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July 18, 2007 at 10:22 AM

Putz’s Cy Young chances

Good morning to all of you. Nice summer weather out there, huh? Looks just the way many Mariners fans must feel this morning after that stinker of a late-game finish last night. It’s only one game and it didn’t cost Seattle all that much in terms of staying close to the other contenders. Still only 2 1/2 back of the Angels, thanks to Ervin Santana doing what he does best — losing on the road.
Santana, as usual, was being testy about it afterwards. You can tell a lot about the character of some guys based on how they deal with adversity. Both privately and publicly. In this case, the Angels are probably wishing they’d shipped him off for a bat of some sort last winter.
“I don’t have to prove nothing,” Santana said. “I just have to pitch. … Everything’s not going my way right now, but one day if I keep pitching it will go my way.”
Uh, dude. You just gave up 14 hits in the first five innings to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and are a key reason your team isn’t running away with the AL West any more. You have everything to prove.
One of the most interesting tidbits in the Orange County Register story? The Angels have gone 10 consecutive games and 96 innings without a home run, their longest drought since they went 11 games between home runs July 7-21, 1991.
As for the Indians, the M’s almost didn’t have to lose any ground to them either. Until, that is, the Tribe rallied for something like their 22md or 23rd comeback win this season. The story doesn’t mention the number. I’m trying to get this blog posted so I can’t look it up now, but that number sticks out in my head. The good news? The law of averages says the Indians can’t keep this up forever, right? Well, maybe. Isn’t that the same thing folks keep saying about the Mariners and their small run differential? In fact, Baseball Prospectus says the M’s “should” be a sub-.500 team in their latest third-order, adjusted standings (W3, L3, far right of the column).
Now that I’ve got you all riled up, let’s move on to some happier talk. There is a growing consensus that J.J. Putz should be a Cy Young Award candidate this season. What do I think? Absolutely. He’s been perfect as a closer and when you are perfect, well, you should be considered a candidate for mayor as far as I’m concerned.
Seriously though, there is a difference between being considered for something and actually winning it, which is why I think Mayor Putz still has some distance to go and some luck that has to break his way. Having voted multiple times for the BBWAA’s MVP awards and consulted with other voters in the past who choose the Cy Young, I think I can count myself as somewhat of an expert on voting patterns.
For Putz to have a shot this year, he has to be far and away the dominant arm in the AL. Now, that may seen easy enough. But it is very difficult to make the case in a season in which starting pitchers are having dominant years.
The biggest factor in Putz having a shot, if you ask me, will depend on whether any AL starter is able to win 20 games. I know, I know, this really shouldn’t be all that big a factor. But trust me, it is. Reaching the 20-win plateau is becoming more and more difficult in today’s pitching-thin baseball universe. While some like to totally discount wins as a stat, I do believe that once you surpass 15 wins in a season, it says something about your skill as a pitcher. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.
But alas, a 20-win season does get pitchers automatic Cy Young consideration. Think wins don’t matter? Then how did Roger Clemens beat out Randy Johnson for the 2004 NL Cy Young? Johnson held opponents to a .197 batting average against, had a 290:44 strikeouts/walks ratio, a 2.60 earned run average and pitched 245 innings.
Clemens pitched 214 1/3 innings, had a 2.98 ERA, a 218:79 strikeouts/walks ratio and held opponents to a .217 batting average. All very good numbers. But none were better than Johnson’s.
And Johnson pitched for one of the worst teams in baseball while Clemens was on an Astros squad that was a win away from making it to the World Series. So, why did Clemens win the Cy Young? He won 18 games, while Johnson won only 16. True, Johnson did lose 14 that year. But consider the Arizona team he played for. Hard not to lose when your team scores only two runs per game.
Anyone who tries to argue that wins are irrelevant in a Cy Young race needs only to read those paragraphs above for confirmation that such an argument is nothing but foolish ignorance of reality. And if any pitcher wins 20 in the AL this year, Putz will see his award chances all but fly out the proverbial window.
Of course, there is a minimal ERA requirement for the 20-game winner. It has to preferably be below 3.00 and at minimum below 3.50 to have a shot. Otherwise, murmurs of “fluke” will flow through voters’ alley quicker that a Putz splitter drops through the floor.
This year’s pool of Cy Young contenders has the ERA totals that will avoid the fluke distinction. Let’s keep an eye on C.C. Sabathia, John Lackey and Johan Santana, all with either 12 or 11 wins. Dan Haren’s ERA also puts him up there, though he’ll have to start winning at a higher clip than recently. Kelvim Escobar is also a big second-half performer and has the ERA to be in-the-mix, as does Haren, if he can match the others in wins. Forget Josh Beckett or Dice-K, both with ERA totals that are too high to catch most of the other contenders.
But winning in the second half is not the same as in the first. Once the pressure of a playoff races kicks in, as it could for all of the above mentioned pitchers, wins are hard to come by. Reaching 20 is not a given for any of the above pitchers, though Sabathia has a slight edge given the run support he’s liable to receive at home.
Which takes us back to Putz. The last closer to win a Cy Young was Eric Gagne in 2003, proving once and for all the supremacy of us Canadians — and Montrealers in general. Or not. The point is, Gagne was perfect that year, saving 55 of 55 and blowing only the All-Star Game, as has Putz.
Gagne’s prime competition that year came from Jason Schmidt and Mark Prior, winners of 17 and 18 games respectively. Yes, there was a 20-game winner that year, that being 21-7 Russ Ortiz of the Braves. But his ERA of 3.81 for a division title winner had screams of “fluke!” ringing out everywhere. That eliminated him from the running for all but a couple of voters, who must have tied one on together at a local pub before handing in their ballots.
Schmidt and Prior both had ERA totals of 2.34 and 2.43 respectively. But Gagne’s ERA of 1.20 helped him prevail. Ultimately, it is his ERA and opponents’ batting average against that could work for Putz if he stays perfect and none of the aforementioned starters reaches 20 wins.
Let’s compare Gagne from back then and Putz to where he projects this season:
Gagne: 2-3, 1.20 ERA, 55/55 in saves, 137/20 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, .133 batting average against.
Putz (projected): 2-0, 0.81 ERA, 44/44 in saves, 79/11 strikeouts-to-walks ratio,
.126 batting average against.
Well, right off, we can see Putz not losing any games and with a better ERA and comparable strikeouts-to-walks (7:1 ratio) and batting average against. Gagne pitched more innings than Putz in on-pace for, but that won’t be much of a factor. The saves might be, since Gagne’s far outdistanced what Putz is on-pace for.
Who had the better park-adjusted ERA+? Gagne was at 335. Putz is currently at 519. Will that factor into a final decision? Maybe not. But an argument can now be made that, when Putz is called upon to save games, he has been every bit as good, if not better, that Gagne was in winning the 2003 NL Cy Young.
That bodes well for Putz’s current chances. We’ll just have to see what the starters do and whether any of them makes it impossible for Putz to receive his due consideration.

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