Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Wainwright making Cy case?


OK, class: Raise your hand if you tagged Adam Wainwright as a Cy Young candidate before this season.
  Wainwright

No? Me, neither. Yet here he is. From Tuesday night's AP game story:

(When's the last time you heard a Major League Baseball player say golly?)

Granted, Wainwright did go 11-3 last season, with a 3.20 ERA. But he missed a big chunk of the season with a finger injury and his underlying performance didn't suggest anything quite like this. But he's upped his strikeout rate and continues to be exceptionally stingy with the home runs -- which is true of all the St. Louis' starters, and is a key to their collective success -- and Wainwright now must be considered among the half-dozen or so best starters in the National League.

Is he the best, though? Well, I think you'd take Tim Lincecum (to name just one stalwart) before Wainwright. Still, I'm wondering if Wainwright might actually win the Cy Young Award this season.

At the moment, I see only five viable candidates. Remember, there are really only two ways to win: 1) win a lot of games, or 2) pitch brilliantly. Do both, and you'll probably win. Do neither, and you've got no chance. You've also got no chance if you pitch brilliantly but don't win more than 15 games. Javier Vazquez has pitched brilliantly for the Braves, but he's just 10-9 so he's simply not a viable candidate.

Our five viable candidates, then, are Wainwright (15-7, 2.50), Carpenter (14-3, 2.16), Tim Lincecum (12-4, 2.43), Matt Cain (12-4, 2.39) and Dan Haren (12-8, 2.73). Haren's obviously a long shot, since his record and his ERA are both less impressive than those of his competition. But Haren's strikeout-to-walk ratio is easily the best in the league, and that might carry some weight if he finishes with 17 or 18 wins.

Which he probably won't. Haren will probably start six, maybe seven more games. While he could win all or almost all of them, he probably will not. Same goes for the other guys. Especially teammates Lincecum and Cain. As they know only too well, the Giants are 13th in the NL in scoring, which has led to a number of no-decisions for their two aces. Each would be lucky to reach even 17 wins, and no starting pitcher has won a Cy Young Award in a full season with fewer than 17 wins.

In fact, only two starters have won a Cy Young with 17 wins: Randy Johnson in 1999 and Pedro Martinez in 1997.

Martinez couldn't match Greg Maddux's 19-4 record and his ERA wasn't much better than Maddux's. But his ERA began with a 1 (1.90), which presumably impressed the voters. As did his 305 strikeouts (to Maddux's 177). Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the balloting wasn't even close, with Pedro picking up 25 of 28 first-place votes.

Two years later, Johnson beat out Mike Hampton in a significantly closer vote, taking 20 first-place votes to Hampton's 11 (inexplicably, Kevin Millwood got the other). Johnson went 17-9 and Hampton went 22-4, but Johnson's ERA was half a run lower and (most critically, I suspect) he struck out more than twice as many batters as Hampton.

So, yes: It can be done. But it would take something extraordinary for a 17-game winner to win the award. It's not likely that Cain will do anything extraordinary, because (frankly) he's not an extraordinary pitcher. Not extraordinarily so, anyway.

Lincecum, on the other hand, certainly is extraordinary, as we saw last year when he won 18 games and beat out 22-game-winner Brandon Webb for the Cy Young in something of a landslide. Lincecum's going to strike out just as many hitters this year, walk fewer, and perhaps post an even lower ERA. He's got a shot, if his teammates score some runs for him.

My money's on Carpenter or Wainwright, though. Carpenter's got a lower ERA than Lincecum and a better record. Wainwright's also got a better record, and just a slightly higher ERA. What's more, the Cardinals have a pretty good offense. The one x-factor is Carpenter's injury; he missed five weeks in April and May, and has pitched considerably fewer innings than his competition. Then again, maybe the voters will give him a few points of extra credit for coming back so strong.

Update: As a reader points out, Brandon Webb won the Cy Young Award in 2006 despite winning only 16 games (a fact that I forgot, and somehow missed today even though I double-checked, or tried to). Of course, that was one freaky season, as no National League pitcher won more than 16 games. That might someday happen again. But 16 wins isn't going to be enough for a Cy Young this season.