Much has been made of Zack Greinke’s 2009 statistical rankings in the AL and MLB as a whole. Those discussions, especially as they relate to his chances of winning a Cy Young, are definitely worth all time and effort put into them. However, Zack’s season isn’t just worthy of the AL Cy Young Award in 2009, it merits being mentioned among the best of the last 41 seasons.
In 1969, the Kansas City Royals went 69-93 in their first season. In the 40 years since, a starting pitcher has turned in an season with an Adjusted ERA+ of 200 or more 13 times by 6 different pitchers. If Zack Greinke can keep pitching the way he has up to this point, his 2009 will become the 14th such season since the Royals came into existence, and he will join some elite company by doing so.
What follows is a list of those 13 seasons, the results of the Cy Young voting for each of the years, and finally Greinke’s season as it stands today.
1978 LHP-Ron Guidry (New York Yankees) ERA+ 208
25-3, 273.2 IP, 1.74 ERA, 187 H, 248 SO, 72 BB
0.946 WHIP, 6.1 H/9, 2.4 BB/9, 8.2 SO/9
Guidry won the AL Cy Young Award in unanimous fashion capturing all 28 of the 1st place votes, and tallying 140 points. Milwaukee’s Mike Caldwell finished a distant 2nd with 76 points.
Guidry put up his monster season in between an ERA+ of 140 in 1977 and 146 in 1979. They are his only 3 seasons above 140 but his career ERA+ wound up at a more than respectable 119.
1985 RHP-Dwight Gooden (New York Mets) ERA+ 228
24-4, 276.2 IP, 1.53 ERA, 198 H, 268 SO, 69 BB
0.965 WHIP, 6.4 H/9, 2.2 BB/9, 8.7 SO/9
Doc captured the NL CYA with 120 points and all 24 of the 1st place votes. John Tudor of the St. Louis Cardinals finished 2nd with 65 points.
1985 was the only time Dr. K would finish a season with an ERA+ above 140. His rookie season in 1984, and the 137 ERA+ to go with it, was still quite impressive considering he did it at the age of 19.
1990 RHP-Roger Clemens (Boston Red Sox) ERA+ 213
21-6, 228.1 IP, 1.93 ERA, 193 H, 209 SO, 54 BB
1.082 WHIP, 7.6 H/9, 2.1 BB/9, 8.2 SO/9
Clemens finished 2nd in the AL CYA voting with 77 points. He lost out to the Athletics Bob Welch who went 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA, 1.223 WHIP, and an ERA+ of 126. Welch finished with 107 points in the voting and captured 15 1st place votes to Roger’s 8. This was the 1st time he got robbed out of a Cy Young Award, but it wouldn’t be the last. At the end of his career, Clemens finished 12 of his 24 seasons with an ERA+ of 140 or better. His career mark was 143.
1994 RHP-Greg Maddux (Atlanta Braves) ERA+ 271
16-6, 202.0 IP, 1.56 ERA, 150 H, 156 SO, 31 BB
0.896 WHIP, 6.7 H/9, 1.4 BB/9, 7.0 SO/9
Maddux easily won the NL CYA with 140 points and all 28 1st place votes. Montreal’s Ken Hill was the runner-up with 56 points. Mad Dog’s 16 wins was low, but it was tied for the league lead. Only 1 starting pitcher can claim a higher ERA+ than Maddux’s 271 since 1969.
1995 RHP-Greg Maddux (Atlanta Braves) ERA+ 262
19-2, 209.2 IP, 1.63 ERA, 147 H, 181 SO, 23 BB
0.811 WHIP, 6.3 H/9, 1.0 BB/9, 7.8 SO/9
Second verse same as the first as Maddux won the NL CYA in unanimous fashion again. Playing 2nd fiddle in 1995 was Cincinnati’s Pete Schourek who captured 55 points. Maddux’s 19 wins led all of MLB.
It is stating the obvious, but Greg Maddux was no joke. He had a 7 year stretch where his lowest ERA+ was 162 and had 10 seasons above 140. He finished his career with a mark of 132.
