Breaking down the Cy Young candidates

November, 11, 2008
The American League Cy Young voters had a fairly easy job this year because they essentially had only two candidates to consider. In one corner you've got Cliff Lee, who went 22-3 and posted the best winning percentage for a 20-game winner since 1978. In the other corner, you've got Francisco Rodriguez, who destroyed the single-season saves record. According to Bill James' (slightly antique) Cy Young Predictor they're practically dead-even, and I think the Predictor in this case has almost perfectly predicted the voting. If Lee had pitched for a playoff team, he would quite probably win. If K-Rod had blown four saves rather than seven, he would quite probably win. But neither of those things happened, which makes this one too close to call. The little man inside my head is telling me that Lee's going to win. But my little man is often an idiot.

Meanwhile, in the National League, nobody has any idea what's going to happen. Not with three starters -- Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana and Brandon Webb -- enjoying Cy-worthy seasons. But the voters have already sorted through them, and we might as well give it a shot, too.

First, I want to kill a common misconception … Lincecum's AT&T Park is not a pitcher's park. It's a tough park for home-run hitters, no question. Over the past three seasons, it's been the toughest home-run park in the National League for both right- and left-handed hitters. But we often confuse home-run hitting with hitting generally, and generally AT&T is not unfriendly to hitters at all. In 2008, AT&T was the seventh-easiest National League stadium in which to score runs; over the course of the 2006-2008 seasons it was the eighth-easiest. Also, the two easiest parks for hitters in the National League are those in Denver and Phoenix, in the Giants' division. Those are partially -- but just partially -- balanced by San Diego's Petco Park (the friendliest in the majors to pitchers) and Dodger Stadium (another pitcher's park). On balance? Parkswise, Lincecum does not derive any benefit from pitching for the Giants.

It's also been said that Lincecum benefits from pitching for the Giants because he pitched a great number of games against the weak National League West teams. OK. But we do have these neat things called data, and Baseball Prospectus tracks the batters against every pitcher he faces. It's true that Lincecum's opposition totaled a .730 OPS, while Santana faced .737 hitters. But then there's Brandon Webb, who faced hitters totaling just .718 on the season (41st-lowest among the 43 qualifying National League starters). If you're going to ding one of the contenders for the quality of the competition, it's Webb rather than Lincecum.

Further comparing these three: In terms of expected wins and losses, based on historical trends, Santana "should" have gone 17-8, Lincecum 16-8 and Webb 15-10. In terms of value over replacement pitcher (VORP), it's again a virtual tie, with Santana's 73.4 edging Lincecum's 72.5, and Webb far behind at 50.8.

You might prefer Santana because he faced tougher competition and because he pitched that massive three-hitter near the end of the season. You might prefer Lincecum because he carried a great burden of run prevention with all those strikeouts. Either way, I wouldn't say you're wrong. But I would say you're wrong if you vote for Webb, because he simply wasn't as good as the other two.

For the voters, though, it's not nearly so simple. Because, in addition to those three highly qualified (by historical standards) candidates, the voters also have to deal with two massive wild cards: a closer who converted 41 of 41 save opportunities for a first-place team, and a big left-hander who went 11-2 with seven complete games, three shutouts and a sublime 1.65 ERA while starting 17 games for a team that clinched a playoff spot on the season's last Sunday. Would I vote for a pitcher with only 17 starts? I would not. Would I vote for a pitcher who converted every save opportunity? I might.

But I don't think Brad Lidge will win, or even fare particularly well. I don't think CC Sabathia will win, either, though I think he'll fare better than Lidge. My little man's telling me that Lincecum's going to edge Webb and Sabathia, with Santana winding up with one of the more impressive fourth-place Cy Young seasons you'll ever see.


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