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A tale of two Cy Youngs: Gerrit Cole and Roger Clemens

How what we look for in a pitcher has changed, two decades after The Rocket.

Sports Contributor Archive 2020 Photo by SPX/Ron Vesely Photography via Getty Images

When it comes to WAR, the difference in half a win or three-quarters of a win are pretty marginal. The error bars on the math mean we can’t definitively say a 4.3 fWAR player is really all that much worse than a 4.7 fWAR player, but a 5.5 fWAR player is better than both. With that understood, we can’t confidently say Roger Clemens was the third-best pitcher on the 2001 Yankees, but the Cy Young winner — who captured 87 percent of first place votes — was at best the No. 2 pitcher on his own staff by fWAR.

Mike Mussina paced the team, and indeed the entire AL, with 6.9 fWAR and 7.1 rWAR, was top two in ERA, FIP and walk rate, top five in strikeout rate and top seven in innings pitched. This isn’t a post about how underrated Moose is, even though he probably still is even among Yankee fans, more a comparison about value, and its inherently relative nature.

There’s nothing wrong with Clemens’ season, you’d take a five-and-a-half win year from a 39 year old any day of the week. The driving narrative wasn’t that he was a stats compiler or anything like that, but rather the white-hot start to his season. Clemens went 20-1 in his first 30 starts, including a 16-0 run through the summer. That pace had never happened before in the game’s history. At the same time the Oakland brain trust was examining what it meant to be a productive baseball player, the defining trait of a dominant starting pitcher — take the ball every five days and win the game — led the baseball media to settle on the Rocket.

22 years later, Gerrit Cole looks like he’s going to be the first Yankee since Clemens to take home the AL’s top pitching award. At the time of writing he’s more than a full win clear of the next best pitcher in the league by rWAR, at his usual top of the table in innings pitched and in the pole position to win the ERA title. They’re actually having relatively comparable seasons — down to a 0.02 difference in FIP, even though Clemens posted higher strikeout and walk rates.

The narrative, the thing that we say to explain why Cole is the best pitcher in the AL, couldn’t be more different though. He’s a name brand same as Roger, but the momentum behind his likely Cy Young season is based around the workhorse approach in a season without any other standout arms in the AL.

Cole arguably should have two Cys already in his career, iced out by Robbie Ray in 2021 and coming in second to Justin Verlander during his legendary 2019 season. 2023 will likely end up as the weakest of these three seasons — projected to finish with “just” 4.7 fWAR — but he’ll end up with about 25 more innings than Sonny Gray or Kevin Gausman, the two pitchers ahead of him on that WAR leaderboard. He has a better ERA, FIP and K-BB% than either Framber Valdez or Luis Castillo, who are also likely to find themselves receiving downballot votes.

Assuming Cole does end up the Yankees’ first Cy Young winner in 22 years, like Clemens he’ll have won the award despite not having as outstanding a season as we’ve seen from him before. The story we tell about each of their seasons, however, couldn’t be more different. In a season that’s seen rule changes designed to elevate offense, he’s been the best pitcher in a field that’s not quite as standout as we’ve seen in prior years. Roger, well ... he was just Roger.