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If not Greinke for Cy, then who?

8/26/2009

Since we looked at the National League Cy Young candidates already, it's only fair to give equal time to the American Leaguers (especially as I too often ignore the poor, underreported Junior Loop).
  Greinke

Really, I just want another excuse to write about Zack Greinke, who last night set the Royals' franchise record with 15 strikeouts.

I was a little shocked to discover that 15 was enough for a new record. I was also a little shocked to learn who had the old record. Steve Busby, who pitched no-hitters in consecutive seasons? Nope. Dennis Leonard, one of the AL's premier power pitchers in the late 1970s? Nope. Bret Saberhagen, two-time Cy Young winner? Nope. Kevin Appier, one of the best pitchers in the league in the early 1990s? Nope.

Each of those (Royal) Hall of Famers topped out at 13 strikeouts, as did Tom Gordon, David Cone, Dick Drago and -- improbably enough, just last month -- Luke Hochevar.

Twenty-one years ago tomorrow, Mark Gubicza struck out 14 Minnesota Twins and beat Bert Blyeven, 4-1.

Gubicza was certainly a fine pitcher, and 1988 would be his finest season as he went 20-8 with a 2.70 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young balloting (the only time he would ever figure in the balloting at all). He also finished sixth in the American League in strikeouts, though his 6.1 K's per nine innings wouldn't get him anywhere near the leader board in today's American League.*

* Gubicza did pitch 270 innings in 1988. He'd pitched 242 in 1987, and would pitch 255 more in 1989, during which he turned 27. Gubicza would pitch for another eight years, but only once would he top 200 innings again.

Back to Greinke, the new record-holder and also the most successful pitcher in the American League this season. He now leads the league in ERA, complete games, and home-run rate, and is second (to Roy Halladay) in strikeout-to-walk ratio. I'm still not sure that Greinke is better than Halladay. But he's had the better season. The best season.

Of course he's still a long shot for the Cy Young Award, because thanks to his non-hitting teammates he's got only 12 wins. And as we saw earlier, it'll take 17 or 18 wins to even be a part of the serious Cy Young discussion. Felix Hernandez (12-5, 2.73) is in exactly the same boat: brilliant pitching, lousy hitting. So unless one of those guys gets exceptionally lucky down the stretch, they're out.

Which leaves only a few viable candidates: Justin Verlander (14-7, 3.38), CC Sabathia (15-7, 3.59) and Josh Beckett (14-5, 3.65). What? You think the voters wouldn't dare go for pitchers with ERA's a run or more higher than Greinke's or Hernandez'? Au contraire, mon frere. Just four years ago, Bartolo Colon's 21 wins and 3.48 ERA garnered 17 first-place votes while Johan Santana's 16 wins and 2.87 wins could manage only three.

Granted, Colon did win 21 games and his ERA wasn't actually a full run higher than Santana's. But there simply isn't any precedent for a 16-game winner beating out a 19- or 20-game winner for the award.

Sabathia seems to have become the favorite, but I don't believe a storyline matters as much in Cy Young balloting as it does in MVP voting. Being the favorite in late August matters far less than having the right (if not necessarily the best) numbers in early October. If Verlander finishes with just a win or two fewer than Sabathia, but has a lower ERA and a lot more strikeouts (as he will), he will probably win. And as things stand now, if Greinke can't win the thing, Verlander would be my first choice.