Pitchers an unpredictable lot

Judging how pitchers will perform is a difficult task. For evidence, look no further than Josh Beckett.

Originally Published: June 1, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Before the season, various ESPN broadcasters, writers, and editors were asked to make their predictions for the 2004 season, and one of the boxes was National League Cy Young Award winner. In that category (among others), we didn't fare too well. Here are the five pitchers listed, along with the number of votes they got and who voted for them:

Kerry Wood    10 (Rob Neyer, plus nine others)
Roy Oswalt     3 (Tim Kurkjian, Bob Klapisch, Phil Rogers)
Josh Beckett   2 (Buster Olney, Matt Szefc)
Andy Pettitte  1 (Jayson Stark)
Billy Wagner   1 (John Kruk)

Josh Beckett
Starting pitcher
Florida Marlins
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
G IP W-L BB SO ERA
11 68.2 4-4 21 70 4.06

What do nearly all of these pitchers have in common? Except for one of them (Oswalt), they've all been on the disabled list at least once this season. And while I'm sure that a pitcher or three has hit the DL and been Cy Young in the same year, I'm just as sure that it's not a common occurrence.

As it happens, in the soon-to-be-available Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, one of the co-authors presents a reliable formula for predicting Cy Young winners, based on nothing more than statistics and standings. I can't reveal the formula here -- sorry, for that you'll have to either buy the book or wait for somebody to post it on the Internet -- but I can tell you that if the vote were held today, why of course Roger Clemens would win.

It might be close, though. Here are the top five, according to the shiny new Bill James Cy Young Predictor:

Danny Graves   73.3
Roger Clemens  67.1
Brad Penny     62.5
Paul Wilson    60.8
Randy Johnson  57.9

... with Tom Glavine and Jason Schmidt right behind, followed by a couple of Cubs (neither of them Kerry Wood or Mark Prior).

Is Danny Graves going to win? It's not real likely. He gets a lot of points because he's on pace for something like 80 saves and he gets a small bonus for the Reds' current lofty place in the standings. Neither of those are likely to hold up, and anyway it's quite uncommon for a reliever to win the award.

Clemens isn't more likely to win than everybody else (the field), but he's more likely to win than anybody else. Why? Because he's got everything going for him. Cy Young voters like gaudy records (7-0: check). The voters like low ERA's (2.38: check). The voters like strikeouts (76 in 64 innings: check). And the voters like first-place teams (the Astros are the best team in the National League Central, and have a very good chance of winding up on top: check).

So Clemens is the No. 1 candidate, followed in approximate order by Brad Penny, Jason Schmidt (if his arm doesn't fall off), Randy Johnson, the two non-Prior/Wood Cubs (Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement), and Jake Peavy. Sorry, but I just don't think Paul Wilson can hold on, due to both his modest strikeout rate and the eventual fourth-place finish of his team (which has been outscored this season; the Central's the only division in which the standings are wildly at odds with the run differentials). And Glavine? Well, I guess you should never say never when it comes to a future Hall of Famer. But I'll be surprised if he keeps this up all season.

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Remember those five pitchers that the experts named as Cy Young candidates? Not only are none of them among the top candidates, none of them are even close to ranking among the top candidates.

Wood went 3-3 with a 2.82 ERA before going on the DL. Oswalt's 3.45 ERA is solid and of course he's throwing the ball past hitters, but poor run support has left him with only three wins. Beckett's No. 3 in the league with 70 strikeouts, but his 4.06 ERA isn't among the league leaders and now he's on the DL with a recurrence of a blister problem. Pettitte's elbow is hurting again, and Wagner's also ailing. Prior would likely have been a popular Cy Young choice, but we knew he wasn't going to pitch for a while, and in fact he still hasn't pitched for the Cubs this season.

This leads to the obvious conclusion that (as you've no doubt heard many times) pitchers are just an unpredictable lot. Unseemly, almost.

But are pitchers really so unpredictable? Not really. As Ron Shandler noted in his most recent annual, "Unreliable pitching performance is a fallacy driven by the practice of attempting to project performance using pitching gauges that are poor evaluators of talent."

Gauges like wins, for example. And batting average on balls in play (that is, hits allowed, sort of). Take those things out of the equation, and Oswalt, Beckett, and Wood are legitimate Cy Young candidates (or were, before the latter pair went on the DL). It's probably true that pitchers, and especially young pitchers, are more likely to get hurt than, say, first basemen. But absent injury, the basic skills of a pitcher aren't any more likely to change from season to season than are the basic skills of a first baseman or an outfielder.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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