Thursday, April 30, 2009

Award Context: Frank Viola's 1988 Cy Young

When the Twins drafted left-handed pitcher Frank Viola in the second round in 1981, they passed on a handful of future stars in Tony Gwynn, Sid Fernandez and David Cone.  Viola may owe his draft slot to the proliferation of cable television.  In May of 1981, Viola's college career at St. John's University was punctuated by an epic 12-inning battle against the Yale Bulldogs in which Yale's Ron Darling carried a no-hitter to the 11th inning but eventually lost in the 12th.  The game was televised on a then-fledgling cable network known as ESPN which broadcasted Viola out-dueling Darling, who was rated as the nation's top collegiate pitcher. 
By signing with the Twins, Viola ensured himself a rapid rise to the big leagues.  The Minnesota Twins were in the midst of one of the largest purging cycles in their franchise history and owner Calvin Griffith had traded or declined to re-sign marquee players (such as Rod Carew and Larry Hisle) drawing the ire of the local fan base and averaging less then 10,000 in attendance at Metropolitan Stadium.  Griffith, for all of his notorious penny-pinching ways, had an explanation for his spending habits.   ''Money isn't the answer for ballplayers,'' Griffith told reporters, ''You need competition, incentive, instead of giving them all that money for doing this and doing that. Buying things only hurts them.''
After being drafted in June of 1981, Viola was in Minnesota by June 1982.  From then through 1986, Viola would go 63-64 with a 4.38 ERA, striking out 5.7 batters per nine innings.  In 1987, the 27-year-old lefty turned a corner.  He and the veteran Bert Blyleven headlined a rotation that was filled out with also-rans in Les Straker, Mike Smithson and Joe Niekro, finishing the year with a 17-10 record in 36 starts, throwing 251 2/3 innings, striking out 197 while walking 66.   Outside of his career-best 2.90 ERA, which was second in the American League only to Toronto's Jimmy Key who possessed a 2.75 ERA, his numbers were underwhelming.  Boston's Roger Clemens would runaway with Cy Young that year but Viola's performance in the post-season, particularly the World Series against the heavily-favored Cardinals (2-1, 3.72 ERA, 16/4 K/BB), would earn him the Series MVP honors and would gain the reputation of an elite pitcher. 
Expectations were high coming off their first World Series victory in team history and the Twins signed Viola to a two-year, $2.9 million contract, hoping he would build upon his 1987 numbers.  For the most part, Viola continued to produce where the previous season left off.  After losing his first start of the year, Viola would go 9-0 with a 2.20 ERA in the next twelve on his way to a 24-7 record.  As opposed to the prior season in which Viola received less then league average offensive support (4.38 R/G), the Twins lineup provided him with a healthy dose of scoring (5.46 R/G) and as such Viola's win total would increase from 17 to 24.  The Twins would slink away from contention in the AL West, falling behind the division-leading Oakland A's by 11 games in early June only to come within three games in July before falling back to second place with a double-digit deficit to overcome and remaining there for the conclusion of the season. 
Viola's Major League-leading win total (24) and AL-leading winning percentage (.774) would help elect him the 1988 Cy Young Award winner but in terms of sheer dominance he was far from the most qualified candidate.  To be sure, wins are a tough sell to the sabermetric community, like trying convince a gearhead that a car's performance correlates with the size of the tail-fins.  Aside from victories, Viola was not the leader in the most significant pitching categories, and in some instances, he failed to crack the top ten list:
  • Viola finished 3rd in ERA (2.64) behind teammate Allan Anderson (2.44) and the Brewers' Teddy Higuera (2.45).
  • He was 5th in WHIP (1.13) once again behind Higuera (0.99) and Clemens (1.06).
  • He was 8th in K/9 (6.8) well behind Clemens (9.9).    
  • Viola was 3rd in strikeouts (193) far behind Clemens (291).
  • He did not finish in the top ten for complete games, led by Clemens and Oakland's Dave Stewart (14).
  • He did not finish in the top ten of Hits/9 (8.3) while Clemens finished 6th (7.39) and Higuera finished 2nd (6.65).
  • Viola was tied for 8th in shutouts (2), again well behind Clemens (8). 
  • He was 3rd in K/BB (3.57) but a far cry from Clemens's totals (4.69).


An argument could be made that Viola was not the best pitcher in the American League in 1988.  Roger Clemens demonstrated that he was the more dominating of the two, finishing ahead of him in everything but victories and ERA (two statistics that have less to do with the pitcher then it does with the team surrounding him).  In addition to that, Clemens maintained an opponent OPS of .590 versus Viola's .642.  Viola's reign at the top of the American League would also be short-lived.  He would start the 1989 season 8-12 with a 3.79 ERA and would be sent at the trade deadline to the New York Mets for Rick Aguilera, David West, Tim Drummond, Jack Savage and Kevin Tapani

Speaking of left-handed Twins pitchers, Seth Stohs will be hosting a podcast that will have Glen Perkins as a guest tonight.  Go to tonight at 10 PM for the live chat.