Which league has the better pitchers?

By | May 25, 2007

At the beginning of the season, before Roger Clemens had made his decision to come back to the Yankees, I did some interesting research. At that point in time, National League teams had a total of eight former Cy Young Award winners (Brandon Webb, Chris Carpenter, Barry Zito, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux) who had combined to win the award 18 times; the American League, on the other hand, had only four former winners (Johan Santana, Bartolo Colon, Eric Gagne, and Roy Halladay) with a total of five awards (with Santana being the only repeater). If Clemens had gone back to the Astros, the NL would have had a 25-5 edge in awards and a 9-4 edge in winners. Instead, the edge is 18-12 and 8-5 — still pretty significant.

So those numbers got me thinking: does the National League really have better pitching than the American League? Let’s explore that idea. (And to be honest, at this point, I don’t know what the final answer will be, although I have a somewhat-educated guess.) Things to consider:

The difference between the leagues

Let’s face it: not all Cy Young winners are created equal. Winning the National League Cy Young Award says nothing about a pitcher in comparison to an AL pitcher; all it says (in theory) is that you were the best pitcher in your league. So you could, theoretically, have a guy who wins a dozen awards in one league and wouldn’t have won any in the other. So I thought I would take a look at each of these winners and compare him to the winner and runner-up from the other league that year. Here’s what I found:

  • In 2005, Bartolo Colon would have (or should have) finished no better than fifth in the voting if he had been in the National League. (More on Colon in our next topic.)
  • Chris Carpenter would/should have been about third place in the AL voting in 2005.

Other than 2005, most of the guys on our list would have been roughly pretty competitive in the race in the other league. So while there are potential differences between the leagues, in actuality they even out pretty well.

The voters are sometimes idiots

The people who vote for the postseason awards — members of the Baseball Writers Association of America — are generally obsessed with counting statistics. The like home runs and RBIs and win/loss records. The don’t care as much for percentage statistics like batting average and ERA, and they absolutely crap all over anything more complicated than that. As such, they don’t always get things right. A simple example is last season, when Ryan Howard beat out Albert Pujols for the NL MVP Award because he had more homers and RBIs. Howard was clearly not as good as Pujols, but he won the award because he had the counting stats.

The same thing happens with the Cy Young Award, except worse. Home runs and RBIs reflect a hitter’s value far better than win/loss records do for pitchers, but the Cy Young voters often (stupidly) vote for the guy with the best record. In the past decade, I count five pitchers who won the award over a more qualified guy because of the record: Glavine over Kevin Brown in 1998; Zito over Pedro in 2002; Clemens over Johnson in 2004; Carpenter (and Dontrelle Willis) over Clemens in 2005; and Colon over Santana in 2005.

So, to put it simply, the Cy Young Award doesn’t actually mean you are the best pitcher in your league, which makes it a questionable tool when comparing talent.

Some of these mares just ain’t what they used to be

Of the 13 active former Cy Young winners, only two are still in their prime: Webb and Santana. Roger Clemens has been the best pitcher in the National League the past two seasons (and was the second best in 2004, when he won his last Cy Young), but he is undeniably 44 years old, and it is bound to catch up with him one of these days. Some of the guys are saddled by injuries (Colon, Gagne, Halladay, Carpenter, and Pedro); some are getting old (Clemens, Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine); one is old AND frail (Johnson); and one just isn’t as good as he used to be (Zito). So among Cy Young winners in their prime, the AL has a distinct advantage in Santana over Webb.

Second place matters too

And so does third place, probably. The American League has Curt Schilling, who has finished second in the voting three times (twice to Johnson and once to Santana). Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera have each finished second a couple times. And several of our winners have other Top 3 finishes to their credit.

Youth will be served

Every pitcher who has ever won a Cy Young Award was once a young pitcher who had never won one. That’s a fact of life. So when we’re looking at the leagues, we have to take a look at the young (or youngish) guys who could, realistically, win the award at some point in their careers. I looked at the pitchers who qualified for the ERA title in each league last year (38 in the NL, 39 in the AL) and just made a list of guys who could, in my opinion, win a Cy Young sometime in the next five or ten years. I counted eight in the NL and eleven in the AL (including two former winners in each league). This obviously isn’t a perfect approach, but it’s not bad. Here’s who I have:

National League:

  • Roy Oswalt
  • Chris Carpenter
  • Brandon Webb
  • Carlos Zambrano
  • Chris Young
  • Dontrelle Willis
  • Jake Peavy
  • Matt Cain

American League:

  • Johan Santana
  • Roy Halladay
  • C.C. Sabathia
  • John Lackey
  • Justin Verlander
  • Chien-Ming Wang
  • Erik Bedard
  • Jeremy Bonderman
  • Dan Haren
  • Felix Hernandez
  • Josh Beckett

The AL has the edge in numbers, and if you look closely, they have an edge in youth, too (among these guys, anyway). Based on this, here is my official declaration on this subject:

While the National League has more proven veterans who are past their respective primes, the American League seems poised to leave the NL in the dust over the next decade or so. If I were to write a blog entry five years from now with this same title (“Which league has the better pitchers?”), I suspect it would be a pretty stupid question.

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