I want to talk for a moment about Joe Magrane.
Yes, I know you’re here to find out the rationale behind how I filled out my five-person 2018 NL Cy Young award ballot, and I can’t wait to talk about that.
First, Joe Magrane.
There were few things I loved more in the late 1980s than baseball. Exploring the creek behind my buddy’s house at the end of the neighborhood, maybe. Fishing, possibly.
But mostly, I loved baseball. I bought as many baseball cards as my allowance allowed and memorized the stats on the backs of the cards. I listened to games on the radio and watched when they were on TV. I combed through the box scores and league leader updates in the newspaper every dang day.
I was 12 years old during the summer of 1988, when Joe Magrane was a second-year starter for my hometown Cardinals. I watched with awe as the tall left-hander unfurled his body, with that big leg kick, and shifted his momentum toward home plate with an ease that made me wish I threw left-handed, too. He didn’t strike out a ton of guys, but nobody seemed to hit the ball very hard off him, either. That big-breaking curveball was a thing of beauty.
Joe Magrane (Getty Images)
Magrane put up stats that summer that didn’t seem to make sense to me. I believed the doctrine of the 20-game winner, a thought fostered by watching St. Louis starters Joaquin Andujar and John Tudor pass the milestone mark in the first years I understood what was going on and reinforced by the baseball books I devoured by the local library.
Magrane led the National League with a 2.18 ERA that season — a fact I verified when the 1989 Topps set came out and I checked to make sure that number was in italics — but he only won five games. Five. His record was 5-9. As I said, that didn’t make sense to me. The good pitchers won a lot of games. Magrane was a good pitcher, but Magrane was 5-9 in 1988.
Something was wrong. I started to doubt the power of the W. I started to understand that maybe the pitcher wasn’t the only person who factored into the outcome of the game, and maybe it was foolish to award such a declarative judgment — “WINNER!” or “LOSER!” — to one person.
I wish I’d known about Bill James, the pioneering baseball sabermetrician advertising his breakthrough work in the back pages of The Sporting News, but I didn’t. I knew what the newspaper — and my baseball cards — told me, and the rest I tried to figure out myself.
FLASHBACK: Bill James’ letters to TSN in the 1970s
So in a way, it’s personally satisfying that I had one of 30 ballots for this year’s NL Cy Young award, a reveal that many are hailing as a watershed moment in the fight to render a pitcher’s W-L record completely irrelevant.
I can look back at 12-year-old Ryan and say, “See, kid? You weren’t wrong.” Jacob deGrom was voted as the best pitcher in the entire league, and he only won 10 games.
As you probably guessed by now, deGrom received my first-place vote. The Mets right-hander was just brilliant in 2018, an artist at the peak of his ability. Even though three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer had arguably his best season, deGrom was still a relatively easy choice for the top spot on my ballot.
You know about his microscopic 1.70 ERA and his 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. In 22 of his 32 starts this year, deGrom allowed zero or one earned run. In 150 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, New York’s beacon of light allowed opponents to eke out just a .404 OPS. He finished with a 1.99 FIP — the only other pitcher since 2000 with a FIP below 2.00 is future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, who did it twice.
From start to finish, @JdeGrom19 left no doubt. #NLCyYoung pic.twitter.com/hMa7uYDYM6
— New York Mets (@Mets) November 15, 2018
Scherzer was an easy choice for the second spot on my ballot. Most other years, he would have earned the big nod. Seriously, look at what he did: 12.2 strikeouts per nine, reaching 300 for the first time in his career; a career-best 2.65 FIP and a brilliant 2.53 ERA; a strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.88) that’s nearly equal to his hits-per-nine ratio (6.1). Just outstanding.
Aaron Nola was third on my ballot and Patrick Corbin was fourth. The fifth spot came down to Kyle Freeland vs. Miles Mikolas, and Freeland got the nod.
Somehow, I resisted the urge to type “Magrane” into the fifth spot.