Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #40, Frank Viola:
Pitching for the Pirates in 1990, Doug Drabek went 22-6 with a 2.76 ERA; he won the NL Cy Young award by an overwhelming margin, taking 23 of the 24 first place votes. The Dodgers’ Ramon Martinez (20-6, 2.92 ERA) took the other first place vote and finished second, while the Mets’ Frank Viola (20-12, 2.67 ERA) took third.
This particular Cy Young voting is a good indicator for how much baseball analysis has changed over the past 21 years, after the mainstreaming of Bill James, Baseball Prospectus’ annual becoming a best seller, computers, the Internet, Moneyball (the book!), Moneyball (the movie!), and Moneyball (the flamethrower!). Had the voting for the 1990 award taken place this year, after all that stuff, Frank Viola probably would win. In a deep field without many obvious standouts, Viola led the league in innings pitched by a decent margin, made the most starts, had the fourth best ERA, the fourth most strikeouts, and a damn fine mustache.
With retrospective saber-goggles on, it seems clear that Drabek — who nonetheless did have a very good year — won the Cy Young simply because he had two more wins than both Martinez or Viola, and six fewer losses than Viola. Most of that difference came in September, when Drabek went 5-1 as his Pirates fended off the Viola, who went 3-4 down the stretch, and the Mets in the NL East race. In fact, the top four vote-getters (Drabek, Martinez, Viola, and Dwight Gooden) were also the top four in wins, in that exact same order. Compare that to this season’s AL voting, when Felix Hernandez finished first with 13 wins, or the 2009 voting when Tim Lincecum won the NL award with 15 wins and Zach Greinke won the AL version with 16.
However, Drabek’s win-loss record is not so much a reflection of his skill as a pitcher as it is of his offense’s ability to score runs when he was on the mound. Drabek received 5.6 runs per game in support, while Martinez saw 5.1 runs and Viola just 4.5. Looking again at just September, Viola actually had a better ERA than Drabek, 2.45 to 2.74; the difference was again run support. The Mets averaged 4.2 runs in Viola’s September starts (3.1 runs if we exclude a lone 10 run outburst), while the Pirates scored 4.7 runs in Drabek’s. Had Viola received the same level of run support Drabek did, Viola probably winds up with 24 wins and takes the Cy Young easily.
Knowing this, let’s take another look at Frank Viola’s merits as the best pitcher in the 1990 NL against the other candidates. We can use Baseball-Reference’s wins above replacement to identify the Cy Young candidates, and we wind up with these ten names:
- Ed Whitson, SDP, 14-9, 2.60 ERA
- Frank Viola, NYM, 20-12, 2.67 ERA
- Jose Rijos, CIN, 14-8, 2.70 ERA
- Danny Darwin, HOU, 11-4, 2.21 ERA
- Bruce Hurst, SDP, 11-9, 3.14 ERA
- Dennis Martinez, MON, 10-11, 2.95 ERA
- Mark Harkley, CHC, 12-6, 2.36 ERA
- Zane Smith, MON/PIT, 12-9, 2.55 ERA
- Oil Can Boyd, MON, 10-6, 2.93 ERA
- Doug Drabek, PIT, 22-6, 2.76 ERA
When I was a little kid, someone – I don’t remember who or why – gave me a couple hundred baseball cards from the late 80s, mostly gray and white striped Fleer cards. I think it’s the Billy Ripken “F—face” set, though I don’t have that card. Being a free giveaway, most of the good player’s cards (i.e. the valuable ones) were removed. So this is to say that I think I have all these pitchers’ cards somewhere, because I doubt any of them made the cut as a valuable card. The 1990 field for the Cy Young is a really random group of very good but not great pitchers. Ramon Martinez (20-6, 2.92 ERA) and Dwight Gooden (19-7, 3.83 ERA) don’t crack the top ten in B-R WAR, but because they finished second and fourth in the voting, we’ll look at them anyway. This gives us twelve total candidates.
In the 1990 NL, the league average ERA was 3.79. We can make our first cut — which is always the deepest — by seeing how many runs better than average each pitcher was, considering their ERA and number of innings pitched. That gives us this list, in order:
- Viola – 31 runs
- Whitson – 30 runs
- Smith – 30 runs
- Darwin – 29 runs
- Drabek – 27 runs
- Rijos – 24 runs
- R. Martinez – 23 runs
- D. Martinez – 21 runs
- Hurst – 16 runs
- Boyd – 16 runs
- Harkley – 10 runs
- Gooden – (-1) runs
Gooden’s ERA was actually higher than the league average ERA. Dropping everyone who saved their team less than 25 runs, we are left with Whitson, Viola, Darwin, Smith, and Drabek as serious candidates. If we change it from runs better than an average pitcher’s ERA (3.79) to runs better than a Triple-A pitcher’s ERA (5.33), the sort of pitcher that would replace them, the list looks like this:
- Viola – 74 runs
- Whitson – 69 runs
- Smith – 67 runs
- Drabek – 66 runs
- Darwin – 56 runs
This gives us some bigger separation. At this point, we can probably make a finch beak joke and drop Darwin from the list.
Okay. Four pitchers left. We haven’t considered ballpark effects or defensive support yet, so let’s do that. Adjusting for the home ballpark of each pitcher, the list doesn’t change much:
- Viola – 73 runs
- Whitson – 70 runs
- Smith – 65 runs
- Drabek – 64 runs
Smith and Drabek pitched in pitcher-friendly parks, while Jack Murphy and Shea were mostly neutral parks in the early ’90s. Still, Smith and Drabek have fallen far enough behind that we can drop them from contention, leaving it a two man race between Viola and Whitson.
Now defense. By most measurements, neither Viola nor Whitson received much support from their fielders. In a twelve team NL, Mets and Padres finished 10th and 11th in fielding percentage. The Mets were 10th in defensive efficiency (and last in park-adjusted defensive efficiency), while the Padres were 8th in defensive efficiency (and 10th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency); the Mets are 8th in Total Zone runs saved, the Padres 10th. We’ll call this a wash and leave everything alone.
It’s still close between Viola and Whitson – the difference is still just a bit over three runs – but I think we can give the edge to Viola for a few other reasons. Comparing their strikeout totals, 182 for Viola against 127 for Whitson, points further towards Sweet Music. FIP tells a similar story, 2.88 for Viola and 3.07 for Whitson. Lastly, by Baseball Prospectus’ count, given the same offense and bullpen support, Viola’s team could have been expected to win 22 of his 35 starts, while Whitson’s team could expect to win 19 of his 32 starts. I think it’s all pointing towards Viola — besides the fact that he had a slightly better year by all that, he pitched on a good team and won 20 games, so he would also carry the cranky old sportswriter vote and win the award.
Again, it’s close, and no one stands head and shoulders above the rest. But there is a strong case to be made that Frank Viola was the best pitcher in the National League in 1990.