Commentary

Greinke deserves to win AL Cy Young

Despite having just 15 wins, righty is without a doubt American League's best pitcher

Originally Published: September 27, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The envelope arrived in my mailbox a week ago Saturday. Inside was a glossy, one-page testimonial to the 2009 accomplishments of Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke in an effort to help him win the American League Cy Young Award. It is not unusual for teams in this day and age to resort to this, especially when you're the Royals and your guy has a 15-8 record. But the endorsement isn't necessary. Check the numbers -- all the numbers -- and Greinke is the AL's Cy Young winner.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelHeading into his start against the Twins on Sunday, Zack Greinke is 2-0 with a 0.35 ERA in four starts in September.

There are other qualified pitchers, including Seattle's Felix Hernandez, Detroit's Justin Verlander, the Yankees' CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera and Toronto's Roy Halladay. But Greinke leads the AL in ERA, shutouts and WHIP, is second in complete games and ranks in the top five in innings pitched, strikeouts, quality starts and batting average against.

Greinke's ERA, 2.08, is most significant compared to those of Hernandez (2.45), Halladay (3.01), Sabathia (.3.31) and Verlander (3.44). The last AL pitcher to have an ERA as low as Greinke's and not win the Cy Young Award was Roger Clemens in 1990, when he had a 1.93. Bob Welch of the A's won the Cy Young that year because he won 27 games. The AL might not have a 20-game winner this year.

In the DH era (1973-present), the only AL pitchers to post an ERA as low as Greinke's in a season of at least 200 innings pitched are Clemens (1.93 in 1990 and 2.05 in 1997), Pedro Martinez (2.07 in 1999 and 1.74 in 2000), Ron Guidry (1.74 in 1978) and Jim Palmer (2.07 in 1972). And, since 1969, the only pitchers as young as the 25-year-old Greinke to have an ERA as low in a season are Dwight Gooden (1.53 in 1985), Vida Blue (1.82 in 1971), Martinez (1.90 in 1997) and Gary Nolan (1.99 in 1972).

When you talk to hitters across the league, they use the same words to describe Greinke. "Filthy" and "nasty" head the list. "He is very impressive," said Red Sox pitcher Paul Byrd, who was the losing pitcher to Greinke on Tuesday night in Kansas City. "He throws 98 [mph] with a great curveball and a great slider, but he's not just throwing at 98, he's pitching."

Greinke was the AL Pitcher of the Month for April, he was the best pitcher in the league the first two months of the season and he has been the best pitcher in September. He and Fernando Valenzuela (1985) are the only pitchers since earned runs became an official statistic in 1913 not to allow an earned run in the first four starts of a season. Greinke posted a 0.84 ERA in his first 10 starts, the first pitcher to do that since Hall of Famer Juan Marichal in 1966. In his past five starts, Greinke has allowed a total of one earned run.

He set a club record with 15 strikeouts in a game against the Indians in late August. "That's about as good as any pitcher in my time here at this level," Indians manager Eric Wedge said after that game. And Greinke became the first Royals pitcher since Mark Gubicza in 1995 to throw a complete game while allowing no more than one hit (Aug. 30 against the Mariners).

"Greinke is very similar to John Smoltz in his prime," Rays reliever Joe Nelson said. "Smoltz threw 95-96 with a 90 miles per hour slider and a split at 89. All three of those pitches were the best in the game. Greinke is the same. He throws that slow curveball in the 60s, he has a hard slider in the upper 80s, a great changeup, and he can blow away anyone in the game with a fastball."

Critics will point to Greinke's 15-8 record, and the Royals' 16-15 record in Greinke's starts, and look for someone more deserving of the award. That would be a mistake because there is precedent for winning the Cy Young with Greinke's, and his team's, win totals. The record for fewest victories in a full season by a Cy Young winner (starting pitchers only) is 16 by Brandon Webb in 2006; he tied for the league lead in wins that season. The Diamondbacks' .545 winning percentage in Webb's starts that season is the lowest ever by a Cy Young winner. Gaylord Perry had a .600 winning percentage (22-14) for the 1972 Indians, the lowest winning percentage for an AL Cy Young winner. Greinke's winning percentage is .652.

But that, more than anything, is a function of playing for the Royals. Twelve pitchers have won the Cy Young for a team with a losing record, but only one of those 12 teams -- the 1972 Phillies, who had Cy Young winner Steve Carlton -- had a worse winning percentage than the 2009 Royals. Greinke's team hasn't supported him offensively: His 3.7 runs per start is the lowest of any pitcher with at least 20 starts this season. That 3.7 would rank as the seventh-worst run support of any Cy Young winner in history, but of the top six, only Martinez (1997) won his Cy Young after 1981, long before the offensive explosion of the mid-1990s. The Royals have been a terrible defensive team this year, and their bullpen has blown 21 save opportunities, third-most in the league. Greinke easily could have 21 wins at this point of the season.

But 15, 16 or 17 will be enough. The résumé that the Royals sent in the mail lists Zack Greinke as "Cy Young Candidate." In November, when award winners are announced, it will be Zack Greinke, "Cy Young Winner."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.