1996 RHP-Kevin Brown (Florida Marlins) ERA+ 216
17-11, 233.0 IP, 1.89 ERA, 187 H, 159 SO, 33 BB
0.944 WHIP, 7.2 H/9, 1.3 BB/9, 6.1 SO/9
Brown finished 2nd in the NL CYA to Atlanta’s John Smoltz. Brown received 88 points and 2 first place votes, while Smoltz received 136 points and 26 1st place votes. Not only did Smoltz have the edge in wins with a 24-7 record, but he also had a 2.96 ERA, 1.001 WHIP, and ERA+ of 149 to go along with his ML leading 276 SO that season. Brown should have won the award, but it wasn’t a huge injustice that it went to Smoltz.
When I first came across the fact that Kevin Brown was a member of this impressive group, “one of these things is not like the others” ran through my head in a continuous loop. At least it did until I looked up his career stats. Over 19 ML seasons, Brown had a 127 ERA+ and had six other seasons above 140. In my defense, his best seasons came while I was in college and largely focused on things other than baseball. Things like parties, beer, girls, fraternity life, and (if my parents are reading) my coursework. Still, it’s not a legitimate excuse and I sincerely apologize to Mr. Brown for undervaluing his excellent career.
1997 RHP-Roger Clemens (Toronto Blue Jays) ERA +221
21-7, 264.0 IP, 2.05 ERA, 204 H, 292 SO, 68 BB
1.030 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, 2.3 BB/9, 10.0 SO/9
Roger won the AL CYA over Seattle’s Randy Johnson while collecting 134 points and 25 of the 1st place votes. For his part Randy finished with 77 points and 2 1st place votes. The final 1st place vote went to Randy Myers of the Orioles.
The Rocket wasn’t alone in his dominance during the 1997 as a new pitching force joined the ERA+ 200 club in the same year.
1997 RHP-Pedro Martinez (Montreal Expos) ERA+ 219
17-8, 241.1 IP, 1.90 ERA, 158 H, 305 SO, 67 BB
0.932 WHIP, 5.9 H/9, 2.5 BB/9, 11.4 SO/9
Pedro won the NL CYA with 134 points and 25 of the 28 1st place votes. Greg Maddux finished 2nd with 75 points and the other 3 1st place votes. Mad Dog finished 19-4 with a 2.20 ERA, 0.946 WHIP, and lofty 189 ERA+. Maddux had more wins, but Pedro reached the magic 300 strikout mark and was just a touch better in most of the stats.
Pedro is the 200 ERA+ king as this is the 1st of 5 seasons where his ERA+ topped the magic mark. He is currently sitting a 158 for his career and he’s not exactly hurting that while pitching for the Phillies this season. In 2009 he has an ERA+ of 150 through 7 starts.
1999 RHP-Pedro Martinez (Boston Red Sox) ERA+ 243
23-4, 213.1 IP, 2.07 ERA, 160 H, 313 SO, 37 BB
0.923 WHIP, 6.8 H/9, 1.6 BB/9, 13.2 SO/9
His 1997 season was ridiculous, and he blew it out of the water just 2 years later. Not surprisingly, he won the AL CYA unanimously with 140 points and all 28 1st place votes. The Baltimore’s Mike Mussina finished a distant 2nd.
2000 RHP-Pedro Martinez (Boston Red Sox) ERA+ 291
18-6, 217.0 IP, 1.74 ERA, 128 H, 284 SO, 32 BB
0.737 WHIP, 5.3 H/9, 1.3 BB/9, 11.8 SO/9
The most dominant season by a starting pitcher in my lifetime led to another AL CYA for Pedro. For the 2nd year in a row won the award in unanimous fashion. Oakland’s Tim Hudson finished second, but in 2000 it was Pedro and everyone else.
2002 RHP-Pedro Martinez (Boston Red Sox) ERA+ 202
20-4, 199.1 IP, 2.26 ERA, 144 H, 239 SO, 40 BB
0.923 WHIP, 6.5 H/9, 1.8 BB/9, 10.8 SO/9
In what proved to be a close AL CYA vote, Pedro was edged out by Oakland’s Barry Zito who turned in a 23-5 record with a 2.75 ERA, 1.134 WHIP, and 158 ERA+. Pedro received 96 points and 11 of the 28 1st place votes but it wasn’t enough to top Zito’s 114 points and 17 1st place votes. Martinez probably should have won, but by his own recent standards it was an off year and people were probably looking for a reason to vote for someone else.
