It's difficult to argue too strenuously with either of this year's Cy Young Award choices - Rick Sutcliffe, whose 16-1 record for the Chicago Cubs speaks for itself, and Willie Hernandez, whose spectacular relief pitching played such a big role in the success of the Detroit Tigers. Yet the very selection of two such disparate types brings to the fore the key question of which is more valuable, the workhorse-type starter who wins 20 or so games and sets up several more victories, or the ace late reliever who repeatedly shuts down the opposition in the last inning or two. Or perhaps more to the point, does it make any sense to try to compare the two?
Meanwhile the whole pattern of Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player voting in recent years is starting to raise another thought: Perhaps in the midst of all of today's media hype about ''saves,'' ''holds,'' ''late men,'' ''middle-inning men,'' etc. it is time to start a campaign for the forgotten man on the modern pitching staff: the starter!
There's no question that relief pitchers failed to get their proper recognition for many years - even if they were never quite as completely overlooked as some people would have you believe. It's amusing to read nowadays , for instance, that no one paid any attention to relievers until people like Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage came along in the 1970s. After all, those of us whose memories go back a little further recall that people like Joe Page, Ryne Duren, Hugh Casey, and Joe Black - just to name a few - were widely recognized for their contributions to numerous New York Yankee and Brooklyn Dodger pennants in the 1960s, the '50s, and as far back as the '40s. Philadelphia's Jim Konstanty even won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award in 1950, the year of the famous pennant-winning ''Whiz Kids'' team. And other star relievers like Hoyt Wilhelm, Dick Radatz, and Elroy Face were getting plenty of publicity long before today's crop of firemen came along.
With these and some other exceptions, though, I would agree that, on the whole, relief pitchers probably didn't get full recognition until the last 15 years or so. But now the pendulum seems to have swung too far the other way. All you hear is how every contending team needs one or two star late relievers - and now in this year's World Series the San Diego Padres popularized the importance of the middle-inning men as well. And more and more, when it comes time to vote for the Cy Young Award, we see relief aces like Fingers (1981), Sparky Lyle (1978), Bruce Sutter (1979), and their colleagues either winning or coming close. This year, for instance, Sutter was third behind Sutcliffe and the New York Mets' sensational rookie Dwight Gooden in the National League balloting , with Gossage coming in fifth, while Hernandez and Kansas City reliever Dan Quisenberry finished 1-2 in the American League.
No one denies the contributions of these people. Hernandez, in fact, was quite possibly the right choice in the American League this year. His phenomenal record of 32 saves in 33 opportunities coupled with a 9-3 record and a 1.92 earned run average are difficult to deny. You can also make very strong cases for Quisenbery, who contributed to 50 Royal victories with 6 wins and 44 saves, and in the National League for Sutter, who had 5 wins and 45 saves for the St. Louis Cardinals while compiling an eyecatching 1.54 ERA.
With all the hype about relievers these days, however, the ''experts'' seem to have forgotten that the guy who goes out there every fourth or fifth day and holds the opposition for seven or eight innings is making a pretty big contribution to the victory too. A case can be made, in fact, that his part is really the more important of the two.
All it takes is a bit of math to tell you that if a man pitches 250 or 300 innings, gets credit for 18 or 20 wins, and keeps his team in the game until the late innings several other times, his contribution is likely to exceed that of a teammate who only totals about one-third as much time on the mound.Of course the manager can pick his spots for the reliever, which evens things out a bit, but it's still hard to deny the overall contribution of the man who pitches so much more over the course of the season.
Was Sutter, for instance, more valuable than his teammate Joaquin Andujar, who was the NL's only 20-game winner and led or was second in the league in innings pitched, shutouts, and complete games? And what about Baltimore's Mike Boddicker, who was the AL's lone 20-game winner but wound up only third in the voting? All of which brings us back to the original problem: that you can't really compare the two types of pitcher. The voters have to try, though, and obviously whichever way they go they are going to make somebody unhappy.
One other unfortunate aspect this year was an apparent tendency to give greater weight to the performances of pitchers on winning teams. Thus Bert Blyleven's 19-7 record for the next-to-last-place Cleveland Indians earned him only a distant third place in the American League voting. And Mario Soto, who was 18-7 for the equally lowly Cincinnati Reds and led the National League in complete games, came in only sixth.
Clearly, a pitcher's performance - not the strength of his team - should be the criterion. It's bad enough that this same controversy arises annually in the MVP voting, where one school of thought holds that performance alone is the key while another contends that a player can only be ''most valuable'' if his team wins or comes close. One can only hope that a similar split isn't beginning to develop among the Cy Young Award voters as well.