Before we launch into our annual dissection of the Cy Young derby, let's play America's favorite game of the Rumblings and Grumblings set, Trophy Case Jeopardy.
Your Final Trophy Case Jeopardy category: Cy Youngs For Two Teams.
The answer: Gaylord Perry.
So what's the question? (We'll cue the music while you write down your answers.)
All righty. Bep-de-dup-bup, bup ... bup ... bup. Baaaah-dum.
Hey, pencils down out there. Now here's what you should have jotted down:
"Who was the last starting pitcher to win a Cy Young award for the Padres (1978) and the last starting pitcher to win a Cy Young for the Indians (1972)?"
Now why, you ask, would we bring up old Gaylord's name at a time like this? No, not as some cheap excuse to start this column with a game-show hook. And no, not out of any nostalgic fondness for the miracle of Vaseline, either. It's because Perry is shaping up to be the human trivialistic link to both Cy Young winners this year.
As we assess the fields and digest the facts, it seems clear that the two front-runners, with two-and-a-half weeks left in the season, are Jake Peavy (of the Padres) and C.C. Sabathia (of the Indians). So let this serve as a warning: If those two guys finish the deal, you might hear Gaylord's name more in the next few weeks than you've heard it in the last 20 years.
(Editor's note to the nit-pickers in our audience: Yeah, we know that Mark Davis, in 1989, was actually the Padres' last Cy Young winner. But check the small print. We said "starting pitcher," not "any kind of pitcher." And Davis was a closer. Thanks. Now back to the action.)
So why Peavy over Brandon Webb and a stellar NL field? Why Sabathia over Josh Beckett, Chien-Ming Wang and at least a half-dozen other deserving contenders? Keep reading. Let's just say we have our reasons.
Should there really be any massive debate on this? If the season ended today, Peavy would be the NL's fourth pitching Triple Crown winner (first in wins, ERA and strikeouts) in the last 40 years. The others -- Steve Carlton in 1972, Dwight Gooden in 1985 and Randy Johnson in 2002 -- all got a Cy Young out of it. And there's no reason Peavy shouldn't make it four for four. He has stopped 11 losing streaks -- most in the big leagues. His record actually should be better than it is. (He has had one run or none scored for him, while he was in the game, in eight different starts.) And don't try to argue he's a product of Petco pitcher heaven. He has been better on the road (9-1, 2.13) than at home (8-5, 2.68).
We know we shouldn't be influenced by Webb's 42 shutout innings streak. But it's tough not to be. This guy pitched three complete-game shutouts in a row. Nobody else in the NL has thrown more than one all year. We're also big on inning-digesters, and Webb chews up more of those innings than anyone else in the league. He has racked up 23 starts of seven innings or more, most in the big leagues. He leads the league in innings pitched and complete games. And while his record is "only" 16-10, his run support (4.31 runs per nine innings) is a run and a half lower than either Peavy's (5.75) or Brad Penny's (5.67).
We might have ranked Webb above Penny, but we have to admit this: They're so close, it's almost impossible to separate them. Penny is 15-4, and he could be 19-4 if his bullpen hadn't blown four more games he deserved to win. He has as many quality starts as Peavy (25 in 30 starts), and as many starts allowing one earned run or none (16). But Penny also has won just two of his last nine starts (with admittedly crummy run support). And he has made it through the seventh inning eight fewer times than Webb. So we nudged Webb ahead of him. But get back to us in three weeks.
Last year, Harang carved his own unique place in Cy Young trivia. Too bad the way he did it wasn't quite what he had in mind. He was the first pitcher in history to lead his league in wins and strikeouts but not even get one stinking Cy Young vote (not even for third place). Which isn't easy, gang. Well, we hate to break this to him, but it wouldn't be out of the question to see him go voteless this year, too -- again through no fault of his own. Harang is 14-4 (with five blown saves), for a team that is 44-71 when anybody else pitches. In fact, the Reds have a better record when he pitches (22-8) than the Padres do when Peavy pitches (21-9). Harang also deserves serious horse points for all those nights he stays out there way too long, just to keep his bullpen off the field (which means, for instance, that he has faced 59 more hitters after the sixth inning than Penny). But will it do him any good come voting time? Eh ... we'll let you know.
