What’s the difference?

Sorting through a complicated Cy Young debate

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The rabbit hole opens with that ridiculous argument, the one my pal Michael Schur calls the stupidest argument in sports: The semantic difference between the words “most valuable” and “most outstanding.”

We can argue here — and have argued a million times already — that there is no important difference, that the two things mean essentially the same thing, that the “most outstanding” player is also the “most valuable” player and vice versa. But no matter how fervently I might believe that, the reality is: Many people don’t. Many people think “most valuable” is a different thing from “most outstanding.” You can see it most clearly when it comes to relievers and the Cy Young Award.

The Cy Young Award is annually given out to the “most outstanding pitcher” in each league. There’s that word: Outstanding.

Well, no relief pitcher has won the Cy Young Award in more than a decade; the last to do it was Los Angeles’ Eric Gagne in 2003. In the American League, you have to all the way back to 1992 when Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young. There are some people who see this development as progress — hey, sportswriters finally realize that relief pitchers throw too few innings to be the most outstanding pitcher. There are others, however, who see it as a slight to relievers. Relief pitchers, they argue, are a huge part of baseball and should be considered seriously for the Cy.

This year’s American League Cy Young voting could be fascinating. At this moment, no AL starting pitcher is having what you would call a statistically dazzling season. Only one, Toronto’s young Aaron Sanchez, even has an ERA under 3.00. Nobody is going to strike out anywhere close to 300 batters; it’s likely no one will even strike out 250. Boston’s Rick Porcello has pitched well and should end up with an eye-popping win-loss record — he is 19-3 at the moment — but even die-hard traditionalists probably will concede that going 19-3 isn’t all that great a trick when your team is averaging seven runs per game when you pitch.

In any case, there are some good starter candidates, including Porcello. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber is having a very good year with deceivingly lackluster-looking stats. Chicago’s Chris Sale and Texas’ Cole Hamels and the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka are having interesting years. Detroit’s Justin Verlander is having a wonderful comeback season. There are others.

But, let’s be honest, the pitchers with the jaw-dropping stats this year are relievers. Dellin Betances is striking out almost 16 per nine innings. Andrew Miller has been ferocious for two teams. And, most of all, there’s Baltimore’s Zach Britton, who leads the American League in saves and has a 0.65 ERA. He has been virtually unhittable for a team fighting for the AL East title. There is a strong push for him to win the Cy Young Award.

Then again, he has thrown just 55 innings — barely 30 percent of what the top starters are throwing.

What to do? Can a reliever who throws so few innings be the league’s most outstanding pitcher?

And so we revisit the “most valuable” vs. “most outstanding” discussion. Relievers do much better with the word “valuable” than they do with “outstanding.” You see this practically every year when comparing MVP voting to Cy Young voting.

Take 2013: That year Craig Kimbrel was second among pitchers in the MVP voting, but tied for fourth in Cy Young voting. This discrepancy is always there. A year earlier, Kimbrel was the top vote-getter among pitchers in the MVP voting, but finished fifth in the Cy Young voting.

In 2010, Rafael Soriano was the top pitcher in the MVP balloting but finished eighth in the Cy Young.

Then there’s Mariano Rivera. In both 2005 and 2009, he was the top pitcher in the MVP voting. In 2005, he barely lost the Cy Young Award to Bartolo Colon. In 2009, he didn’t even place in the Cy Young voting.

In 1997, Randy Myers finished FOURTH in the MVP voting, far and away the highest spot for any pitcher. He finished fourth in the Cy Young vote.

These are just the most obvious examples; this happens in small ways all the time. Why? You can come up with a lot of theories, but I would say that the most logical one is that it comes down to those words “valuable” and “outstanding.” I imagine there are people right now who would vote Britton “most valuable” pitcher, but they would have trouble voting for him as “most outstanding.”

Here’s the funny part, the rabbit hole part — I went back to the beginning. And as it turns out, the Cy Young was SUPPOSED to go to the “most valuable” pitcher. The words got switched at the last minute. And it’s unclear why.

* * *

The rabbit hole takes us all the way back to 1956 and the start of the Cy Young Award. Well, technically, it takes us back to November 1955. That is when the great pitcher Cy Young died.

Young was more than a great pitcher. He was a very popular and iconic figure, a connection to baseball’s past. He always seemed up for an interview, always was ready to tell a story. Think back to when Yogi Berra or Buck O’Neil died. It was like that when Young died. Everyone looked for a suitable way to honor him.

This gave commissioner Ford Frick a chance to champion one of his pet ideas: Frick wanted an award that honored pitchers. Sportswriters though Frick was irked by the fact that Robin Roberts had never won an MVP award. Roberts was, in the judgment of many, the best pitcher in the National League every year from 1950 to 1955. He almost won the MVP award in 1952, finishing a close second to Hank Sauer, but other than that he was overlooked. Frick thought pitchers deserved a chance to win their own MVP awards.

And so, after Young died, Frick made his voice heard. He proposed a special award, named for Cy Young, to be given to pitchers. It was announced in early 1956 with a banner headline in The Sporting News:

“Pitchers to Have Own MVP Award in the Future.”

