Breaking Down the NL Cy Young Award

There is no shortage of deserving candidates for the 2008 NY Cy Young Award. But according to Contributing Editor Richard Van Zandt, the pitcher who has been the very best in the senior circuit is none other than San Francisco's wunderkind, Tim Lincecum.

It's time once again to begin debating who deserves the top accolades around the majors and who deserves some post-season hardware.  The one award that interests and intrigues me the most is the one that will designate the National League's top pitcher, the Cy Young Award.  Admittedly, I have a rather pronounced bias when it comes to this category, and I won't pretend to hide my desire to see a Giants pitcher take home the top prize for just the second time in history and the first since Mike McCormick the premiere NL Cy Young Award in 1967.  But while there are certainly a few other very deserving candidates, for my money, the pitcher who truly has been the very best in the senior circuit in 2008 is none other than San Francisco's wunderkind, Tim Lincecum

As I proceed to make a case for Lincecum to be named the recipient of the 2008 Cy Young Award, and before I compare the top two candidates head-to-head, I will begin by breaking down three of the other top contenders in the NL. 

C.C. SabathiaMilwaukee Brewers – 11-2, 1.65/1.00/.222, 128 K, 130.2 IP

While the deal that brought the reigning 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner to Milwaukee will undoubtedly go down as one of the very best mid-season deals in history, Sabathia's incredible performance in almost single-handedly lifting the Brewers into post-season play should not be enough to earn him the NL Cy Young award.  Sure, there is precedent in Rick Sutcliffe's remarkable 1984 season, in which Sutcliffe went 16-1 for the Cubs after being acquired, appropriately, from the Indians mid-season.  Sutcliffe was dealt three weeks earlier in the year than was Sabathia, however, and made 20 starts for Chicago as opposed to the 17 starts Sabathia made for the Brew Crew. 

At any rate, it's not the NL best-for-a-half-season award; it's the award for the best pitcher in the league for the whole season.  Sabathia threw just 130 innings in the NL this year.  The top three candidates threw just about that many in the first half of the year alone.  Sutcliffe, on the other hand, threw 150 innings for Chicago in 1984 while the Cy Young runner up that year, Dwight Gooden, tossed just 68 more.  Accolades aplenty does C.C. deserve for his remarkable achievements in '08, but the league's top pitching award should not be among them.

Brad LidgePhiladelphia Phillies – 2-0, 41/41 SV, 1.95/1.22/.198, 92 K, 69.2 IP

It had been a downward spiral for Lidge since surrendering that infamous home run to Sir Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS.  But after blowing eight saves in just 27 opportunities for Houston in 2007, Lidge was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year this season after converting all 41 of his chances this year for Philadelphia.  It was a phenomenal season for the Phillie closer that included a 0.79 ERA and 27 saves in 34 road contests.  He allowed just 2 home runs all season, and his opponent's slugging percentage was just .269.  Right-handed hitters managed to bat a miniscule .105 against him (12 hits in 114 at bats).  Truly, it was a season worthy of some Cy Young consideration. 

It wasn't without some noteworthy blips, however.  While his first half numbers were out of this world (1.13/1.13/.181), his second half stats took a slight but perceptible dive (3.07/1.36/.220).  After suffering abuse at the hands of Colorado manager Clint Hurdle in this year's All-Star game, Lidge allowed a hit-and-a-half more and struck out one batter fewer per nine innings pitched.  Additionally, he allowed two more base runners per nine in the second half of the season than he did in the first half.  He clearly was not the same pitcher after being man-handled by the Rockies' skipper.  While he deserves credit aplenty for avoiding suffering a blown save while pitching at hitter friendly Citizen's Bank Park, his 3.07 ERA and 1.47 WHIP at home indicate he may have gotten lucky a time or two. 

At any rate, while Lidge had a spectacular season, it wasn't nearly as dominant a year in comparison to his competition as a pitcher who threw fewer than 70 innings should need to have in order to win the Cy Young Award. 

