Lost Legacies: Johnny Cueto Should Have Won The 2012 NL Cy Young Award

There are some award decisions you disagree with and others that simply leave you scratching your head and wondering if you just watched the same season as those that did the voting. The 2012 National League Cy Young Award is one of those for me. Johnny Cueto, then with the Cincinnati Reds, deserved to win it. Every time I revisit the numbers to see if I missed something, it seems more mysterious.

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New York Mets’ knuckleballer R.A. Dickey was given the award in a landslide, grabbing 27 of 30 first-place votes. Who did the other three go to? Not Cueto. They were split up between Clayton Kershaw and Gio Gonzalez, still with their present teams in Los Angeles and Washington. Based purely on historical reputation, particularly that of Kershaw, that doesn’t seem odd. Until you look at the actual results of their 2012 seasons. Here’s how the four starters did in the most important statistical categories…

Dickey (Mets): 20-6, 2.73 ERA, 233 IP
Kershaw (Dodgers): 14-9, 2.53 ERA, 227 IP
Gonzalez (Nationals): 21-8, 2.89 ERA, 199 IP
Cueto (Reds): 19-9, 2.78 ERA, 217 IP

The first thing that has to be pointed out is that Cueto pitched in—by far—the worst park for pitchers of any of the four, the home run haven that is Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. The second thing that has to be pointed out is that the other three—particularly Dickey and Kershaw—worked in parks that had absolute dream conditions for pitchers. And the third thing to point out is that Cueto’s Reds won the NL Central in 2012, while the Mets and Dodgers missed the playoffs.

Kershaw finishing second in this race still blows me away and I take it as proof of how thoroughly the media is in the tank for him. Yes, he won the ERA title. But it wasn’t a runaway with a sub-2.00 number that would have demanded attention. Frankly, it’s close enough that I’m more impressed with Cueto’s 2.78 ERA in a much tougher park.

And we haven’t even gotten to Johnny’s five extra wins–Yes, with due apologies to modern sabermetrics folks, I still like wins as a stat. I realize its flaws. And I also don’t think anything better has come along to measure how one pitches to the actual score of the game that they’re in. In the end, W-L record fits nicely with ERA and IP as the core stats to measure pitchers by. You’ve covered how well they do in specific game situations, how many runs they gave up and how long they work. I’m not sure why it has to be more complicated than that.

So let’s throw Kershaw out as a viable contender—something that would have been to any other pitcher with the same numbers and less of a reputation. Cueto decisively wins on ERA when we compare him to Gonzalez and Dickey. Johnny is better than Gio on the pure numbers and with Dickey, that’s a small difference in ERA with a big difference in park. Big edge to Cueto.

The big ERA edge is decisive when the innings pitched and the wins are all in the same neighborhood—unless, of course, you give extra credit for breaking the 20-win barrier.

I understand the logic of doing so—based purely on statistical analysis the value of the 20th win vis-a-vis the 19th is no different than any other win. But there are special benchmarks in baseball and I’m okay with honoring them—even in reading into them the special intangible ability it often takes to close out historical achievements. As long as we don’t get too carried away with it.

But the problem is that you have to give a lot of extra credit to negate what should be Cueto’s decisive edge on ERA, once we factor in home parks. And if we’re going to give extra credit for intangibles, than Johnny his own bonus points, as the ace of a staff that won a division. Gonzalez was as well, but the Reds’ rotation was much more top-heavy reliant on its ace than the Nationals. And perhaps more to the point, Gonzalez didn’t end up winning the award anyway. Dickey did and he didn’t sniff the postseason.

Cueto losing this award is no mere academic exercise. He’s putting together a career that will give him at least a shot at Cooperstown, but by no means will he be a slam dunk. Winning awards like this one could be a big factor in how that vote turns out. Let’s right a wrong and given Johnny Cueto the 2012 NL Cy Young Award.