Some stats (re: wins) are overrated

Originally Published: September 8, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We all know that Roger Clemens is having a year for the history books. Ah, but is he having a year for the trophy cases?

Whew. Not a simple question.

On one hand, how can this man not win another Cy Young award?

Roger Clemens
Starting Pitcher
Houston Astros
Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
GM W L ERA WHIP BAA
28 11 6 1.57 .92 .185
He has a 1.57 ERA. (And remember, an ERA twice that high would still get you into the top 10 in the league.)

He has allowed five earned runs on the road all season. (Dontrelle Willis once gave up 15 in one week.)

And when Clemens pitches, it's amazing how every hitter on earth turns into Cristian Guzman. (Opposing lumberjacks vs. Clemens: .185 batting average, .243 on-base percentage and .260 slugging percentage.)

But on the other hand -- and that's a hand being waved right this minute by every single resident of St. Louis -- how the heck could that friendly neighborhood Cardinals ace, Chris Carpenter, not win the Cy Young?

Chris Carpenter
Starting Pitcher
St. Louis Cardinals
Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
GM W L ERA WHIP BAA
28 20 4 2.28 .98 .216
This guy is 20-4. He has nine more wins than that Rocket Man. And there are several significant categories where Carpenter actually ranks higher than Clemens (i.e., quality starts, innings pitched, complete games, strikeouts and even strikeout ratio.)

In other words, there's an overwhelming case to be made for Carpenter. And there's just as dazzling a case to be made for Clemens. And it's a good thing -- because in most years, there would be cases almost as compelling to be made for Willis, Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt and Jake Peavy, too.

So this year, more than ever, the Cy Young debate is about more than numbers. It's about philosophies.

It's time to ask: What's this award really all about? What numbers matter most? Are we now sophisticated enough -- as a modern, statistically aware society -- to toss an ever-popular stat such as "Wins" right through the old picture window?

We'll learn the answer to all of those questions when the votes roll in. Possibly.

But in the meantime, we should mention it isn't just the National League where these messy issues hang over every voter.

In the American League, Johan Santana leads his league in strikeouts and opponent batting average -- and easily could wind up leading in ERA and innings pitched, too. So he ought to be a lock to win his second Cy Young in a row, right?

Uh, not so fast. Santana also owns five fewer wins than Bartolo Colon and four fewer than Jon Garland. So good luck sorting that one out, too.

But amazingly, the ingenious folks at ESPN pay people like us to sort it out for you. And our personal feeling, after years of reflecting and voting on this award, is that the Cy Young is supposed to be about one thing: performance.

It isn't the Most Valuable Pitcher award. It isn't the Which Pitcher Gets the Most Run Support award. It isn't the Living Legend award. It has nothing to do with team records, previous close calls, guest appearances on "The Simpsons" or most of the many other side issues people often want to attach to it.

It's about who has pitched the best. Period.

And even though we're beginning to wobble on this slightly -- as the win disparity between Carpenter and Clemens grows -- you'd still have a tough time convincing us that anybody on this planet has pitched better this year than Roger Clemens. Even that California Little League kid who struck out 18 in six innings.

"This is legendary, what Roger has done," Astros manager Phil Garner says. "Chris Carpenter has done a great job, and he's had a great year. But I don't know that people would say it was legendary."

Legendary. That's one powerful word. But it's also a word that stops us every time we think Carpenter has taken the lead in this Cy Young duel.

So, has Clemens' season, in fact, been truly "legendary"? Let's count the reasons:

• It has been 20 years since any pitcher finished a non-strike season with an ERA as low as Clemens' 1.57 (since Dwight Gooden put up a 1.53 ERA in 1985).

• And even if we start feeling charitable and throw in the 1994 strike year, Clemens, Gooden and Greg Maddux (1.56 in '94) still would have the only sub-1.60 ERAs by any pitchers since the mound was lowered in 1969. And if Clemens shrinks his ERA by just a few micro-ticks (to 1.52 or lower), he could end up with the best ERA by any pitcher since Bob Gibson's "legendary" 1.12 in 1968.

• Then there's that road ERA (0.52). In 1968, Gibson gave up 13 earned runs in 16 road starts, for an ERA of 0.81 -- the lowest by any pitcher in the 45-season expansion era. Clemens wouldn't just break that record if his road ERA stays this low. He would have an ERA less than half of the next-best ERA by anyone else in that era. (Second-best behind Gibson: Maddux, at 1.12 in 1995.)

• But a better way to measure Clemens is to compare him with all those other pitchers out there right now. The average NL pitcher, remember, has an ERA of 4.23. So Clemens' ERA is 2.66 lower than his league's. And if we don't count strike seasons, the only pitcher in the history of baseball who ever outpitched his league by that big a margin was the prime-time Pedro Martinez (in both 1999 and 2000).

