Lincecum beats stiff competition for NL Cy Young

November, 11, 2008

So, in the end, the race hailed as perhaps the closest of all 2008 awards was a runaway after all: Tim Lincecum is the National League's Cy Young award winner.

He took home 23 of the 32 first-place votes and 137 points in the balloting, compared to Brandon Webb's four first-place tallies and 73 points. Of course, our own Player Rater could have told you that; among pitchers who spent the entire 2008 season in the National League, Lincecum ranked first, by a noticeable amount over Webb, in fact.

Tim LincecumPaul Jasienski/Getty ImagesTim Lincecum led the majors in strikeouts and was second in the NL in wins and ERA.
Sounds like our own Jason Grey is dead on in tabbing Lincecum his No. 1 fantasy pitcher entering 2009, doesn't it?

But what about Johan Santana? Or CC Sabathia? Or … gasp … Brad Lidge, Mr. Perfect (48-for-48 in save chances this year, postseason included)?

Interestingly, our Player Rater -- which accounts for a pitcher's exploits regardless of league -- ranked Sabathia second among pitchers, ahead of Lincecum. Santana, meanwhile, finished sixth; he was three -- three -- spots ahead of Webb, demonstrating how overrated Webb's 22 wins were, both in the real game and for fantasy.

Santana finished a distant third in the NL Cy Young voting, with four first-place votes and 55 points, 82 shy of Lincecum. All those blown leads by the Mets bullpen apparently did come back to haunt him, not only in the division race but also in the awards balloting. Hard to argue with the numbers, though; he led the majors in ERA (2.53), ranked 10th in WHIP (1.15) and tied for fifth in strikeouts (206). All in all, it was one of his better seasons.

Sabathia ranked no lower than fifth in any of those "big three" categories accounting for his Indians and Brewers numbers. Had Cleveland merely provided him more run support in the season's early weeks, he'd have won 20 games and been the No. 1 pitcher for our purposes. Yet the split season between the American and National Leagues burned him in the Cy Young balloting, his 11-2 record and 1.65 ERA for Milwaukee notwithstanding.

As for Lidge, closers tend only to get Cy Young consideration in poor years for the starting-pitching crop … and 2008 certainly did not qualify as that. Most amazing about Lidge's season: He had a 0.79 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 34 road games this season, shaping up as practically untouchable away from bandbox Citizens Bank Park.

With such a deep crop of talented NL pitchers, what's next for this bunch?

I'm with Grey on this one; depending upon Sabathia's eventual destination -- which does matter -- Lincecum enters 2009 the most appealing fantasy starting pitcher. Interestingly enough, both Lincecum and Sabathia completed the past season while raising workload questions; this season, Lincecum had two starts with 130-plus pitches, five of 120-plus and 18 of 110-plus, many of those down the stretch as the Giants attempted to get him this hardware. Sabathia, by comparison, threw 120-plus five times and 110-plus 16 times, and made each of his final four starts of 2008 (postseason included) on three days' rest.

Sabathia threw more total pitches than anyone this season, and Lincecum ranked second. Going by pitches per start, among qualified starters, Lincecum averaged 109.2 and Sabathia 109.0; they were 1-2 in the category. That's the kind of hefty workload that might raise questions in future seasons if continued, so it'll bear watching come next season. One year of that, though, probably won't be an issue. Lincecum, now 24, would become a worry come 2010 or 2011 should it be a trend, while Sabathia might be a concern for his new team in the latter stages of his new contract, assuming his new team has designs on getting him in the 250-inning range for a third consecutive season in 2009.

For 2009, though, can't say I'm that troubled by either pitcher; pitch counts were a greater worry when we were talking the days of 120-pitch averages.

Santana, by all rights, will be right there with Lincecum and Sabathia, and I'd argue in between the two. Sure, Santana's strikeout rate declined dramatically -- by his standards -- dipping beneath one per frame for the first time since his 43 2/3-inning 2001, and CitiField might not be so friendly to pitchers as Shea Stadium was. But in the more pitching-oriented National League, Santana, who will turn 30 in March, should manage at least another season of top-five-starter fantasy numbers.

And what about Webb? Surely his 5.70 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in his final seven starts was his undoing in this awards race. But he has kept those numbers consistently in the 3.00 and 1.15 range the past three seasons, and he's in his prime. Webb might not be a contender for the strikeout title, nor is he likely to earn those honors in either ratio category, but as a sinkerball specialist is about as safe and consistent as they come. To not rank him among the top five starters heading into 2009 would be foolish.

Lidge -- and sixth-place finisher Ryan Dempster -- is the pitcher on this list most likely to endure a decline in fantasy value next season. Not to take anything away from his performance in 2008, but to ask back-to-back perfect seasons of a closer who calls Citizens Bank Park his home is a tall task. His ERA there was north of three, and he was outperformed on our Player Rater by six other closers. Lidge is a top-10 closer, but if you treat him like a top-five option, you'll be in for a disappointment.

This was an exciting race, blowout win for Lincecum or not, and above all, it helps demonstrate how starting pitching is beginning to recapture our attention in fantasy. Gone are the days of picking only hitters with your first five picks; guys like Lincecum, Santana, Sabathia and Webb will presumably all be gone by the end of the third round, and I'd argue they should!

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for You can e-mail him here.



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