Brandon WebbArizona Diamondbacks – 22-7, 3.30/1.20/.242, 3 CG, 25 DP

Brandon Webb had a fantastic season for the D-Backs, tying with the Indians' Cliff Lee for the major league lead in wins with 22 and becoming the NL's first 20-game winner since 2005.  His win total was the highest in the league since Dontrelle Willis led the senior circuit that same year with 22.  In fact, only two pitchers since 1997 - Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling with Arizona in 2002 - have had more wins in a single season than Webb accumulated this year.  Once upon a time, those 22 wins - four more than anyone else in the NL - would have been enough to lock down the award.  But this is 2008, and voters thankfully have a lot more information at their disposal nowadays than they used to. 

In matching up the top pitchers in the league, I compared Webb along with Lincecum and the Mets Johan Santana in over 40 different statistical categories, ranging from the very basic (ERA, hits, walks, strikeouts) on up to some of those favored by the Sabermetric society (pitching win shares, fielding independent pitching, pitching runs created).  In this statistical analysis, Webb came out on top in just 5 categories; wins (22), complete games (3 - tied with Santana), fewest wild pitches (8), most double plays induced (25) and opponents batting average versus right-handed batters (.219).  There hasn't been a landslide this pronounced since Ronald Reagan walloped Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election.

And besides, if you want to talk about Webb's win total then consider this: Webb left a game with a lead that his bullpen subsequently squandered only once all year.  Lincecum's relief mates, on the other hand, lost five leads for him while the Mets' leaky pen wasted a lead for Santana sevem times.  Assume perfection in all cases, and all three have 23 wins.

Webb indeed had a fantastic season for Arizona and nothing should lessen his remarkable accomplishments.  However, the best pitcher in the National League for 2008 he most certainly was not; at best, he was only third. 

Tim Lincecum and Johan Santana – Head-To-Head

With those three seemingly worthy pretenders deposed, it's time to get down to the two real contenders: Lincecum and Santana.  I mentioned previously that I looked at over 40 different statistical categories as I analyzed the performance of these two aces.  Here's a head-to-head look at some of those.

 

Lincecum

Santana

 

Lincecum

Santana

W

18

16

L

5

7

CG

2

3

SHO

1

2

H

182

206

BB

84

63

HR

11

23

DP

23

12

ERA

2.62

2.53

RA

2.85

2.84

WHIP

1.17

1.15

ERA+

164

163

OBP

.297

.286

SLG

.316

.362

w/RISP

.167

.230

vs. LH

.221

.247

H/9

7.22

7.91

BR/9

10.78

10.49

RBI

58

67

BB/9

3.33

2.42

SB

20

6

IP/GS

6.88

6.89

W %

.783

.696

OPS

.612

.618

IP

227.0

234.1

vs. RH

.221

.227

SO

265

206

HR/G

0.46

0.92

QS

26

28

K/9

10.51

7.91

FIP

2.67

3.37

RS

4.92

4.92

BAA

.221

.232

AV GS

62.1

60.1

P WS

23.8

18.3

P RC

142

134

Italics – led NL     Bold – led MLB

Out of these 36 key measures of performance, Lincecum has the upper hand on the two-time AL Cy Young winner in 22 (they were dead even in run support).  He topped the majors in nine of those categories, while Santana managed that feat in just two.  The Freak also led the NL in seven additional departments, whereas Johan did in just two.  

Make no bones about it: Johan Santana, in the first year of a seven-year, $151 million contract had an absolutely fantastic season for the Metropolitans.  He ranked in the top eight in the league (min 180 IP) in WHIP (6th), BAA (t-4th), OBP (5th), SLG (8th) and OPS (5th) while leading in ERA.  Of Santana's seven losses, five came in games in which he was credited with a quality start (Lincecum had two) and his efforts to guide New York into the playoffs (8-0 in the second half; 4-0, 1.83 ERA in September, including a three-hit shutout against Florida on the next-to-last day of the season while pitching with a torn left meniscus) were well worthy of the record deal he signed last winter, even if the Mets fell short once again. 

