The Real AL Cy Young Race

The sabermetric community online is pushing heavily for Zach Greinke to win the AL Cy Young award.  These arguments tend to juxtapose Greinke’s statistics against those of the other leading candidates, usually some combination of CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Roy Halladay, and Justin Verlander.  Sabathia leads the league in wins, Verlander in strikeouts, Halladay is often acknowledged as the best pitcher in the AL over the course of the last 3 years, and Hernandez has been touted as the next big thing since his rookie season. For examples of this, see the discussion in the last paragraph here and here. These discussions have the misfortune of ignoring Greinke’s real chief rival, Mariano Rivera.  Rivera has three primary advantages:  a long and unrewarded track record, a pennant winning team, and the likelihood that his best years will soon be behind him.

Rivera has been consistently the best reliever in the American League for the last 13 seasons.  Despite the relatively high number of relievers to win the Cy Young, 9 since two awards have been given out starting in 1967, Rivera has never won.  In Rivera’s prime, Eric Gagne picked up the award in 2003 with a spectacular season, but Rivera remains on the outside looking in.  He is certainly in the discussion of greatest pitchers never to win a Cy Young Award since the award started in 1956, with Juan Marichal as likely his chief rival.  This is one source of pent-up goodwill for Rivera.

A winning team is not as important to pitchers as it is to hitter when award season rolls around.  Nevertheless, voters like to mention how much extra weight should be given to high leverage situations.  The deplorable state of the Royals has eliminated any chance Greinke has had to pitch in a serious pennant race.  Rivera in contrast pitches on the best team in the American League.  He has excelled in the pressure situations so far, with the exception of last night’s walk-off home run by Ichiro.  Rivera has importantly attracted more attention because of his contributions to a winner than Greinke has for his contributions to a cellar-dweller.

Rivera turns 40 in November.  By any normal measure of baseball excellence, his career should be swiftly drawing to a close.  Baseball writers are running out of occasions to award him for his greatness.  Greinke, in contrast, is merely 25, and he should have more good seasons ahead of him.  As all three points show, Rivera is the target for all voters who vote based on sympathy or team excellence.  Greinke’s only hope is a focus purely on statistics, primarily rate stats like ERA and K/9. 

Given my previous post on Joe Mauer’s MVP candidacy, I think the previous performance of Rivera should be irrelevant to the vote this year.  Greinke strikes me as the best candidate.  I would not be surprised, though, to see Rivera finally achieve the Cy Young that has eluded him so far.

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7 Comments on “The Real AL Cy Young Race”

  1. Chris Says:

    Ichiro’s walk-off homer shouldn’t count against Rivera. He does stuff like that every night. 🙂

    Facing mere mortals, Rivera does just fine closing out a game.

  2. sportsphd Says:

    Fair enough.

  3. CW Says:

    As much as I want Mo to win, if Greinke were to win the Cy, no one would argue much based on the numbers.

    Rivera is getting it done on the big stage though; whereas, Greinke is basically competing against himself, because the Royals are terrible.

  4. sportsphd Says:

    He’s a legitimate pick. I would probably pick Greinke first, because I usually favor the starter. But Rivera has to be in the conversation. His numbers are spectacular. If Greinke is the best starter, Rivera is the best reliever. Either would be a reasonable pick for the award.

  5. verdun Says:

    You also might want to look at both Sabathia and the guy in Texas. Wins usually sway voters.

  6. sportsphd Says:

    Sabathia wouldn’t surprise me, but his ERA is pretty high, putting him only 5th in the league. He is 7th in strikeouts. Without a more dominant lead in wins, I don’t see it happening. I think he would need a bigger lead in wins than he has. Scott Feldman would be surprising. He is one behind Sabathia in wins, only 11th in ERA, and much farther down in strikeouts. Wins matter, and they really could cost Greinke the Cy Young. But wins matter more when one player has a lot more than the guy in second. For the best example of this, compare Bob Welch and Roger Clemens in 1990.

  7. verdun Says:

    Feldman has an even worse problem–he plays for Texas, a team that no one cares about at all. Good point about 1990.

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