The NL Cy Young and the fallacy of wins

The Baseball Gods have long enjoyed playing games with the Cy Young Award, and this year is no different.

In 2001, Roger Clemens undeservingly won the Cy Young Award because he had a 20-3 record. This season, Roger Clemens won’t win the Cy Young Award he deserves because of won-loss record.

Four years ago, when Clemens was pitching on the Yankees and was just 38 years old, he went 20-3 with a 3.51 ERA. He struck out 213 in 220.1 innings en route to what was then his sixth Cy Young Award.

While these numbers placed Clemens in the top ten of nearly every pitching category, the general consensus that year seemed to be that Clemens’ teammate Mike Mussina would have been a better choice for the Cy Young Award. Mussina’s 3.15 ERA was good for second in the league, just 0.10 runs behind Freddy Garcia. Mussina recorded one fewer strike out that Clemens, had a better walk ratio than the Rocket, and threw three shut outs and four complete games while Roger managed goose eggs in both of those categories.

Yet, the Baseball Writers Association of America loved the gaudy 20-3 record and the fact that Clemens had managed to win 20 games at age 38. He won the Cy Young in a season during which Yankee fans didn’t even regard him as the best pitching on their team let alone the entire American League.

Of course, baseball always takes back those generous gifts, it seems, and this year, Clemens will be denied his Cy Young.

It’s hard to argue with Clemens’ numbers. He’s doing something no one his age (currently 43, but who’s counting?) has ever done. In 192.1 innings, Clemens is throwing to an ERA of 1.78. Opponents are hitting .188 against him with a .251 on-base percentage and a .272 slugging. He’s allowed 129 hits or 63 fewer hits than innings pitched while striking out 171.

Even more impressive are the Rocket’s home-road splits. After last night’s disastrous outing in Milwaukee during which Clemens gave up five earned runs in three innings, his road ERA clocks in at an even 1.00. He’s thrown 90 innings on the road while giving up just 10 earned runs and striking out 81. The baseball world rarely witnesses pitchers this dominant anymore, and Clemens is doing this at age at which nearly every player except for Julio Franco has already hung up their spikes.

The only problem is that the Astros have delivered just 11 wins so far for Roger Clemens. Sometimes the offense is shut out; sometimes the bullpen has blown games. Either way, Clemens, with just four or five starts left, has a shot at winning 15 games. But he can’t come close to Chris Carpenter’s lofty 21 wins and counting.

While I believe that Clemens deserves the recognition simply because he’s pitching an outstanding season at age 43, Clemens’ main competition has nearly outpitched him and is equally deserving of the Cy Young Award. The Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter – the true ace that should deliver his team a World Series championship this year – has 21 wins and 4 losses. His ERA is 2.21, now just 0.40 runs higher than Clemens’. Opponents are hitting .213/.256/.322 against him. He has 198 strike outs in 220 innings, four shut outs and seven complete games.

At this point in the season, many baseball writers on the Internet have long conceded the Cy Young to Carpenter. His win total which could top out at 25 and the rest of his impressive numbers are too hard to ignore even in light of Clemens’ accomplishments this year. But this debate underscores the fallacy of the won-loss record.

In 2001, Clemens won the Cy Young because he had an .870 winning percentage. He wasn’t as good that year for the Yankees as he is this year for the Astros. But this year, his team hasn’t won with him on the mound. Winning, then, is not at all a decent indication of how a pitcher has performed. Winning is one way of interpreting a pitcher’s success. But as Clemens has shown, a pitcher can be downright dominant without reeling in the wins if the offense behind him or the bullpen backing him up can’t emerge victorious after the ninth inning ends.

Both Clemens and Chris Carpenter deserve major recognition for outpitching the league mean ERA by over 2.00 runs a game. But in the end, Carpenter will walk away with the award because he won more games. Whether or not he’s more deserving than Clemens is impossible to tell. I would want both of them on my hypothetical team. But this debate just shows that sometimes it’s hard to let go of the so-called traditional stats well after they’ve been proven obsolete time and time again.

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