September 05, 2006
The Dontrelle Willis Corollary
Let's take a look at last year's NL Cy Young. Chris Carpenter won the award, with a 21-5 record and a 2.83 ERA. Dontrelle Willis came in second with a 22-10 record and a 2.63 ERA. Aren't Willis' numbers more impressive?
One might argue that, although Willis had one more win, he also had five more losses. But, historically, wins have been the most important category in Cy Young voting (not saying it's a good thing, just saying it's true), and voters usually don't look at the number of losses. And Willis' Marlins finished barely above .500, while Carpenter's Cardinals won 100 games. So Willis was pretty obviously the better pitcher.
One could also argue that Carpenter is more well-liked than Willis. But that would be false, as Carpenter was one of the most overlooked pitchers in baseball until last year, while D-Train was arguably the most popular player in the sport during his brilliant rookie season of '03.
So why did Carpenter win the Cy Young award? Here's my theory, and I'm calling it the Dontrelle Willis Corollary in honor of the pitcher last year who proved it true. In early August last year, the Cy Young in the NL was a two-horse race - Carpenter and Roger Clemens. Carpenter had a 16-4 record and a 2.24 ERA; Clemens had an 11-4 record and a 1.45 ERA. Willis had a 3.03 ERA and a 14-7 record; very good numbers but not nearly good as the others'. So nobody was following him in the Cy Young chase.
What happened? Willis pitched great for the rest of the year, posting a 1.72 ERA and an 8-3 record the rest of the way. But because people were only following Carpenter and Clemens, Willis' run went almost unnoticed, while everyone saw that Carpenter had the better last month or so than Clemens. And the main problem here was that because every talk show host and baseball writer was forced to pick their winner in August, everyone narrowed down the candidates to just two (bolded because that sentence summarizes the point of this post). I doubt this was a big problem before the big media explosion and the Internet, and I think the only solution is to stop predicting winners in August.
You want another example? Try the other league. I'll leave out most of the stats, but Bartolo Colon (21-8, 3.48 ERA) won the award, while Johan Santana (16-7, 2.87 ERA) came in third. Santana pitched great in August and September, so his stats went unnoticed by most people. In August, the only two decent candidates were Colon and Mariano Rivera, so everybody watched only those two (and of course Colon won because relievers never win).
Now, under normal circumstances, Colon might have won anyways, due to his inflated win total. But the voting would have been very close. Last year, Colon recieved 17 first-place votes to Santana's 3. Just another example of the Dontrelle Willis Corollary.
This usually doesn't happen with MVP awards, for one reason: MVPs are almost always from playoff teams, so if a team makes a late run at the playoffs, people will notice and look for an MVP from that team. Case in point: The 2004 AL MVP race. Going into the last two weeks of the season, it was a three-horse race, with Vlad Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, and Manny Ramirez the three candidates (and David Ortiz a close fourth*). But over the last two weeks, Vlad put up astronomical numbers, taking the Angels on his back and propelling them to the playoffs (by one game over Oakland). The voters saw Anaheim's surge over the last two weeks and saw what Vlad had done, and he won the MVP by a comfortable margin. So MVP awards usually are an exception (though Vlad was in that race even before his hot stretch).
So who could be victimized by the Dontrelle Willis Corollary this year? The biggest race I see is the AL MVP. It was a two-horse race, Ortiz and Jeter, up through the middle of August. Then the Yankees swept the Sox, and it became Jeter's MVP to lose. I am convinced that about one-third of the writers will vote for Jeter based solely on the fact that he was the top candidate two weeks ago, no matter what happens over the last month of the season. Even if Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, or anybody else puts up great numbers, they will be fighting long odds to get an MVP trophy.
Another, lesser-known race: the AL Cy Young. This probably isn't a great example; neither pitcher plays in a big media market, so this race isn't being followed my most of America. But, ever since Liriano got hurt, the AL Cy Young has been a two-man race - Johan Santana and Roy Halladay. If someone else (say, a Chien-Ming Wang or a Justin Verlander) gets hot over the last month, they may be overlooked. (Though I can't see anyone overtaking Santana as the best pitcher in the AL).
Any thoughts on this? Am I crazy? I haven't seen anyone else with this view, so I'd like to know what you think.
*Quick anecdote on this - I brought up Ortiz' name in MVP discussion with my friend as the season was ending, and he said, "Ortiz? He can't win the MVP. He's not clutch." Then, in the playoffs and the years to come, Ortiz became arguably the most clutch hitter the game has ever seen. True story.