guys with the wins don't have the ERA's. Which theoretically leaves the door open for the closers.

And while it's true that a closer doesn't pitch nearly as many innings as a starter, and thus a great closer usually isn't as valuable as a great starter ... what if you had a closer who never blew a lead? Last year, Gagne "blew" four saves, and so did Smoltz. Nobody held it against them, because of course they saved far more games than they blew.

But what if you take the fourth-best pitcher in the league, and give him credit for four more victories? It seems to me that you've got to seriously consider the possibility that he might actually be the best pitcher in the league.

And that's Eric Gagne after four months and a few days. He blew four saves last year and he was great. He's blown zero saves this year, which must make him at least slightly better than great. Right?

Ah, but it's not quite that simple. When we're looking at starters, we tend to focus on wins and losses, and ignore just about everything else. And when we're looking at closers, we tend to focus on saves and blown saves, and ignore just about everything else.

But you know, there is something else, and if you were paying close attention earlier, you probably know what comes next.

Eric Gagne has lost three games this season (which projects to four for the season). No, he hasn't blown even a single save, but he has lost three games. And those three games count. They count in the standings, and they should count against his argument for the Cy Young.

For example, look at May 12. Gagne entered a tie game against the Braves, gave up three hits and a walk, and the Dodgers wound up losing 11-4. Do we ignore that game because Gagne wasn't blessed with a "save situation"?

That was the only truly bad game that Gagne's pitched this season. But it does count, as do his other two losses.

Here are Gagne's projected 2003 numbers, but this time they're accompanied by Smoltz's:

IP Hits HR BB K W-L Sv Blown
Smoltz 82 59 1 8 62 0-1 61 3
Gagne 80 36 1 19 133 1-4 54 0

Smoltz hasn't been nearly as "dominant" as Gagne, but he's also been getting the job done. On the other hand, it doesn't look like he's entered many (any?) tie games. At the risk of being overly simplistic, it seems to me that in addition to looking at the walks and the strikeouts and (especially) the saves, we should also look at losses plus blown saves.

And in this case, Smoltz and Gagne are dead even in that category, with four apiece.

Does that make them equals? Hardly. Gagne's strikeout rate is historic, and more than balances Smoltz's outstanding control. Smoltz has more saves, but that's situational and shouldn't be used against Gagne in a decent court of opinion.

They've both had wonderful seasons. And if they continue to pitch like they have, then they should be seriously considered for the big prize at the end.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.