ESPN recently analyzed the top contenders for the American League Cy Young Award and failed to include Mike Mussina. It's a good thing the network corrected the oversight last night. Mussina not only is a leading candidate, he'll be deserving of the award if he wins his final two starts.
The weekend presents a showdown of sorts at Camden Yards, with Mussina starting for the Orioles tomorrow and Roger Clemens for Boston Sunday. Those two and Chicago's Jack McDowell are the starting pitchers who merit the most serious consideration for Cy Young.
The wild card is Oakland's Dennis Eckersley, who clearly deserves some award for his remarkable season, although no one knows which one. Two relievers have won both the AL Cy Young and MVP -- Rollie Fingers in 1981 and Willie Hernandez in '84. The Eck, 51-for-53 in save chances, easily could join them.
The possibility exists mainly because no clear favorite has emerged in either race. Eckersley, though, believes the Cy Young should go to a starter, as he once was himself. By extension, shouldn't the MVP go to an everyday player? Yes, but Eck is a special case. The A's are the Chicago White Sox without him.
So, give Eckersley the MVP, but not the Cy Young. To further reduce the field, eliminate Texas' Kevin Brown, a 20-game winner who is 6-6 in the second half, and Toronto's Jack Morris, a 19-game winner with a 4.09 ERA.
Morris, too, is a more legitimate MVP candidate -- just as Rick Sutcliffe would have been if the Orioles won the division.
That leaves Clemens (18-11), Mussina (17-5) and McDowell (20-9). Two writers in each AL city vote, and their ballots must be
postmarked before the start of the playoffs and World Series. As with almost every major baseball award, the criteria are basically whatever the voter decides.
Is the best pitcher the one with the most wins? Ask Kansas City's Kevin Appier, who posted a 1.27 ERA in his first five starts, but went 0-2. Is the best pitcher the one with the lowest ERA? Ask Morris, who could not care less about the statistic, but is 13 games above .500 for a likely division champion.
There's no arguing with 19-6, but Morris' ERA doesn't compare with Clemens' 2.41, Mussina's 2.53 and McDowell's 3.20. Then again, Morris doesn't bicker with teammates who complain about official scoring decisions in his favor, like Jolly Roger in search of his fourth Cy Young.
Personalities aside, what distinguishes our top three is consistency -- Clemens and McDowell each have worked into the seventh inning in 29 of their 32 starts, Mussina in 25 of his 30. What ultimately distinguishes Clemens is his superior performance with inferior run support.
Boston averages 4.0 runs for Clemens, Baltimore 4.5 runs for Mussina, Chicago 4.9 runs for McDowell. Don't be swayed by the fact that the White Sox have scored only 15 runs in McDowell's nine losses. They've averaged a whopping 6.9 runs in his 20 wins.
How important is run support? The 1992 Elias Baseball Analyst ** cites the example of Dave McNally, who went 21-5 in 1971 and 13-17 in '72 with virtually the same ERA. His winning percentage differed for one reason: The Orioles averaged nearly three fewer runs in his starts in '72.
Clemens is the only AL candidate who ranks either first or second in ERA, strikeouts, shutouts, complete games and innings -- all while pitching for a last-place team. The Rocket would be a lock, except for one thing: For him, this is an off-year.
He has lost three straight starts for the first time since May 1989. He is one defeat away from matching his career-high of 12 losses. He has a lower winning percentage than Hipolito Pichardo. Would you vote for this man? Maybe not over Mussina.
Indeed, the argument for Mussina is the one usually reserved for Clemens -- performance down the stretch. Mussina is 5-0 with an 0.84 ERA in his last five starts, all of them critical. McDowell, like Clemens, is winless in his last three starts, with nothing at stake but the Cy Young.
Cal Ripken strengthened his MVP candidacy last season with a big September; might Mussina be doing the same? He's averaging 9.7 base runners per nine innings, fewest in the AL. The only category in which he doesn't rank among the league leaders is strikeouts. On that, he'll gladly defer to Randy Johnson.
Here's the kicker: Mussina could have four more wins if not for blown saves by his bullpen, Clemens three more, McDowell one. Factor that element of chance into the equation, and each should have the same number of victories: 21.
Instead, the maximum for Mussina is 19. It might not be enough, not with the regard for Eckersley, the reputation of Clemens, the record of McDowell. But make no mistake, Mussina is right up there. If he doesn't win, well, he's only 23 years old.