There are so many deserving names we could throw into this slot, we could almost pick them out of a hat. Roy Oswalt, Tom Glavine, Tim Hudson, Chris Young, Jeff Francis, Cole Hamels and Takashi Saito all have a case. But one of our Cy Young voting philosophies is: You must look beyond those win-loss numbers. And the more you look at Smoltz, the more it becomes clear that he has been way better than your average 13-7 pitcher. He's fifth in the league in ERA (3.02). He trails only Peavy and Penny in quality starts (24). And when we consult our new invention, the Criminally Unsupported Start (6 IP or more, but no more than one run of support while the pitcher is in the game), Smoltz's 10 CUS lead the NL. "John Smoltz is the best pitcher in this league," said one scout this week. "If I had one game to win, I'd take him over Jake Peavy." Whew. Beat that endorsement.
For all those Yankee-Red Sox-centric folks out there who think this race shapes up as a duel between Wang and Beckett, please consult this handy little chart and you'll see why Sabathia has outpitched both of those guys:
Now let's factor in some other stuff: Sabathia has outdueled Johan Santana three times. And he has ripped off 10 straight starts of two earned runs or fewer (longest streak by an Indian since, yep, Gaylord Perry in 1974). And has racked up an astonishing 5.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio (182 K's, 32 BBs) -- which would be the second-best by any left-handed starter since 1901 (behind only Randy Johnson's 6.59 in 2004). So Beckett and Wang might have more wins. But have they really pitched the best? Not from this scenic overlook, they haven't.
Since the day Beckett arrived in the big leagues, at age 21, people have waited for him to have That Year. Well, the wait is over. Not only is he 18-6, but three of his four losses since July 1 are by scores of 1-0, 2-1 and 4-3. He's 5-2 against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended now. He's the only starter in the league who ranks in the top six in strikeout ratio and walk ratio. And he's pulling into rarified Red Sox territory. The only Red Sox starters in the last 50 years who had a full season with this many wins, this low an ERA and a winning percentage as good as Beckett are Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling.
Once you move past Sabathia, it gets just about impossible to place this field in any definitive order. But anybody who leaves Escobar out of this debate just hasn't been paying attention. He has given up one earned run or none in nearly half his starts (13 of 28). He's percentage points away from leading the league in ERA. And the Angels' record when he starts (20-8) is one win better than the Red Sox's record when Beckett starts.
The way-too-popular theory that Santana is having a lousy year is a bigger myth than the Loch Ness Monster. He's within range of leading the league in ERA and strikeouts. Fewer hitters reach base against him (.272 OBP) than against any starting pitcher in either league. He has spun off more quality starts (21) than Beckett or Escobar (among others). And in those five losses to the Indians that are going to keep him from winning this award, the Twins scored a total of eight runs. So Johan Santana is still the best pitcher in baseball, ladies and gentlemen. He just hasn't had the best year of his career. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a career year for 95 percent of the pitchers in this hemisphere who aren't named Johan Santana.
Why not Wang? Because even though he's 18-6 (after not winning any games in April), he has also had the most run support, held the opposition under three earned runs the fewest times and made it through seven innings less than any other starter on our leaderboard. In fact, if you take the W-L column out of this equation, then Erik Bedard, Dan Haren, Fausto Carmona and Justin Verlander all have outpitched Wang (whom Baseball Prospectus has ranked as only the 13th-best pitcher in the AL in the VORP standings). But since relief pitchers almost never get any play come Cy Young time, here's a vote for Putz, who has had an amazing season. It's hard to overlook 11 saves of more than three outs, just nine hits allowed all season with men on base (in 81 ABs), a .201 opponent on-base percentage, a .150 opponent batting average and an off-the-charts .190 average allowed on balls in play. True, Jonathan Papelbon has been almost equally dominating. But what separates Putz is his seven "tough" saves (in which he entered with the tying run on base) -- the most by an AL closer in the eight seasons since the Rolaids people started factoring in toughness. That's one more tough save than Papelbon, Joe Borowski, Francisco Rodriguez, Bobby Jenks, Joe Nathan and Todd Jones (the six other AL closers with the most saves) have piled up combined.
Job fair rumblings
Remember all the incisive folks like us who criticized Astros owner Drayton McLane for meddling last month after he fired his GM and manager? Well, you might think all that heat would inspire McLane to take the hint and back off a little. Nope. Baseball people who have talked to McLane of late get the impression he wants to be more involved than ever. So anyone who takes that Houston GM job will have to be someone who goes walking into that scene with his eyes wide open.
