It is easier to determine who is best than who is most valuable. Greinke won this award despite the fact that the Royals finished 65-97, tied for fourth place in the AL Central and the second-fewest wins in the American League.
Take a position player from the same team with glowing statistics, and at least a portion of the MVP electorate would have said: "He can't be the Most Valuable Player because his team lost 97 games. Nobody can be all that valuable on a team with that kind of record."
But in the case of the Cy Young Award, the issue is significantly more straightforward. Zack Greinke was the best pitcher in the American League in 2009, no matter where the Royals finished.
The members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who vote on this award have the ability, and the obligation, to look beyond victories and defeats to find the true measure of a pitcher's worth. This is precisely what happened in this year's voting.
Greinke finished 16-8 for the Royals. There were six AL pitchers with more victories -- Felix Hernandez of the Mariners, CC Sabathia of the Yankees, Justin Verlander of the Tigers, Josh Beckett of the Red Sox, Scott Feldman of the Rangers and Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays.
But Greinke's victory total was limited not by his own ability and performance, but by the Royals' shortcomings in run production. In the 17 starts in which he received a loss or a no-decision, the Royals scored only 2.2 runs per game for him. In his eight losses, they averaged only 1.9 runs per game.
But in the objective measurements, Greinke was dominant. His 2.16 ERA was not approached by any other AL starting pitcher. Hernandez was second at 2.49 and Halladay, at 2.79, was third, but no other starter was under 3.00.
AL Cy Young Award Voting
|Zack Greinke, KC||25||3||134|
|Felix Hernandez, SEA||2||23||1||80|
|Justin Verlander, DET||1||9||14|
|CC Sabathia, NYY||2||7||13|
|Roy Halladay, TOR||11||11|
Greinke's 242 strikeouts were second to Verlander's 269, but Verlander had an ERA of 3.45. Greinke was the leader in fewest home runs given up with 11, Hernandez being second with 2.15.
Greinke was also the leader in the increasingly utilized walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) at 1.07. The statistics go on, but the point is made clear:
Zack Greinke's numbers were superior by any reasonable standard. Placed on a better team this same performance would have allowed him to become a 20-game winner. But in the balloting for the AL Cy Young Award, he didn't have to be a 20-game winner to win.
Based on these criteria, the voting was what could be expected and what could be considered fair. Greinke finished with 25 of 28 first-place votes. Hernandez had two first-place votes and finished second. (He also had 23 second-place votes, meaning that the majority of the voters had this race figured out exactly the same way.) Verlander got the one remaining first-place vote and finished third. Sabathia was fourth and Halladay was fifth.
The back story on Greinke is intriguing. He was 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA in 2005. He overcame a social anxiety disorder that took him out of the game for two months in '06. He did not begin to come into focus as a highly effective Major League starter until '08.
Maybe he was rushed to the Majors, but at age 26, he has become a rare blend of power and precision on the mound. He added a changeup to a mid-90s fastball and a sharp slider and was nothing less than a dominant pitcher during the 2009 season.
He was the best pitcher in the American League. His performance gave him that status. The Cy Young Award was not required for validation. But the award is fitting because it provides evidence that there was agreement among observers of the game that Greinke had reached the pitching summit.
And this award, framed around the issue of who is best rather than who is most valuable, allows a pitcher to labor on behalf of a team that lost 97 games, and still gain richly deserved recognition for his work. This is as it should be, as Greinke's 2009 performance clearly demonstrates.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.