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El Grande Duque
2004-08-14 01:20
by Mike Carminati

If you've got them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow.

—The Duke, John Wayne "Gomes"

Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young

—Duke Ellington on being passed up for the 1965 Pulitzer Prize

Right now Mark Mulder has the inside track to the AL Cy Young award with two more wins than anyone else in the league and a projected win total of 21. His 3.49 ERA is not in and of itself an overwhelming figure but does rank fourth in the league. He is also on a division leader so he should have his fair share of win opportunities. Hey, I'm glad since I picked him to win the award and given my other predictions (the Royals winning the AL Central) and I need to get one right.

But let's say the wheels come off Mulder's season or he pulls a Junior Griffey, the what? Well, then the field's pretty open. It looks unlikely that anyone else will win 20, a sure vote-getter. And the pitchers with low ERAs don't have the wins. The winner would probably be determined by who of a group of pitchers excels down the stretch. That group is Tim Hudson, Johan Santana, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Ryan Drese, Jake Westbrook, and Javier Vazquez. Then again Mariano Rivera projects to 55 saves and has registered a 1.55, so maybe the voters would ignore recent history and give the award to a closer.

However, I'd like to suggest something that seems, and may even be, completely nuts.

Could El Duque Win the Cy Young?

Orlando Hernandez wasn't even on a major-league roster at the start of spring training camp. He was signed by the Yankees on March 10 after sitting out all of last year with a rotator cuff injury.

Hernandez didn't make his first start this season until the game before the All-Star game. In the past month, El Duque has gone 5-0 in seven starts with a 2.08 ERA. He is striking out 10.85 men per nine innings, has a 1.26 WHIP, and opponents are batting .226 against him with a .659 OPS.

The Yankees have 48 games left, meaning that he will probably get 8 or 9 more starts. Let's say that Hernandez can continue to pitch as well as he has and wins all of those starts. That would give him, say, a 14-0 record and an ERA that is over a run better than anyone else in the league (if he qualifies for the title). If Mulder stumbles, those numbers could look hard to pass up.

I wondered if anyone ever had that kind of success without pitching an entire season. I searched for all pitchers who pitched in and started between 10 and twenty games, won at least 10, threw at least 88 innings (Hernandez's projected total if he pitches 9 more games), and had an ERA under 3.00. Here's what I got:

Cherokee Fisher1872101110.319112.531.63
Ren Deagle1883108148.018182.312.92
Charlie Hodnett1884122121.014142.013.05
Henry Boyle1884153150.019161.745.28
John Clarkson1884103118.014132.147.78
Perry Werden1884121141.316161.973.25
Tip O'Neill1884114141.017142.682.30
Cyclone Miller1886108169.719192.975.25
Al Maul1895105135.716162.452.26
Sadie McMahon1895104122.315152.942.72
Ed Poole1902124146.017162.103.51
Charlie Case1904105141.018172.943.13
Monte Pearson1933105135.319162.333.59
Schoolboy Rowe1946114136.017162.123.38
Luis Tiant1964104127.019162.837.44
Jim Nash1966121127.018172.066.94
Jim Kaat1972102113.315152.065.08
Steve Rogers1973105134.017171.544.30
Bart Johnson1974104121.718182.745.62
J.R. Richard1980104113.717171.909.42
John Candelaria198610291.716162.557.95
Cal Eldred1992112100.314141.795.56
Marvin Freeman1994102112.719182.805.35

If you add in the criterion of striking out a at least a man an inning, then the list is reduced to just J.R. Richard in 1980. If you remember, that year Richard suffered a stroke on the mound at the age of 30 and never pitched in the majors again.

So on one hand one would say that Hernandez is having quite a unique season. But on the other hand, Hernandez's streak looks very much like a fluke. He is 34 and hadn't pitched for a year and a half. He is averaging just 5.5 innings per start (though he did throw 7 and 8 innings in his last two starts). If Hernandez keeps up that average and starts just nine more games, he would amass no more than 100 innings and would fall well short of qualifying for the ERA title even if he does keep up his "lead". Besides, he has never come close to a 2.08 ERA or striking out one man per inning. His career best ERA was 3.13 and is best strikeouts-per-nine-innings was 8.36 and both those stats came in 1998.

So maybe I am nuts but the thought that someone who pitched half a season plus one game could win the Cy Young is a compelling one. Although the Yankees would be happy if Hernandez remains a viable option as a postseason starter.

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