A baseball season is like a garden, with stories blooming all over. But 2009 had no better, more inspiring or jaw-dropping story than the slim, blond right-hander who, four years after being the American League's biggest loser, should be crowned as its best pitcher. So get ready for the Zack Attack. Perhaps you don't recall 2005, when Zack Greinke, a skittish recent top Draft choice thrust into Kansas City's rotation at 21, wobbled his way to a 5-17 record.
And we say "should be crowned" because Greinke is deserving, yet one can never be sure of the blinding effect of wins on Cy Young Award voters. Call it the Bartolo Colon Syndrome: In 2005, the Angels' Colon received the Cy Young Award because his 21 wins were three more than anyone else had, and the heck with his underwhelming other numbers (such as a 3.48 ERA). So can the voters now shield their eyes from a trio of 19-game winners with their own legitimate arguments? CC Sabathia refused to lose down the stretch with the eventual World Series champion Yankees, Justin Verlander piled up the strikeouts, and Felix Hernandez had a royal ERA. And what about a couple of other guys acing it for playoff-bound teams, Boston's Josh Beckett and Los Angeles' Jered Weaver? Next to all that, what's a 16-game winner from a last-place team in the Midwest? Here's our take on all this: Wins are totally out of a pitcher's control. Without supporting offense early and relief late, he is toast. What do we mean? Giants right-hander Matt Cain -- for a random example -- twice got no-decisions despite hurling shutout ball. How can you do better than that? Five other times, he allowed one run and didn't win. Greinke also fired blanks twice without getting the win, and twice lost for allowing one run. Overall, in nine no-decision starts in which he averaged seven innings, he had an ERA of 2.35 -- in itself low enough to lead the league. The only thing over which a pitcher has full control is the number of baserunners he allows, his so-called WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched). WHIP it, WHIP it good (with thanks to Devo): Greinke was low-man in the AL at 1.07, which was almost 24 percent below the average for the DH league. But that's just a sample. The Greinke camp can crunch a whole bunch of impressive numbers out there, all of which add up to one compelling point: Could you make a convincing argument on behalf of any other AL pitcher without mentioning wins? Didn't think so. THE FAVORITES Greinke, Royals: The guy knows how to open and finish. His 0.84 ERA through 10 starts hadn't been done since Juan Marichal in 1966 -- when, incidentally, the Dominican Dandy did not get the Cy Young (Sandy Koufax did). But guess what? Greinke was even better at the other end, with an 0.75 ERA for his last eight outings entering the season's closing week. And don't worry about appearances: There is a surprising dose of precedence for the Cy Young Award going to someone on a losing team, even one in last place (Roger Clemens' 1997 Blue Jays and Brandon Webb's 2007 D-backs, for two recent examples). Sabathia, Yankees: As strong a candidate as is Greinke, Sabathia is no less worthy of his second Cy Young Award. Interestingly, he pretty much Xeroxed the ledger that earned him the first with Cleveland in 2007, when he had a 19-7 record and 3.21 ERA. He could suffer some backlash for the Yankees' power, financial and otherwise. But you can't ignore the fact he went 11-2 after the Bombers moved into first place in the AL East in mid-July. Felix Hernandez, Mariners: King Felix's closing kick was as persuasive, but he is seeded lower for the simple reason that the great-pitcher-on-mediocre-team vote will go to Greinke. But the two are performance peers. Hernandez allowed two runs or fewer in 23 of his 34 starts, including one in mid-September against the Yankees that earned him the vote (only figuratively) of none other than Sabathia: "I saw Felix up close the other day, and I was like, 'All right, this guy is unbelievable.' So right now, he has my vote." Verlander, Tigers: He shouldered the pitching burden for a Detroit team that otherwise stumbled at the finish line, and he has made an even more dramatic U-turn than Greinke, having suffered 17 losses only last season. But, as with Sabathia, having three more wins for a contender than Greinke has for an also-ran may not be enough to swing the vote. THE DARKHORSES Roy Halladay, Blue Jays: Became the "forgotten man" once the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline passed, but you can never totally count out the 2003 winner who also finished in the top five in the Cy vote each of the past three years. And he's still the league's premier workhorse, with nine complete games, four of them shutouts. Scott Feldman, Rangers: He's a "stuff" pitcher, which never resonates with voters. But his record is up there with everyone else's, and there are days he can dominate with control as much as the guys who light up the radar. Such as when his shutout of Tampa Bay prompted Joe Maddon to call it "the best pitching [we have] faced this season" -- one month after the Rays had been perfect-game victims of Mark Buehrle. The Field: Beckett, Red Sox; Weaver, Angels; Mariano Rivera, Yankees; Edwin Jackson, Tigers.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.