We hear lots of buzzing about Dodgers assistant GM/scouting whiz Logan White in Houston. Ditto on Mariners special assistant (and former Dodgers GM) Dan Evans. But one baseball man with ties to McLane says he "wouldn't be shocked" if the Astros hire former Phillies GM Ed Wade, a fellow who has worked for Astros president Tal Smith three different times. And speaking of Philadelphia, one source who is close with the Astros brass says that Wade's old fast-rising assistant GM in Philly, Ruben Amaro Jr., "has the look" of the kind of candidate McLane is searching for. Wade and Amaro might have had their critics in Philadelphia. But it's hard not to notice that every one of the Phillies' 10 current best players -- with the exception of Aaron Rowand -- was acquired during their administration.
The Astros might have more stars in place than the Pirates. But given the McLane factor, we're hearing that the pool of GM candidates is almost universally viewing the Pirates' job as a better situation. One baseball man who spoke with incoming president Frank Coonelly this week says that Coonelly isn't as close to zeroing in on someone like Amaro or Blue Jays player-personnel director Tony LaCava for that GM job as has been rumored. But they both fit the profile of the kind of GM Coonelly wants to hire -- a candidate with a strong baseball and/or scouting background who hasn't been one of the previous usual suspects.
Just because Coonelly spent his career in the commissioner's office as Bud Selig's Tie Domi doesn't mean he's about to walk into Pittsburgh and reign as just another baseball cheapskate who cares more about making the commish happy than he does about winning. "I've seen so many cases in this game where a guy acted out that role in one situation, then acted completely different in another role," said an official of one club. "Larry Lucchino [when he moved from San Diego to Boston] is a great example."
Still, Coonelly has some damage control to do after years of relentless strong-arming of agents, players and team officials in an attempt to maintain Selig's dream of fiscal free-agent, arbitration and draft-pick sanity. "I know one thing," joked one scouting director who has gotten a few earfuls from Coonelly come draft time. "When that draft rolls around next year, he'd better abide by his frigging slot."
Rumbles in the jungle
• Not everyone is so thrilled with MLB's new plan to give the AL's No. 1 seed its choice of which Division Series schedule it wants to follow. An official of one National League contender poses a valid question: "Shouldn't the team with the best record in baseball get to choose? Why is it just their league?" And we agree. It so happens that it's a moot point this year, because all three AL division leaders have a better record than the best NL team (the Mets). But in the future, rather than alternate this perk from league to league, the fairest system is to reward the best team, period. With all the off days built into the new October schedule -- and only one network (TBS) televising every game -- there seems to be no sensible reason that can't work.
• Incidentally, we spoke with officials of two of the top teams in baseball who had no idea MLB had added that pick-your-playoff-schedule bonanza to the list of stretch-drive incentives until they either A) read about it, or B) heard it from us. If the point of this idea is to reward a team for having the best record, shouldn't all the candidates for that reward at least have heard about it before this?
• The Rick Ankiel/Troy Glaus/Jay Gibbons stories are an indicator we're seeing a significant shift in the war on HGH and steroids. We all know now that testing isn't enough to stop any player who is determined to seek a better career through chemistry. So the new battlefront is law enforcement. Send in those DA offices and undercover men, then start leaking names and see if that works as a deterrent. "Right now," said one prominent baseball man, "it's all about headlines."
• The names seeping out of those investigations might not be rattling many Richter scales. But you might be surprised by one segment of the baseball population that gets angrier by the day when these names hit the papers -- scouts. "You feel cheated as an evaluator," said one longtime scout, "that you could be so wrong about some guys. You go back and look at the old reports and you say, 'That's what I saw?' and now you think, 'That wasn't the real guy.' So now, when a guy comes out of nowhere to have a big year, I've become more dubious. You can't help but ask, 'Can you see him doing this next year, when he's playing for your team?' And it gets harder and harder to answer yes."
• It's dawning on more and more clubs that the thin free-agent market is going to be a disaster for teams looking to do any major retooling, at least at positions other than center field. "I keep going through that free-agent list," chuckled an executive of one club, "thinking the real list has got to come out any day now." Uh, good luck. With just about no reliable starting pitching, set-up relievers, first basemen or corner outfield bats on the market, the trend of the early offseason will be transactions column entries that look like this: "Team X -- picked up 2008 option of (fill in name)." There once was a time when it appeared possible, if not likely, that the Yankees wouldn't pick up Bobby Abreu's $16 million option, the Indians might not pick up Paul Byrd's $7 million option and the Tigers might not pick up Pudge Rodriguez's $13 million option. Now? Pretty much slam dunks.
