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Encomiums for the Mastodon

CC Sabathia: Power-Pitching Megafauna (AP)

I really should stop being amazed by CC Sabathia, but you have to understand that I lived through Ed Whitson, who for you folks that are younger than me was kind of the first version of Carl Pavano. Pavano was apparently physically incapable of pitching well in New York; Whitson was emotionally incapable. Whitson was the pitcher who gave birth to the notion that some pitchers "just can’t" succeed in New York because of the pressure. It would seem to be untrue in 95 percent of cases, particularly when the pitcher in question is left-handed, 28 years old, and can throw a marshmallow through a steel girder, or vice-versa. Sabathia is a unique mastodon of a man, and as such far removed from junk dealers like Whitson and Andy Hawkins and good ol’ Dave LaPoint.

Sabathia earned his league-leading 19th victory with this afternoon’s eight innings of one-hit ball against the A’s. This was wholly unfair, given the sorry state of Oakland’s offense, watching Sabathia toy with them was like watching Garry Kasparov play chess against a recently-lobotomized woodchuck. Still, in winning his 19th and thereby taking a three-victory lead over teammate Phil Hughes and the Rays’ David Price, Sabathia continued to keep his name at the forefront of the Cy Young Award discussion, but whether you think he deserves to be called the frontrunner depends on how much you value wins as an indicator of pitching quality.

Sabathia has had an excellent season, but before we consider wins, take a look at his league rankings in other indicators of pitching quality:

Innings: second, with 202.2 (1: Felix Hernandez, 211.1).

ERA: sixth, with 3.02 (1: Clay Buchholz, 2.21).

WHIP: Not in top ten with 1.20 (1: Cliff Lee, 1.03).

Strikeouts: seventh, with 165 (1: Jared Weaver and Felix Hernandez tied, 200).

K/9: Not in top ten with 7.3 (1: Brandon Morrow, 10.9).

I could go on, but the point would remain the same: Sabathia is having a very good year, but not, by the standards of his peers, a great one. There is a lot of good pitching going on. There are two pitchers in particular who can make a strong case that they’re having better seasons than Sabathia, Seattle’s Hernandez and Boston’s Buchholz. Let us dispose of Buchholz first. Aside from his league-leading ERA, he has gone 15-5. Due to a hamstring injury, Buchholz missed about a month, and that has contributed to his doing much less pitching (146.2 innings) than either Sabathia or Hernandez, and that counts. In addition, his pitching, as good as it has been, is less dependent on strikeouts than on inducing grounders and limiting batting average on balls in play—batters are averaging only .258 when they make contact. There is nothing wrong with this, and the artistry of a pitcher who induces poor contact is just as legitimate a path to success as burning the Big Express past the batters at 150 mph, but in discussing Sabathia and Hernandez, we have pitchers who can do both.

Back in the halcyon days of 1987, when I was young fellow and my thoughts turned to—never mind, family site—Nolan Ryan had a terrific season for the Astros. He led the National League in ERA and strikeouts, and in a season without a 20-game winner, that should have meant something. Regrettably, the Astros scored only 3.3 runs a game for Nolan, so he went 8-16 and tied for second in the league in losses. He finished a distant fifth in a confused Cy Young vote that saw the award go to Phillies closer Steve Bedrosian.

Felix Hernandez is experiencing a similar season to Ryan’s. His record is 10-10, but he hasn’t pitched like a .500 pitcher. He has made a quality start in a spectacular 90% of his appearances, meaning that with just a little offensive support he would have hit 20 wins some time ago. His biggest failing was choosing to have this excellent season for a team that may well have the worst offense in history. He’s getting all of 3.2 runs a game of help. The Astros gave Nolan Ryan 73 percent of an average amount of support. Hernandez is getting 71percent.

But put all of that aside, put the names and records aside, and just take a blind taste test. Which of these pitchers is having the better season?

Brand A 202.2 178 65 165 17 3.02
Brand B 211.1 174 56 200 14 2.38

There is really no objective way to say that Brand A, Sabathia, is having a better year but for the wins that 6.2 runs per game, or 138 percent of average support, have brought him. Sabathia has pitched quite well, but those Ws don’t show it—it’s every other aspect of his record. The same is true of Hernandez.

You can, if you like, give Sabathia extra credit for being the staff ace of (what will almost certainly be) a postseason team, of being the sole reliable starter on that team. I do. I’m not certain, though, if that bit of extra credit carries him past Hernandez, not to mention Buchholz, and a large group that includes Trevor Cahill, C.J. Wilson, David Price, Francisco Liriano, Jered Weaver, and Gio Gonzalez, all pitchers who have, in qualitative terms, done about as well as Sabathia, some under equally stressful conditions. There is a month to play, and the race remains wide open.

For more on the awards races, check out Cliff's regular SI feature MLB Awards Watch.