The Commish Online                                                                                
Ryan and the Rocket
May 7, 2003

Homegrown Texans.  Relentless work ethic.  Dominant fastball.  Unheard of strikeout rates.  Longevity in a game where pitchers suffer more breakdowns than Robert Downey Jr.  Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens have many things in common, but the one thing they don't share is Cy Young awards.  Roger has six and Nolan has none, and I don't think the Rocket plans on sharing his anytime soon.

How does a pitcher with seven no-hitters and the most strikeouts in the history of the game not win a single Cy Young award?  At first I thought it was a travesty and something that should be blamed on Ryan's teams rather than Ryan himself.  I thought that removing Nolan Ryan's win-loss record from his team's records would show the dismalness of his teams.  Not true.  Ryan's teams were just above .500 with him and just slightly less above .500 without him.  In fact, Clemens's teams actually benefited from him by gaining an extra 2 percent in winning percentage with his record than without.  The reason?  Ryan's 292 career losses.  For the record, Clemens only had 151 losses entering the 2003 season.  A circular argument exists, however, where one could suggest that the reason Ryan lost so many games is a result of being on bad teams.  During his 8 year span with California, Nolan averaged over 15 losses per season (but averaged over 17 wins) despite having an ERA over that span of just 3.07.  So why all the losses?  Ryan completed a ridiculous 156 game with the Angels and 222 career complete games, so it's safe to assume he lost his share of 3-2 games while going the distance, while Clemens pitches in an era where the bullpen absorbs those losses for him.  I'm not Jayson Stark and I don't have the Elias Sports Bureau at my beck and call, so I will just have to assume that Clemens has received marginally better run support than Ryan over their respective careers.

Since the won-loss record is the one stat over which the pitcher has the least control, shouldn't there be at least a season or two where Nolan Ryan's numbers were just heads and tails above everyone else's?  Actually, no.  Ryan had great success in 1973, recorded 383 strikeouts, 26 complete games, and an ERA of 2.87 en route to a 21 - 16 record.  Unfortunately for the Ryan Express, Jim Palmer put up better numbers with a better team.  Palmer finished '73 with an ERA of 2.40, had 6 shutouts versus Ryan's 4, completed 19 games, won 22 games and only lost 9.  While wins should not be a major factor in determining the success of one pitcher over another, it also should not be a penalty, and Palmer's 22 - 9 record combined with his other stats make him a worthy award winner. 

Ryan's real beef could be the '81 strike season, where he posted a 1.69 ERA but came in 4th in the Cy Young voting.  The hype around Fernando Valenzuela gave him the narrow margin of victory over Tom Seaver with Steve Carlton close behind.  Ryan, with Houston at the time, only pitched 149 innings in 1981, 43 innings less than Valenzuela in an already strike-shortened season, but Seaver only pitched 166 innings and received the same amount of first place votes as Valenzuela.  The difference?  Seaver went 14 - 2, while Ryan was just 11 - 5.  While Ryan's ERA was miniscule compared to the other 3 contenders, his lack of innings did him in.  In fact, Steve Carlton, the third place finisher, did everything Valenzuela did and had a better record, so it's not like Ryan was the victim of a conspiracy.  Once again, Nolan was not quite dominant enough for the award.

In the case of Roger Clemens, it is harder to claim that a pitcher did not deserve an award rather than claiming that another one should have won because any winner is certainly Cy Young caliber, even if he should have finished second or third.  Having said that, the Rocket deserves recognition for his six Cy Young awards, although it should be pointed out that his last one, in 2001, was completely based on his 20 - 3 record and had nothing to do with his other stats.  In 2001, Clemens wasn't even the best pitcher in his team's rotation;  he just got more run support.  Mike Mussina, a severely underrated hurler finally getting some recognition in New York, finished '01 with the following numbers:  3.15 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 214 K, and a 17 - 11 record.  Clemens finished with:  3.51 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 213 K, and a 20 - 3 record.  Mussina gave up fewer runs, allowed fewer baserunners, struck out more batters (marginally), but lost more games than Clemens, who pitched on the same team!  What does this mean?  It means that Clemens got awarded the Cy Young based on name recognition and other things beyond a pitcher's control, such as wins and losses.  The argument would not be as strong if Mussina were on another team, but in this case, it's the same lineup hitting for both pitchers and Mussina did the things he could control much better than Clemens, but the Rocket is the one who gets to order a larger mantle for his new trophy.

Not taking anything away from Clemens, his other Cy Young seasons were much deserved, and his 2 years winning it with Toronto in '97 and '98 were maybe his best ever.  Maybe the finally Cy Young tally should be something closer to Clemens 4 or 5, Ryan 0 or 1, but it is clear that Roger Clemens has displayed the ability to be the best pitcher in the league many times, while Nolan Ryan will have to settle for being one of the best every year.  Luckily for Ryan, one of the best every year translates to one of the best ever, which means a nice plaque with his mug on it for his family and friends to visit when they pass through Cooperstown.  Sometime in the next decade, Roger Clemens will be posing next to him.

Notes and Predictions
End of year big city algebra
Mets wins + Yankees wins = White Sox wins + Cubs wins + 15

Wild Card thoughts?
Detroit beat my estimate and is riding a 3 game winning streak.  Can anyone stop them?

Back on top
The Braves tallied 17 wins in their last 20 and stand atop the East by themselves.  Hampton and Ortiz look as good as can be expected and Maddux has found his groove.

Separating from the pack
Oakland, Seattle, New York, and Boston are proving their dominance early on, while any misstep in Kansas City will throw the AL Central into a free for all for the rights to lose in the first round.

Set the table, Johnny
When Johnny Damon finds his stroke (and he will), look for Nomar's average to climb to the .300+ level as pitchers will need to pitch him more carefully with Damon on base.