Do MLB Cy Young Winners Always Get off to Hot Starts?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterApril 16, 2013

In 2011, Clayton Kershaw started 2-3 with a 3.52 ERA and 1.25 WHIP—below par for a typical Cy Young winner's April.
In 2011, Clayton Kershaw started 2-3 with a 3.52 ERA and 1.25 WHIP—below par for a typical Cy Young winner's April.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Who's the hottest pitcher in the majors? There's Yu Darvish, the Texas Rangers right-hander who nearly threw a perfect game his first time out. Or maybe it's Atlanta Braves lefty Paul Maholm, who is 3-0 and has thrown 20.1 scoreless innings.

But we can't forget about Matt Harvey, the New York Mets righty who's the first pitcher since 1900 to win each of his first three starts while notching 25 strikeouts and allowing six or fewer hits, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Indeed, no pitcher in baseball is off to a hotter start right now—or maybe ever—than Harvey.

Each of those three hurlers has been Cy Young-worthy so far, but frankly, it seems way too early for any award discussion. Or is it?

Which brings us to the question: Do Cy Young winners always get off to hot starts?

When we explored whether Most Valuable Players always get off to hot starts, the answer was a resounding yes. But let's analyze the arms and see what we can find out.

First, let's refresh your memory with a list of the Cy Young winners since 2000:

*For the purposes of this research, we'll ignore Eric Gagne's 2003 because comparing starters to relievers is more or less futile. For the record, though, Gagne did pitch extremely well that April: In 14.1 innings, the Dodgers closer allowed no runs on six hits and three walks with 24 whiffs. Oh, and he tallied eight saves.

From 2000 through 2012, there were 25 individual Cy Young seasons by starting pitchers, and here are their average stats for the month of April:

That translates to a 3-1 record with a 2.85 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and a 37-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 37 innings in the season's first month.

Pretty nasty.

But what's interesting is that not all Cy Young winners are created equal when it comes to April performances.

Focusing on ERA and WHIP, 11 of the 25 individual seasons (or nearly half) actually have been worse than "Cy Young average"—again, a 2.85 ERA and 1.12 WHIP—in both stats through April:

Granted, neither stat provides a perfect measure of just how good—or in this case, ungood—a pitcher has been, but taken together, ERA and WHIP give us at least some indication.

What do you notice about the table above? How about the fact that in just about every season since 2000, at least one eventual Cy Young winner has had a so-so (or worse) first month? In fact, 10 of the past 12 seasons featured an award-winning arm who got off on the wrong foot.

But if that's the case—if a hot start isn't necessary—then how do these Cy Young winners manage to, well, win the Cy Young exactly?

By getting better as the season progresses, silly.

Let's shift gears to another statistic: OPS allowed (on base-plus-slugging percentage). You may recall our old metric friends, sOPS+ and tOPS+, from the MVP study. In short...

  • sOPS+ is a version of OPS that is weighted to league average, which is 100; for pitchers, an sOPS+ below 100 is better than league average (i.e., good)
  • tOPS+ is a version of OPS that is weighted to compare a pitcher's OPS allowed in a given period of time against his OPS allowed for the entirety of that same season; similarly, a tOPS+ below 100 means a pitcher's OPS allowed was better in that time frame than it was compared to the season as a whole.

If your eyes just glazed over, these tables will make it easier to digest. This one shows the April sOPS+ for each Cy Young winner over the past 13 seasons:

Basically, the boxes that are shaded green indicate that the pitcher's OPS allowed in April was better than league average, whereas any boxes shaded red indicate worse than league average. While only four eventual Cy Young winners posted a below-average OPS allowed in April, there also were a handful of others that were only slightly above-average (i.e., Johan Santana in 2004).

In other words, on the whole, these pitchers were very good compared to the league, but they weren't immune to slow starts.

By the way: What Cliff Lee did in April of 2008 (.361 OPS against), as well as what Pedro Martinez (.475) and Randy Johnson did in April of 2000 (.431), should be illegal.

This next table shows their tOPS+ in April:

Same story: Green is good (above-average), but red is bad (below-average). Except this time, we're comparing each pitcher's April OPS allowed to his OPS allowed for the full season in which he won the Cy Young.

You'll notice a lot more red. In fact, 16 of the 25 Aprils are crimson, meaning a majority of the Cy Young winners since 2000 actually were below-average—for them—as far as OPS allowed in the first month of their award-winning campaign.

What does this all mean? Well, for one thing, it proves that just because Yu Darvish, Paul Maholm and Matt Harvey are in line for crazy-good Aprils, it doesn't guarantee that some slower-starting ace isn't lying in wait to pitch his way to the 2013 Cy Young Award.

Because for starters, it's not always how you start.


All stats come from Baseball Reference.


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