On Wednesday afternoon in St. Louis, R.A. Dickey will further his case for the greatest single-season honor that can be bestowed upon a pitcher: the Cy Young Award. His numbers this season (17-4, 2.63 ERA, 1.014 WHIP, 5 complete games, 3 shutouts) have been beyond anything Mets fans could have anticipated, and earning the plaque named for the winningest pitcher in baseball history would be just one of many apexes of a year in which the esteemed knuckleballer climbed a mountain, published a bestselling book, met the King of Late Night (sorry to you Johnny Carson fans out there), and starred in a movie. Looking for the truly Most Interesting Man in the World? He pitches every fifth day for the New York Mets.
Still, Dickey’s fans are bracing for disappointment as the major league season shifts into September. Because while R.A. prepares for his stretch run to be named the best pitcher in the National League in 2012, a handful of other NL hurlers are with him neck and neck. While the reborn magician would be a worthy choice, so would a proven winner (Clayton Kershaw), an ERA master (Johnny Cueto), a strikeout specialist (Stephen Strasburg), a W collector (Gio Gonzalez), and even a few sensational slammers of the 9th inning door (Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman). Even on nights when Dickey puts his best foot forward, one of these other horses matches him step for step: on Friday night while R.A.’s knuckleball was dancing through the night at the club that is Marlins Park, Gonzalez spun together his own complete-game, five-hit shutout to earn his 17th win for the Washington Nationals.
For many Mets fans, myself included, the very idea that anyone aside from our #43 taking home the title has been downright offensive. We’ve grumbled and complained and cried afoul because of assumed “knuckleball discrimination:” it’s the reason why Dickey was snubbed as the All-Star Game starter, it’s why he’ll lose out on Cy Young after the World Series. But simply assuming that because R.A.’s pitch is misunderstood will cost him the title is lazy and unimaginative. While it may be true that a few voters will be slaves to the radar gun, there are more explanations as to why someone else will join the likes of recent winners Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, and Kershaw. Here are three possible scenarios that would result in R.A. Dickey failing to win the Cy Young Award.
1. He doesn’t have a good September
The simplest of explanations, but one that has been overlooked: there’s still a month of baseball left to play! And while Friday night’s start in Miami is a good indication, there’s just as much chance that his September record looks more like July (2-1, 5.13 ERA) than June (5-0, 0.93 ERA). Anything close to those June numbers would make it hard for voters to say no, but a couple bad starts over the next month could knock him behind half a dozen other candidates. Dickey will not be able to coast to a Cy Young this year; if he wins it, he will have earned it.
2. The Mets don’t make the playoffs
A rather obvious outcome (wait! what do you mean they won’t make the playoffs?), but one that voters consistently take into account when handing out postseason awards. Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp had nearly identical stats last season, but Braun walked away with the NL MVP Award largely because the Brewers made the playoffs and the Dodgers did not. If it comes down to a three horse race between Dickey, Gonzalez, and Cueto, and each of them have nearly identical stats, the latter two will have better odds of winning the crown because Washington and Cincinnati are (barring some, um…”Metsian” collapse) bound to play baseball in October.
3. Johnny Cueto runs away with the ERA title
Playing for a playoff team does not always indicate the deciding outcome, however. In 2010, voters (pleasantly) surprised everyone by crowing a King in the American League. Felix Hernandez beat out David Price and CC Sabathia that season to win the AL Cy Young. Price and Sabathia won 19 and 21 games respectively for playoff-bound ball clubs, while Hernandez barely won more than he lost (13-12) for the last-place Seattle Mariners. But King Felix picked up 21 of 28 first place votes after painting a masterpiece of ERA (2.27), complete games (6), and WAR (6.8). Voters overlooked his W-L record because they recognized he was the best pitcher in baseball; his only crime was pitching for a lousy team.
Flash forward to now. R.A. Dickey is second in the National League with a 2.63 ERA. He only trails Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto, who after Monday’s loss to Philadelphia sports a 2.58 mark. That’s not nearly the discrepancy between Hernandez’s number and those of Price and Sabathia (2.72, 3.18) in 2010, but Cueto makes up for that in a category King Felix could not: Ws. Cueto is in a three-way tie with Dickey and Gonzalez for the league lead in wins (17). If the season were to end today, ERA would be close enough that Dickey, with stronger numbers in complete games and strikeouts, ought to walk away the winner. But if Cueto were to somehow surge ahead in the ERA category in the last month, in addition to staying near the top in wins, he would likely cross the finish line a nose ahead of Dickey. In modern times, ERA is the most important single statistic when it comes to Cy Young voting. If Cueto were to get below Dickey by at least two digits in the tenths column, like he was before Monday’s start (and it doesn’t even have to be exactly two tenths; the perception of 2.49 to 2.61 just looks more impressive than 2.50 to 2.62), expect him to win the title, despite Dickey’s strength in the other categories.
The level of competition and certain statistical circumstances are against him, and R.A. Dickey faces a difficult path to the NL Cy Young Award. But while he may be up against the wall in his fight for postseason hardware, with the year he’s had outside of baseball, Mets fans are likely to be more disappointed than he will be if he doesn’t win. At least now we’ll have more than just “knuckleball discrimination” to go by to help us cope.