OK, you see that: It was to be the pitchers’ Most Valuable Player Award. Valuable was the key word in the story. It seemed pretty easy.

As it developed though, the Cy Young thing became more controversial than Frick had expected. Turns out the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) wasn’t too crazy about the idea of the commissioner jamming some new award down their throats. Turns out, they didn’t particularly like Frick second-guessing their judgments about Robin Roberts. Turns out — in the least surprising development of all — the BBWAA didn’t really want change.

Still, Frick kept pressing his case, and on July 9, at the All-Star Game, the BBWAA met to vote. First, they argued. There were arguments over the number of Cy Young Awards that should be given out each year. There were arguments over making pitchers ineligible to win the MVP award. There were arguments over the name “Cy Young Award” — some thought it should be named for Walter Johnson or Christy Mathewson.

The New York World-Telegram’s Dan Daniel argued that the new Cy Young Award would diminish the MVP award. Philadelphia’s Frank Yeutter argued that were already too many damn awards.

And then, after the vote, there was an argument about the vote itself being unconstitutional.

You can probably hear the squabbling in your head.

In the end, the writers voted for the new Cy Young Award 14-12 — literally one person changing a vote would have killed the Cy Young Award before it ever started.

But the BBWAA did vote for it with a couple of caveats:

1. Pitchers would still be eligible for the MVP award; that, in everyone’s mind, was still the big award.

2. They would only give out one Cy Young Award to the best pitcher in both leagues. It would be 11 years before they started giving out Cy Youngs to the best pitcher in each league.

But the biggest news was the wording: Nobody really wrote about the wording then, but it was made clear the BBWAA determined that the Cy Young Award would go to the “most outstanding pitcher in baseball.” In every story I could find, valuable was left completely out.

It is unclear what brought about the change. It’s possible that the voters didn’t even think of it as a change — they might have just thought (as I do) that “outstanding” and “valuable” are basically baseball synonyms. What’s more likely, though, is that they chose “outstanding” to separate it from the MVP award. The BBWAA was very sensitive about the MVP award.

But then, it gets even weirder: The Cy Young Awards themselves DID use the word valuable. A quick internet search (h/t: Fangraphs and Tom Tango) shows that sometimes — like in 1963 with Sandy Koufax, in 1972 with Steve Carlton, in 1973 with Jim Palmer and perhaps as late as Lamar Hoyt in 1983 — it DID say “Most Valuable Pitcher” on it. Other years, more recent years, it said “Outstanding Pitchers.” And still OTHER years, it did not say either; it just had the pitcher’s name.

In other words: I’m probably overthinking the whole thing.

Check that. Delete the word “Probably.”

I would ask again: Does the word choice have an impact? I would say: Overall, yes. It’s true that starting in the early 1970s with Mike Marshall, relievers did get real Cy Young support. Marshall barely lost the award to Tom Seaver in 1973 and then won it going away in 1974. That opened the floodgates: Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young in 1977; Bruce Sutter in 1979; Rollie Fingers in 1981; Willie Hernandez in 1984; Steve Bedrosian in 1987; Mark Davis in 1989 and Eckersley in 1992. Others like Goose Gossage and Dan Quisenberry came close.

But, as mentioned, since Eckersley won the Cy Young/MVP double, relievers — with the one Gagne exception — have been shut out. And now there’s a powerful debate going on.

There’s an interesting statistical side note to this. There are a couple of advanced statistics out there that people like to lean on. One is, of course, WAR, Wins Above Replacement, and relievers will almost never do very well with WAR because they do not pitch enough innings. By Fangraphs WAR, Zach Britton ranks 26th in the American League, nowhere near the Cy Young contenders.

But then there’s a stat called Win Probability Added, WPA, that adds (and subtracts) the win probability for every play. So, for instance, if a home pitcher has a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth inning, the team’s win probability is roughly 87 percent.

After getting one out, it jumps up to about 93 percent. So add six percent to the pitcher’s total.

After getting a second out, it just up to about 97 percent. So add four percent to the pitcher’s total.

Then, of course, third out moves it to 100 percent, so you add that.

It’s a pretty simple formula, easy to add and subtract based on what happens. And when it comes to WPA, Britton is FAR AND AWAY the American League leader. His 5.2 WPA is a full win ahead of Andrew Miller and almost two wins ahead of the best starter, Toronto’s Sanchez.

So, yes, it’s all in how you look at it. In a way, you could say that the difference between WAR and WPA is the difference between “outstanding” and “Valuable.”

* * *

One final thought on this — in going down the rabbit hole, I ran into numerous interviews with Cy Young. He was an opinionated man, especially about pitchers. I particularly liked this quote from 1951:

“There are just too many pitchers,” he said. “Ten or 12 on a team. Don’t see how any of them get enough work. Four starting pitchers and one relief pitcher ought to be enough. Pitch ’em every three days and you’d find they’d get control and good, strong arms.”

I think it’s fair to say that Cy Young wouldn’t be voting for Zach Britton.