• And while we're on the subject of this winter's free agents, it looks as if there's only going to be one corner outfielder on the market who hit as many as 25 home runs this season (assuming the options of Abreu, Moises Alou and Adam Dunn are all exercised). So who would that be? The one, the only Barry Bonds, of course. But if the Giants wave so long to Barry, as expected, where might he land? Here's a nomination, from one NL executive: "I think he's going to Texas. Tom Hicks cultivates stars. He took a shot at Sammy [Sosa] this year, right? And how could you not wonder when you saw him sitting in front of Bud when Barry tied the record -- and he was more enthusiastic than Bud was? His enthusiasm showed me he's a guy who has definite interest in Barry on some level."
Rumbling around the bases
• In Bob Wickman's last 15 outings as a Brave, he had a 1.98 ERA. Which didn't stop the Braves from deciding to jettison him -- and wasn't enough to allow them to find a team interested in trading for him. So why would teams back that fast away from a pitcher like that, in these bullpen-famished times? "He's a guy who presents a lot of challenges," says an official of one team that decided to pass on Wickman. "He doesn't like to come in with men on base. He doesn't control the running game. He can't throw to first base. He takes a while to get ready. He's not really a strikeout pitcher anymore. So the attributes you look for in a guy in the middle of a game, he doesn't have anymore."
• Pat Burrell won our midseason Least Valuable Player award in the National League. Now he might be the second-half MVP. Who knew? From May 1 through the end of June, Burrell batted .157. But since July 1, he miraculously has a higher batting average (.332) than Ichiro Suzuki, a higher slugging percentage (.688) than A-Rod, more home runs (20) than Prince Fielder and more RBIs (58) than Vladimir Guerrero. So what happened? For one thing, Burrell finally fixed his mechanical glitches and stopped trying to knock down the left-field foul pole with every swing. For another, he has stopped taking pitches just to take pitches -- and started letting it fly in hitters' counts and even on the first pitches of at-bats. "He's got a much different approach now," says one NL executive. "Mechanically, you could see he always knew what he needed to do. He's just finally been able to do it. He's more upright. His front shoulder stays in. And he's seeing the ball now. That Pat Burrell is the guy they drafted [first in the country]."
• While Burrell's metamorphosis was going on, though, one of his teammates was becoming shockingly pull-happy. That's Ryan Howard -- the same Ryan Howard who hit 43 of his 58 home runs last year to left or center field. Howard's friends say that while he'll never admit it, his spring training contract issues with the Phillies -- which ended with the team renewing his contract for $900,000 -- scarred him enough to be partly responsible. "This is what happens," said one of them, "when you think you need to put up [power] numbers to try to get paid."
• You hear a lot of speculation these days that one of Dontrelle Willis' problems is the lack of 1) a pennant race and 2) interested human beings in the seats in Florida. But scouts who have been watching Dontrelle are skeptical of that hypothesis. Their theory is that the Marlins tried to calm down his delivery to improve his command. And instead, said one scout, "He's lost what made him so good. He was all butt, elbows, arms, legs, deception. He was herky-jerky, and he had great finish on his pitches. Now, it looks like they've smoothed him out, and everything is flat. He might have better command. But for me, he was better off without command and with more movement. He hasn't lost velocity. He's still pitching at 90-91. He's just lost his sinker."
• And then there's Pedro Martinez -- a man who brings his own electricity to whatever park he pitches in. "I watched his first start on video," said one scout, "and I thought, 'Boy, his arm looks slow, his arm slot has dropped, his stuff looks flat.' Then I saw the next one in person, and he just carved them up. You don't see many guys whose fastball ranges from 82-90, but with him it's by design. He locks those hitters into one speed. Then, when he needs it, he can still dial one up at 89 or 90. And his changeup is still so deceptive, guys just can't pick it up. He gets them a little anxious, gets them out front and he just slices them up. Is he anywhere near what he used to be? No. But he's one of those guys who is always going to figure out a way to get people out."
• Finally, do you ever get curious about what the standings might look like if the best teams in baseball just played the other best teams? Here's a look at how the current playoff teams (including both the Cubs and Brewers in the NL Central) have done in games against each other this year:
Late-nighter of the week
From David Letterman's list of Top 10 Brittany Spears excuses:
9. "I haven't been myself since Phil Rizzuto died."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.