Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing time: 30 minutes)
Jacob deGrom finally won a game on Monday, which is pretty big news. Over the last two-plus seasons, deGrom’s record is 22-17, which doesn’t exactly inspire epic poems. At the same time, he has won two Cy Young Awards and is pretty widely regarded as the best pitcher in baseball.
Such a thing would not have been possible only a few years ago.
I think a little bit here about the baseball I grew up with. I would say I became aware of the Cy Young Award right around 1974 when I was 7 years old and Catfish Hunter won the American League award. He won 25 games that year, leading the league.
Over the nine seasons that I would consider my baseball background — 1974 to 1983 (forgetting that stupid 1981 strike season) — 15 starting pitchers won the Cy Young Award. All 15 led the league in wins. ALL FIFTEEN. That’s just how it was. If Lamarr Hoyt led the league in wins, he got the Cy Young. If Steve Stone led the league in wins, he got the Cy Young. If Pete Vuckovich led the league in wins — even if that total was just 18 victories — he got the Cy Young.
The idea was simple: The job of a starting pitcher was to win games. There was some acknowledgment that a pitcher could get unlucky because his team didn’t score any runs — the phrase “hard-luck loser” was often used in baseball stories back then — but the overwhelming consensus was that luck evened out over a season. The final judgment was your win-loss record.
Sometimes circumstances would arise, and the Cy Young voters would make occasional exceptions to the “Most Wins = Cy Young” formula. In 1984, for instance, nobody quite knew what to do with Rick Sutcliffe. He won four games with Cleveland and then was traded to Chicago where he went 16-1 and led the Cubs to their first postseason appearance since the Mesozoic Era. If you only counted his Cubs wins, he was behind Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela in wins. But how could you not count his other wins? The voters decided to just give him the award.
In 1985, Bret Saberhagen had two fewer wins than Ron Guidry, but he had a markedly better ERA and the voters decided to give him the award instead. Same in 1986 when Mike Scott’s 18 wins were three fewer than Fernando Valenzuela, but his 2.22 ERA was almost a full run better than Fernando’s 3.14 ERA.
Those, you might know, were controversial picks.
Wins were everything — everything! — through 1990 when Bob Welch won 27 games and beat out Roger Clemens for the award, even though Clemens had one of the greatest seasons in recent baseball history. In 1993, Jack McDowell’s 22 wins got him a Cy Young award that surely should have gone to Kevin Appier.
I would say the first time that wins played little-to-no-role in the Cy Young voting was 1999 when Randy Johnson won the thing with just 17 wins. He struck out 364 batters that season, which obviously impressed, and he led the league in ERA but still — Mike Hampton went 22-4 that year and won the Players Choice Award.
“I’d like to think this award isn’t based solely on wins and losses,” Johnson told reporters after a small controversy raged. “There’s a lot more to the season.”
“No pitcher was more proficient at winning in 1999 than Mike Hampton,” John Romano wrote. “That is, until it came time for the Cy Young Award.”
After 1999, Cy Young voters suddenly felt the freedom to break away from the chains of always giving the award to the wins leader. In 2000, the awards went to Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson again and neither led the league in wins. Still the wins thing played a role in the award for a little while long — Bartolo Colon won the Cy Young in 2005 due largely to his 21 victories.
And in 2009, finally, the whole win-loss thing was shattered when Zack Greinke (16 wins) and Tim Lincecum (15 wins) swept the awards. And then came deGrom, winning back-to-back Cy Youngs with 10 and 11 victories the last two years.
Because I grew up with wins and losses being the most important thing in the world, there will always be an annoying small voice within me asking: “Why can’t deGrom win a few more games?” Yes, it’s true, the Mets have not had a particularly good offense, but it certainly hasn’t been historically bad either — last year, they were seventh in the NL in runs scored, it’s not like they get shut out every time he takes the mound.
What is different is the time we’re in — deGrom has averaged about 6.5 innings pitched per start during his extraordinary run. This is typical of the great pitchers in today’s era — that’s about what Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Justin Verlander average, it’s higher than Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, Aaron Nola, etc. — but it would have been unheard of in the 1970s and 1980s for a great pitcher. Jim Palmer average 8-plus innings in his Cy Young years, Tom Seaver was about the same.
The complete game is all but dead, and indeed deGrom hasn’t pitched one since August 2018.
In other words, you could make the argument that the win-loss record WAS important back when starting pitchers were expected to pitch eight or nine (or more) innings every time out. It was never a perfect stat or anything close, but you could connect it pretty directly to a pitcher’s performance.
Now? When the league’s best starter is pitching on two-thirds of the game, there’s really no way to say that a starting pitchers wins or loses games. That just isn’t the job anymore. The job is to put your team in the best position to win going into the final innings. What they do after that is out of your control.