Cy Young voting, like all media influenced group dynamics, is often confusing and sometimes nonsensical. It’s also been changing. Rob Neyer and Bill James probably have the most well-known and essentially reliable prediction formula for turning season statistics into Cy Young winning probability. The formula essentially values IP, ERA, Strikeouts, shutouts, wins and losses, which are generally what voters are supposedly looking for. They also add a victory bonus of 12 points for being on a division championship team.
Right now, Cueto is a close second in NL ‘Cy Young Points’ to knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Right now, that includes a ‘pro-rated’ victory bonus for Cueto of 5 points. With R.A. Dickey at 141.0 points, and Cueto at 139.8, given that we’re over 2/3 of the way through the season, if you project performance forward, Cueto comes in first. I mean, yes, that’s a lot of counting chickens before they’ve hatched – but I suspect the odds, at least slightly, favor the Reds winning their division and the Mets not winning.
But do we really favor players from division winners? There’s already something of a bonus for being on a good team – you’ll probably have more wins and fewer losses, all things being equal. And certainly, there’s some support for the idea. By my count, there’s been 102 Cy Youngs awarded thus far, and 59 of them went for pitchers on division winners. On a smaller scale, though, in the last 5 years, only 3 of the 10 winners have been on division winning teams – a much smaller percentage. That’s a small sample size – when you go back ten years, 9 of the last 20 winners have come from division champs.
But if you look at the N/J Cy Young Predictor, there aren’t very many races where it looks like winning the division really mattered. That is: the actual Cy Young winner led in prediction points, but would not have led without the ‘victory bonus’. Here’s the only two exceptions in the three division era.
2007 AL – C.C. Sabathia (Cleveland) over J.J. Putz (Seattle ): While CC Sabathia would have had fewer CY points without the victory bonus, Putz was a relief pitcher, and relief pitchers are something of a special case, and I don’t think the Predictor really gets the idea. Other than Putz, though, Sabathia was so far ahead of any other AL pitcher in terms of CY points.l it’s not clear it mattered that the Indians would the Central that year.
2005 AL – Bartolo Colon (Los Angeles) over Joe Nathan (Minnesota): This is another case of Starter over Reliever – as Colon also beat out Mariano Rivera, whose team did win its division that year. However, it should also be noted that without the victory bonus, the predictor only narrowly puts Colon over Johan Santana. Really, I suspect that Colon’s win has a lot more to do with his magic number 21 wins than any other factor.
Both of these are pretty easily explained away by the odd dynamics of starter/reliever selection. And there’s at least one year where victory bonuses didn’t work.
1997 NL – Pedro Martinez (MON) over Greg Maddux (ATL) and Darryl Kile (HOU):
Maddux and Kile each had good enough years that, given that they were on division winning Braves and Astros teams, they had more CY points than Martinez. Apparently, though, Pedro’s 1.90 ERA and 319 Ks must have distracted voters on the whole winning thing. Of course, it seems unlikely that Dickey’s going to strike out 319 this season.
I think overall, there’s a reasonably good likelihood that to win the Cy Young Award, Cueto’s going to have to outpitch Dickey in the last month and a half of the season, regardless of how the Reds (and the Mets) finish. Whether the voters will favor Cueto’s lower ERA (projected) or Dickey’s better K numbers (projected), as the two pitchers appear to match each other for wins, is another matter entirely.