OK, everyone think it's OK to use that word "legendary" now? We do.

This is legendary, what Roger has done. Chris Carpenter has done a great job, and he's had a great year. But I don't know that people would say it was legendary.
Astros manager Phil Garner
Age, of course, isn't a factor when you consider Cy Youngs. But it is a factor when you consider whether it's cool to toss around words like "legendary" to describe seasons like this.

So in that context, we can't ignore the fact that Clemens is 43 years old. Which means he's in the process of having the most spectacular season of any 40-something pitcher ever. (Lowest ERA by a pitcher in his 40s: 1.79, by Eddie Plank -- a mere 88 years ago.)

"You know, I once played behind Catfish Hunter when he won 20 games in Oakland," Garner says. "I played against Steve Carlton when he was pretty doggone good. I played behind Nolan Ryan when he just dominated. But I can honestly tell you I've never witnessed anything like this."

And we believe it. Has anyone?

But does that make Clemens the favorite in this Cy Young race? History says that no matter how impressive all those factoids up above might be, it doesn't. Here's why:

• Even if he wins every start the rest of the year, Clemens still would finish with only 16 wins. And no starting pitcher has ever won a Cy Young without winning at least 17 over a full season. (Rick Sutcliffe did win only 16 after being traded by Cleveland to the Cubs in 1984 -- but he actually won 20 that year if you count his wins in Cleveland.)

• Clemens has nine fewer wins than Carpenter. And since baseball started awarding Cy Youngs in each league in 1967, no starting pitcher has ever trailed the league leader by more than five wins and still won a Cy Young. (The only two times voters ignored even a five-win gap: Randy Johnson over Mike Hampton in 1999, Tom Seaver over Ron Bryant in 1973.)

• And though it might be true that seven of the eight pitchers since '67 to lead their league in ERA by more than half a run all won Cy Youngs, the one who didn't -- Kevin Brown in 1996 -- is actually a closer parallel to Clemens than the other seven. Brown's ERA (1.89) was more than a run lower than the ERA of the Cy Young winner, John Smoltz (2.94). But Smoltz (24-8) won seven more games than Brown (17-11). So the election (26 first-place votes to 2) wasn't even close.

History, then, speaks loud and clear. And history says these voters aren't capable of ignoring a category as basic as wins and losses. But that doesn't mean we can't argue that, in Clemens' case, these are extraordinary circumstances. Because they are.

After all, the Astros have been shut out eight times when Clemens pitched -- more than any pitcher in 31 years (since San Diego's Randy Jones in 1974). And that, Garner laughs, "is just stupid."

We acknowledge that that shutout stat can be misleading -- but not in Clemens' case. He has averaged 7 1/3 innings a start in those eight shutouts, and his ERA in those eight games is a ridiculous 0.78.

The Astros have lost five 1-0 games when Clemens has pitched -- the most times that has happened to any pitcher since the Cubs lost six such games when Ferguson Jenkins started in 1968.

And Clemens has made nine starts in which he has given up one earned run or none without getting a win. That's as many as Carpenter, Willis, Santana and Colon combined.

So if Rodrigo Lopez (with a 4.97 ERA) and Mike Maroth (4.82) have more wins than Roger Clemens, shouldn't it be clear to anyone paying attention that "wins" might be the most overrated individual stat in baseball? Come on. Admit it already.

You want to be thought of as cool and savvy and sabermetrically astute in this sophisticated new stat world we live in? We can guarantee you'll be there if you'll dump your lifelong love affair with that Win column. It's so 1970s at this point.

You need to acknowledge, then, that the Cardinals have scored more than a run and a half more per start for Carpenter than the Astros have for Clemens. And even though Carpenter is second in the league in ERA, he's still nearly three-quarters of a run (.71 to be exact) higher than Clemens.

Not that Carpenter hasn't earned every one of his wins, you understand. He has pitched into the eighth inning in 15 straight starts. He's averaging nearly an inning more per start than Clemens. And Carpenter's 26 quality starts in 28 outings (92.9 percent) would be the highest percentage by any starter since Maddux in '94 (24 of 25, 96.0 percent).

So we're not arguing that Carpenter doesn't deserve this award. We're just arguing for the guy who has pitched the best -- just as we argued for Randy Johnson, for the same reasons, last year.

Which means you folks in St. Louis can stop e-mailing to accuse us of making this case just because we want to carry around our Roger Clemens Fan Club pompons. If you'll recall, there was a pitcher last year whose numbers looked a lot like Carpenter's look this year -- and thought it was absurd to give the Cy Young to Randy Johnson.

And what was that pitcher's name? Oh, yeah. It was Roger Clemens.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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