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Clay Buchholz is used to having his name thrown around; over the past few years the right-hander has constantly been brought up in countless trade rumors. This year, his name is being brought up in a different conversation entirely: Cy Young candidates.
It’s been a triumphant season for the 26-year old, as he has finally begun to fulfill the promise that he first showed with his stunning no-hitter back in 2007; the same potential that kept the Red Sox from trading him at the last three deadlines. After beating the Blue Jays on Sunday and a strong effort against the Rays on Saturday, Buchholz now stands at 15-5 with a dazzling, league-leading ERA of 2.21, yet he isn’t even considered the front-runner for the Cy Young Award.
In the past, the voting process for the Cy Young has been rather suspect, with the voters usually (and wrongly) gravitating towards the leader in the most visible statistic: wins. For example, John Smoltz took home the 1996 NL Cy Young award with a 24-8 record, seemingly much more impressive than the 2nd place Kevin Brown, who finished a measly 17-11. But was Smoltz’s season really better? Smoltz’s ERA was a very respectable 2.94, but Brown’s was a simply spectacular 1.89. His microscopic .94 WHIP was also slightly lower than Smoltz’s 1.00. If you want to look at the comparison on a deeper statistical level, Brown’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) was 7.5, easily topping Smoltz’s 6.1. So after examining stats, it’s obvious that even though Smoltz won seven more games, Kevin Brown was clearly the better pitcher in 1996.
Fortunately, the voters have gotten much better at statistical analysis since 1990, as shown in 2008 when Tim Lincecum (18-5, 2.62) beat out Brandon Webb (22-7, 3.30) despite winning four less games. The improved voting for the award is a nice change because it means no more debacles such as in 2004 when Roger Clemens beat out a clearly more deserving Randy Johnson (Then again, I guess it was a make-up call for the truly horrific 1990 Cy Young decision in which Clemens lost to a far inferior Bob Welch).
Anyway, let’s get back to Clay and look at how he stacks up with the competition. Buchholz (15-5, 2.26) is battling for position with C.C. Sabathia (17-5, 3.02), David Price (15.6, 3.01), Cliff Lee (10-7, 3.09), the overlooked Trevor Cahill (14-5, 2.43) and Felix Hernandez (10-10, 2.47). Out of these six pitchers, Cahill, Hernandez and Lee rank in the top 10 for WHIP in the AL, Buchholz has thrown the least innings (which matters, as the 2007 Cy Young race showed) and Hernandez has the highest WAR, which should endear him to any voter familiar with sabermetrics. In past years, Sabathia would likely be the favorite based on his high win total, but as shown in the previous paragraph, any further statistical analysis shows him to clearly be an inferior candidate.
If I had to pick the most deserving pitcher out of the group, I’d pick Hernandez. An absolute workhorse this season, Felix leads the league in innings pitched and strikeouts (192). He’s also third in ERA and WHIP. Ignore his 10-10 record since the Mariners offense is truly horrific and has only scored 3.88 runs a game when their ace has been on the mound. When you field a lineup in which Ichiro is 2nd in slugging percentage (yeah… it’s true), you’re going to cost even truly great pitchers some wins; the same pathetic Mariners lineup is partially responsible for Cliff Lee’s low win total as well.
After Hernandez, I’d go with Cahill, and Clay third. That said, there’s over a month to go, and new candidates could either emerge, like C.J. Wilson, or collapse, like Josh Beckett last year. If Buchholz continues his recent dominance and lowers his ERA even more, he just might win this thing.