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Jackie MacMullan

Voters take us inside the ballot balks

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / November 14, 2007

Repeat after me: It's a regular-season award. A regular-season award. A regular-season award.

If the Cy Young voters considered playoff results, Red Sox ace Josh Beckett would have been a landslide winner. But the ballots are collected when the regular season is done, and Beckett was relegated to runner-up status yesterday behind C.C. Sabathia, the meaty Cleveland lefthander who coughed up two games against Boston and Beckett in the American League Championship Series, but who went 19-7, pitched a league-leading 241 innings, and struck out 209 batters en route to helping the Indians win 96 games.

After watching Sabathia implode twice in the postseason, you can't think of him as the top pitcher in the American League, but, without the benefit of playoff hindsight, he garnered 19 first-place votes and a total of 119 points. Beckett was second with 8 first-place votes and a total of 86 points.

Two writers - Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News and Jorge Ortiz of USA Today - left Beckett off their three-man ballot. Each of them voted Sabathia first, Cleveland teammate Fausto Carmona second, and Angels pitcher John Lackey third. One writer, Kevin Sherrington of the Dallas Morning News, left Sabathia off his ballot, voting Beckett first, Carmona second, and Minnesota's Johan Santana third.

The gap between Sabathia and Beckett was mildly surprising, but in speaking with some of the 28 voters, since the two pitchers' ERAs were so similar (3.27 for Beckett and 3.21 for Sabathia), there were two major factors that tipped the scales in the Cleveland ace's favor: innings pitched and quality starts.

Sabathia pitched 241 innings to Beckett's 200 2/3, and had 25 quality starts (at least six innings, three runs or fewer) to Beckett's 20. Both Carmona (26) and Lackey (24) had more quality starts than Beckett. In fact, 11 other AL pitchers did.

"I know there are people up there wanting to know why the guy in New York left Beckett off the ballot," said Feinsand. "The numbers that jumped out at me with Sabathia was his innings pitched, and the quality starts. He beat Santana three times in a year, and his ERA was actually a little lower than Beckett's."

You can be sure Red Sox Nation wants no part of this quality start nonsense. They know they watched the best pitcher in baseball this season. Beckett was the first 20-game winner in two years, reinventing himself after a tepid 2006 in which he went 16-11 with a 5.01 ERA, 74 walks, and 36 home runs surrendered. Beckett pared that to 40 walks and 17 home runs this season.

He was the indisputable stopper on a team that threatened to stumble to the finish line. Beckett was 4-1 with a 3.18 ERA in September. He pitched for a team that moved into first place on April 18 and stayed there for the remainder of the season.

In retrospect, the Sox' front-running status may have hurt their righthander. He did not have to submit a dramatic, one-game playoff win over the Yankees to squeeze his team into the postseason. He did not have to flummox Detroit in a pennant race, as Sabathia and Carmona did.

Feinsand and Ortiz both indicated that Boston's superior lineup swayed their thinking to a degree. Each felt the other three pitchers had less support from their clubs.

"When I looked at the Indians, I didn't believe they were as good as their record indicated, and the guys who should get the credit for their success are Sabathia and Carmona," Feinsand said. "Lackey accomplished what he did with very little run support. When you look at the Red Sox, they have much more talent up and down their lineup."

"I went over the numbers pretty closely," Ortiz explained, "and I just felt the other three guys were a little better. It was very, very close, but I just felt the other pitchers did a little more for their team.

"You look at the Red Sox, and they were a more complete team, with a stronger bullpen and better hitting. It was not an attempt on my part to minimize what Josh Beckett did.

"It was a real tough. This was the year I was hoping I'd vote in the National League instead."

The problem with releasing the Cy Young results after the World Series is apparent. The winners should be announced during the playoffs, as a reminder that it's a regular-season accomplishment.

Who can erase the memory of Sabathia sputtering in Game 1 of the ALCS, giving up seven runs before he got out of the fifth inning? In Game 5, with his team up, 3-1, in the series and on the verge of clinching, the big fella went six innings but gave up 4 runs on 10 hits and was on the wrong end of a 7-1 final. C.C.'s ALCS totals: 0-2 with a 10.45 ERA. Beckett's? 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA, 18 strikeouts, and 1 walk.

(Repeat after me: It's a regular-season award. A regular-season award. A regular-season award.)

Strange things happen in sports. You might recall that last season's MVP in the NBA was Dirk Nowitzki, who led Dallas to a sparkling 67-15 record by scoring 25 points a night and shooting 51 percent from the floor. But Dirk also contributed to Dallas's spectacular collapse in the opening round of the playoffs against the Golden State Warriors by shooting 38 percent and missing key shots. The league nearly had to put poor Dirk in the witness protection program after he was given his MVP trophy only days after his team had been humiliated and eliminated.

Maybe Sabathia is feeling just as sheepish about this award. Ask him which he'd rather have, and you better believe he'd trade Beckett the Cy Young for a World Series ring.

Feinsand said he expects some backlash from furious Boston fans but points out two other things: The four times he saw Beckett in person (all against the Yankees), he didn't pitch particularly well. And it wasn't as though he put Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang on the ballot instead.

Neither writer's omission of Beckett determined the outcome of the award. Boston's ace was second to Sabathia for reasons, quite frankly, that had merit.

Even if the reasons ring hollow now that Beckett is sporting World Series hardware.

"Look," Feinsand said. "I went to BU. I have a lot of friends in Boston. The last month of the season, one of my good friends up there tried to convince me to put Beckett on my ballot. I looked over the numbers carefully, and decided Sabathia, Carmona, and Lackey were more deserving.

"The ballot is supposed to be secret, but I told my friend I left Beckett off. So when the playoffs started and Beckett did what he did and Sabathia struggled, my friend called me up after every game and said, 'So how do you like your Cy Young candidate now?' "

Feinsand said he understands why the ballots are closed off when the regular season ends. He also made it clear he would have changed his vote had the postseason counted.

"If they gave me a Cy Young ballot on Nov. 1, I would have voted Josh Beckett first and left the other two spots blank, because nobody would have been close," he said.

"You feel a little foolish after what happened in the postseason," Ortiz agreed.

It's a regular-season award. A regular-season award. A regular-season award.

But it's still too bad the wrong guy won.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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