Baseball Gets It Right: Zack Greinke Named A.L. Cy Young Award Winner

Felix was phenomenal in '09, but Greinke was clearly the game's most dominant pitcher all year long.

As a Mariners’ fan I wanted Felix Hernandez to win this year’s AL Cy Young Award, because as a rule of thumb Seattle sports don’t win much (and no, I’m not forgetting about you Storm). After all, Hernandez came up through the farm system and matured before our eyes from a 19-year-old prodigy into a certified staff ace. He was dominant in 2009, leading a pedestrian Mariners team to an 85-win season, and looking better and better as the year progressed. The King finally lived up to his nickname, winning 19 games with a 2.49 ERA and 217 K’s, but even as a Mariners fan, I knew Felix didn’t deserve the award. C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay didn’t even deserve to be in the discussion; it was truly a two-horse race, and unfortunately, sweet Barbaro wasn’t one of them. No, Hernandez picked a bad season for his coming out party because, despite being stuck in the baseball wasteland that is Kansas City, Royals right-hander Zach Greinke was the best pitcher in 2009, not just in the American League…but in the entire sport.

Despite pitching for one of baseball's worst teams, Greinke was able to convince voters he was the AL's best.

Although his finish to the 2008 season should have raised a few eyebrows (4-1 with a 2.18 ERA in September), Greinke came into the year with virtually no fanfare—but it didn’t take long for that to change. By the end of the season’s first month, Sports Illustrated was heralding Greinke as the game’s best pitcher and it was easy to see why. In five April starts, the Royals’ ace went 5-0, had a dead-ball era 0.50 ERA and struck out 44 batters in only 36 innings. Kansas City was riding high and looking like a favorite in the AL Central but as often happens to a team that relies on Mike Jacobs as the big bat in their lineup, the Royals quickly faded from contention and Greinke was once again left to toil in obscurity. That didn’t stop him from mowing down hitters though, and despite some sub par run support (is Mark Teahan really hitting cleanup?) Zach-Attack cruised into the All-Star break with a 10-5 record, 2.12 ERA and amazingly, only four HR’s allowed in 127 innings. Although somehow not chosen to start the All-Star game, he made the most of his opportunity, striking out two NL batters in one inning and showing a national audience that he was a true star in the making.

The second half of the season was a struggle for Greinke, as he won only six games in 15 starts, though the blame clearly fell on the woeful Kansas City offense. The Royals only managed to score 13 runs in Greinke’s eight losses (1.6 runs/game) on the season, while scoring just 21 runs in his nine no-decisions (2.33 runs/game). Playing for a team with an average offense, Greinke would likely have finished with 22-23 wins, instead of the 16 he collected with Kansas City, and the Cy Young race wouldn’t have been a race at all, rather a runaway. Despite his team’s numerous shortcomings (no offense Sidney Ponson), Greinke never let up and capped off his historic season with a 3-0 record and 0.55 ERA in September.

If you take away wins (unfair, I know, but so is playing for K.C.), the choice of Zach Greinke as the Cy Young was really a no brainer (a good thing for voters):

–>Greinke: 2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 242 K’s/51 walks, 6 complete games

–>Hernandez: 2.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 217 K’s/71 walks, 2 complete games

Sorry C.C., not even playing for the Yankees was enough to get you this year's Cy Young award.

If that’s not enough, digging even deeper shows that Greinke was at his best when it mattered most (which technically is never when pitching for the Royals, but bear with me). He held hitters to a .253 average with the bases empty, and incredibly was tougher with runners on, allowing opposing batters a miniscule .197 average and .235 OBP. Even when batters got ahead in the count Greinke was unhittable. He faced 111 batters with a three ball count, which typically favors hitters not named Yuniesky Betancourt, yet he held those batters to 19 hits, or a Richie Sexson-esque .171 average. The 26-year-old righty showed his true grit by improving each time through the lineup (.264 average on first plate appearance vs .189 average on third plate appearance), and holding hitters to a .199 BA with runners in scoring position. By any statistical measure you choose to look at Zack Grienke, was the best pitcher in the AL, and it wasn’t even close.

Although often criticized for questionable and uneducated decisions (cough–Derek Jeter Gold Glove–cough) baseball voters got the right man this time. Not only was Zach Grienke a great story in overcoming social anxiety disorder, but he was also baseball’s best pitcher all season long. It looks like the Royals have found their ace for the next decade, now if they only could find a catcher, first baseman, shortstop, second baseman, right fielder, third baseman and left fielder, they might be in business. Regardless of the talent (or lack thereof) that surrounded him, Zack Grienke pitched like a superstar all year and was more than worthy of the 2009 AL Cy Young award. Here’s hoping the humble young pitcher carries his success into next season…and brings some much needed hope to a hapless franchise.

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5 Responses

  1. ‘pedestrian mariners team’ hahah
    greinke is a stud, when is his contract up? and who do you think will snag him

  2. Great findings on those stats…I can’t believe the improvements he made as he went deeper into games – he pretty much bucked every pitching/hitting trend

  3. Thanks John. It’s really incredible what Grienke was able to accomplish, and it seems like lots of his success has to do with his understanding of sabermetrics. If you ever need to find in-depth stats, check out http://www.baseballreference.com; they’ve got the goods.

    What did you think of Lincecum winning the NL Cy Young? Are you surprised Wakamatsu didn’t get more votes for manager of the year?

  4. So who’s on your shortlist for the M’s in the offseason? We obviously need a catcher and I’d like to see us add a big swinging left fielder or some sort (approx .270 30hr 80 rbi). Any chance of Matt Holliday?

  5. In response to the Lincecum question – I will say I was pretty surprised. I thought one of the Cardinals would put it away. The two random votes in there really messed up their chances, but it’s hard to say it was a bad choice. Whenever Lincecum pitched, there was an air of greatness with the way he dominated lineups. I just really want him to cut his hair.

    It was nice to have Wakamatsu at least mentioned in the manager of the year award, but I think he was correctly placed. He did a great job, but we really have to thank the pitching staff and the veteran additions loosening up of the clubhouse for making the year an enjoyable one. However, he should’ve gotten some award for finding a way to keep Silva’s huge butt off the roster…

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