2003 RHP-Pedro Martinez (Boston Red Sox) ERA+ 210
14-4, 186.2 IP, 2.22 ERA, 147 H, 206 SO, 47 BB
1.039 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 2.3 BB/9, 9.9 SO/9
Pedro finished 3rd in the AL CYA voting collecting just 20 points. Toronto’s Roy Halladay won the award with 136 points and 26 1st place votes behind a 22-7 record, 3.25 ERA, 1.071 WHIP, and 145 ERA+. Second place went to Esteban Loiaza of the White Sox who received 63 points and 2 1st place votes for his 21-9, 2.90 ERA, 1.113 WHIP, and 159 ERA+.
Many people will point to this as proof that Greinke can’t get the 2009 AL CYA without getting more wins this year. I would argue that Pedro’s 3rd place finish had a lot more to do with his inability to meet the impossibly high standards that people had come to expect from him. Couple those standards with the facts that he only made 29 starts and there is some rationale against Pedro outside of his low win total. Throw in the fact that there were 2 other pitchers who went well past 20 wins and nice ERA+ seasons in their own right and you end up with very little similarity beyond the win total.
In short Greinke’s 2009 and Pedro’s 2003 are not a good comparison due to the surrounding factors and where their seasons fall in the arc of their career. People want to vote for the new guy, the fresh face, the “up and comer” and by 2003 Pedro was definitely not that guy. Good news for Royals fans this year, however, Zack Greinke is that guy.
2005 RHP-Roger Clemens (Houston Astros) ERA+ 226
13-8, 211.1 IP, 1.87 ERA, 151 H, 185 SO, 62 BB
1.008 WHIP, 6.4 H/9, 2.6 BB/9, 7.9 SO/9
Rocket finished 3rd in the NL CYA voting with 40 points and 2 first place votes. St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter took home the hardware with 132 points and 19 1st place votes. Florida’s Dontrelle Willis finished 2nd with 112 points and 11 1st place votes. Carpenter had a 21-5 record, 2.83 ERA, 1.055 WHIP, and ERA+ of 149. Willis finished the year 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA, 1.134 WHIP, and 151 ERA+.
On the surface this looks like the best comparison for where Greinke sits today, but again place in career path also comes into play with Clemens as it did with Pedro. Beyond that it is also worth noting that the only stats he led the league in were ERA, H/9 and of course ERA+ which hurt the overall perception of the Rocket’s dominance in 2005.
2009 RHP-Zack Greinke (Kansas City Royals) ERA+ 200
13-8, 205.1 IP, 2.19 ERA, 177 H, 216 SO, 42 BB
1.067 WHIP, 7.8 H/9, 1.8 BB/9, 9.5 SO/9
Despite the low win total, I believe Greinke will win the 2009 AL CYA. He’s young, up and coming, is an excellent story, and he is in the top 2 or 3 of almost any stat outside of wins. The Royals dreadful season has gotten to the point that I am convinced it will actually help Greinke when voters take a look at his numbers. To do what he has done on a team this bad is remarkable. Pitching for a contending team is a lot of pressure, and Zack certainly hasn’t experienced that. It is a different kind of pressure for Greinke. He knows that every time he takes the mound he has to limit the opposing team to 1 or 2 runs just to have a chance to win. Throw in the dreadful Royals defense behind him and frankly I don’t know how he does it.
Another feather in Zack’s CYA chances is that while some of the voters remain in love with a pitcher’s W-L record, an increasing number of them are becoming statistically enlightened. It certainly doesn’t hurt that many writers, like Joe Posnanski, Jason Stark, and Sam Mellinger have been banging the drum for both Zack Greinke this year, and for a change in the statistics that are used to evaluate a player for awards like the CYA. It doesn’t hurt that it seems unlikely that any AL pitcher will reach 20 wins this season, and if they do it will be exactly 20.
Whether or not Greinke wins the AL CYA is beside the point for me. Just look at the company he will join if he keeps his ERA+ at or above 200. 6 starters are already in the club, and all of them had excellent, long, and productive careers. If Greinke can match what any of them have done and remain a part of the Royals, the 2009 AL CYA will be irrelevant in the long term.
Still, with all the shoddy baseball, puzzling roster moves, and infuriating quotes from Dayton and Trey, it sure would be nice to have the AL Cy Young Award winner on our team.
Whether or not the voters see fit to give Greinke the nod despite the low win total, there is no doubt that Zack has treated us to one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher since the Kansas City Royals played their very 1st game.