"They"—which I can only loosely define as the people who said things many years ago that we bring up as clichés to this day—say that strong pitching determines postseason success. I am not a member of "they," but I certainly agree a team can climb the back of a strong pitcher in their pursuit of baseball's biggest prize. In anticipation of those postseason pitching gems, here's a review of the 2009 Cy Young race.
Cleveland Indians Pitcher Cliff Lee became one of the most unlikely Cy Young Award winners in 2008, one year after a terrible season that saw him shuttled to the minors and left off the team's playoff roster. He recovered beyond expectations, posting a 22-3 win-loss record with a 2.54 ERA. Midway through 2009 it appeared as though Lee's 2008 success was a fluke as he came back to earth with a loud thud, managing a 7-9 record, a 3.14 ERA, and a ghastly 1.303 WHIP.
Following a mid-season trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, Lee clearly benefited from the change of scenery and served to stir the controversy that the National League talent pales in comparison to the American League. He proved effective, if not dominating, for the Phillies in the second half, going 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA and posting a 1.130 WHIP.
Warming Up.....American League Cy Young Winner
Give him the ball:
Zack Greinke, Kansas City Royals SP
In 2009, Greinke picked up where Lee left off when it comes to unlikely winners, overcoming an anxiety disorder to become one of the hottest pitchers in baseball.
With a Kansas City team doomed to watch October baseball for yet another year, Greinke produced a 16 – 8 record while leading the Majors with an outstanding 2.16 ERA and striking out 242 batters, good for third best in the league. In 19 games when Greinke pitched at least seven innings, the Royals scored four runs or less 13 times. It has to make you wonder what type of season Greinke would have if he pitched on a team like the Angels or Yankees. There’s little doubt it would be a unanimous Cy Young award winning season. With the 2009 Royals, Greinke squeaks away with the trophy, but deservingly so.
Strong in relief:
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees SP
Sabathia was every bit the pitcher the Yankees were looking for when they forked over a seven-year, $161million dollar contract. He started 34 games while compiling a league-leading 19 wins along with eight losses and notching a 3.37 ERA. Historically a slow starter, Sabathia helped to fuel the Yankees’ strong second-half showing, turning it on since the All-Star break and posting an 11 – 2 record and with a 2.74 ERA. The biggest argument against Sabathia is the batting potential of the Yankees’ lineup. In 17 of the games that Sabathia has pitched, the Yankees have scored at least five runs or more. Another roadblock for Sabathia’s chances…..
Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees, RP
Okay, let’s hear it; relievers shouldn’t really be considered for Cy Young awards. Find the literature where it says that; simply, the award goes to the best pitcher in each league. There is no question that the Hammer of God will go down as the best relief pitcher to play the game. At age 39, he had one of his best seasons of an already illustrious career, with a 1.76 ERA, 44 saves out of 46 chances and a 0.90 WHIP. If the Yankees didn’t enjoy so many blowout wins this year, Rivera would have easily surpassed his career high of 53 saves. That said, the curse of having another Yankee in contention for the award leads to the dreaded split vote.
Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers SP
The experts predicted the perennial punching bag Tigers to finish dead last in the AL Central, yet the team hung onto first place since May all the way down to the bitter end. A big reason for their dramatic turnaround was Verlander. He started 35 games for the Tigers, earning a 19 – 9 record to match Sabathia for the league lead, pitching 240 innings while maintaining a 3.45 ERA and a Majors-leading 269 strikeouts. Unfortunately for Verlander’s Cy Young chances, the Tigers reeled in the last weeks of the season. Verlander did his best to get his team to the show, but the Tigers’ late-season nose dive could prove costly for his Cy Young chances.
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners SP
Hernandez has quietly had a career year while playing on a team that gets little to no media attention. Hernandez started 34 games for the Mariners and compiled a 19-5 record in 238 innings. He put up a 2.49 ERA along with 217 strikeouts and an efficient 1.14 WHIP. In 21 games where Hernandez has pitched seven innings he compiled a commanding 12 – 0 record. Like Greinke, he suffers from lack of run support as the Mariners have been held to three runs or less in 11 of those 21 times Hernandez went seven.
Next in the rotation: National League Cy Young Recap
2008 was the year of the Freak as baseball was introduced to pitching dervish Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants. Picking just one performance to highlight was virtually impossible as the 24-year-old pitcher blew onto the scene.
He compiled an 18-5 record and amassed 265 strikeouts to become the first Giant in baseball's modern era to do so. Against Lincecum, opponents hit .221 overall and .167 with runners in scoring position, and his 2.62 ERA was the NL's second best. His mechanical, precise delivery of fastballs that routinely hit 95 mph on the gun, as well as a full arsenal of off-speed pitches, signaled a bright future for this rising star.
On the Mound: National League Cy Young
On the Hill:
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants SP
The Freak couldn't have done much more to defend his Cy Young award title. Lincecum gets wins despite a lackluster offense behind him, but when a team only has to score three runs a game to win, it makes things much easier. Lincecum took no-decisions in three starts in which he allowed one run or none. With 32 starts, a 15-7 record doesn’t leap off the page, but his 261 strikeouts led the National League and 2.48 ERA was good for second in the league. Much like his compatriot Grienke in the American League, one can only speculate what Lincecum would’ve done with more run support.
Ready to take the ball:
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals SP
Leading the National League this year with 19 wins and 233 innings pitched, Wainwright’s devastating curveball and pinpoint control led to dominance in 2009. He finished the year with a 2.63 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP and 212 strikeouts in only his second full season as a starter. He could’ve hit the 20-win mark if not for uneven performances from the St. Louis bullpen. Wainwright often doesn't get much credit for his performance because he has to share the spotlight with...
Chris Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals SP
People forget that Carpenter won the award in 2005, when he went 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA. Carpenter missed an entire month earlier this season, and that hampers his chances to win the award again. Still, in an injury-shortened season, he went 17-4 with an amazing 1.01 WHIP while tallying 141 strikeouts. Only making 28 starts, if Carpenter pitches the whole season, the award would be his for the taking. His numbers during a shortened season are still good enough to garner some votes, possibly stealing some from his equally-worthy rotation mate Wainwright.
Javier Vazquez, Atlanta Braves SP
The 33-year-old Vazquez came up with a career year for the resilient Braves— who battled into the last week for a playoff spot. Vazquez has never gotten his credit: 200-plus innings 10 straight seasons, 200-plus Ks in five seasons, and this season was no different. He trailed only Lincecum in the NL with 238 strikeouts and posted a respectable 2.87 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP.
Jorge De La Rosa, Colorado Rockies SP
While his stats don’t quite match up to the other contenders, the Rockies’ punched their postseason tickets much to the efforts of De La Rosa. He finished the year with a 16-9 record and 4.38 ERA, but his pitching in the stretch run earns him a spot on the list. De La Rosa went a perfect 4-0 in September with a 3.24 ERA and holding opponents to a .203 batting average. The celebration of clinching a playoff spot was short-lived at Coors Field as it was announced De La Rosa will miss the NLDS against the Phillies due to a groin injury. As good as he was down the stretch, this deals a serious blow to the Rockies’ playoff hopes.