A laudable argument can no doubt be made by his supporters that Santana deserves the honor. If he were indeed to win, it could be hard to argue that he didn't deserve it.  In my mind, however, there is no one more deserving than Lincecum.  He absolutely dominated his NL opponents in 2008, leading the league in winning %, strikeouts, BAA, SLG, OPS, ERA+, BA w/RISP, H/9, K/9, and HR/G. He also allowed both the fewest HR (tied) and RBI.

In leading the NL with a .783 winning percentage, Timmy became just the fourth pitcher in history to finish 13 games or more above .500 personally while his team finished 13 or more below.  Steve Carlton (1972), Eddie Rommel (1922) and Dazzy Vance (1925) were the others.  Carlton took home the Cy Young for his efforts when he went 27-10 for those 59-97 Phillies. The Cy Young was first awarded in 1956.

With 265 strikeouts, Lincecum had the highest figure in the majors since 2004 when Randy Johnson whiffed 290 and Santana himself fanned 265.  At the All-Star break, Lincecum led the National League with 135 strikeouts, and he paced the majors in the second half with 130 more.  That figure also gave Tim the most strikeouts in a single season in the San Francisco Giants era (1958-present) and places him 9th on the all-time franchise list.  More impressively, his total is the second highest in Giants history since 1900, two shy of the mark set by the legendary Christy Mathewson way back in 1903.  Since 1970, only 20 other pitchers have met or surpassed that mark and only 32 have now done it in the modern era.

His 10.51 strikeouts per nine innings pitched also set an all-time Giants franchise record, surpassing the mark of 10.04 set by Jason Schmidt in '04.  That ratio ranks him 30th all-time in MLB single season history with only 11 other starting pitchers ever having exceeded it. 

Competing in just his first full season in the majors, Lincecum also expertly played role of stopper to the tune of a 14-3 record in games following a San Francisco loss. The last time any pitcher won as many as 13 games following a team loss was 2002 (Paul Byrd, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson with 13 each)."  Santana went 8-4 in games after a New York defeat, winning his last five straight such decisions after beginning the season 3-4.  Against playoff teams, Lincecum went 5-2 in eight games (seven starts) while Santana went 4-2 in 10 starts.  

Lincecum also dominated away from the pitching friendly confines of Willie Mays Field, posting a 10-2 record and a 2.22 ERA in 18 road contests while allowing just three home runs in nearly 120 innings.  And while his second half W-L record (7-3) and ERA (2.68) were off slightly from his first half marks (11-2, 2.57), his WHIP plunged from 1.25 to 1.07 and his opponent's batting average dove from .241 before the break down to just .193 afterwards.  He also struck out nearly three more batters per nine innings after the break (9.37 1st half – 12.02 2nd half) and surrendered over a hit and a half less per nine(7.98 1st half – 6.20 2nd half).   

As I admitted to previously, I have an obvious bias towards Lincecum, whose bandwagon I was among the first to jump on, once having declared him The Future of the franchise.  I have never, in my lifetime, (1969-current) seen a Giants pitcher named the top in the league.  Eight times, beginning with my hero Willie McCovey back in '69, has a Giant hitter been voted the National League's Most Valuable Player, but never once has a pitcher been called the very best.  Clearly, it would be a tremendous silver lining to yet another in a string of recent disappointing seasons for my newest favorite Giants player (joining the likes of McCovey, Will Clark, Rod Beck, and Mike Matheny) to be voted the 2008 National League Cy Young Award winner in just his first full major league season.  It would also be a pretty nice validation of my tremendous belief in him. 

But clear is clear, and it becomes blatantly clear, when you look closely at the entirety of his work, that San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum has flat out been the best pitcher in the National League this year.  Congratulations to Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, Brad Lidge and C.C. Sabathia on absolutely fantastic seasons and thanks for such outstanding performances.  You all helped make baseball exciting this year and had seasons worthy of consideration for the most coveted award pitchers can receive.  In the end, though, only one pitcher rises to the top.  In 2008, that pitcher was Tim Lincecum.

Statistical Sources:  ESPN.com, TheHardballTimes.com, BillJamesOnline.com, and Baseball-Reference.com

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