Welch’s 27 wins and fairly comfortable 1990 Cy Young award, despite him quite possibly not being the best pitcher on his team, gave rise to one of the cause célèbres of sabermetrics.
If you look at Welch’s 1990 game log, you see two starts in which he did not pitch at least 5 innings. He lost both of those games. He pitched 7+ innings in 23 of his 35 starts. He allowed 7 runs, all earned, in 2 innings in a Metrodome game on July 28 (on 3 days rest). In ’90, Welch had a 2.95 ERA, allowing 78 earned runs in 238 innings (12 of the 90 runs he allowed were unearned). Throwing out that late July game in Minneapolis, his season total was 71 earned runs allowed in 236 innings, for a 2.71 ERA.
Welch was 27-6 in 35 starts. He threw shutouts in both of his complete games. He allowed more than 4 runs in 5 different games, lost 4 of those games, and got a no-decision in the fifth game. Welch had 2 games in which he was a hard-luck no-winner: he allowed 2 runs in 2 different games in April, getting a loss and a no-decision in the 2 games. My guess is that Welch “deserved” about a 21-10 season in 1990, but he was playing for the league’s best team, with a fine bullpen and a great closer having a great year.
Compare him to Dave Stewart, who went 22-11 in 1990, with a 2.56 ERA. Stew was much more erratic. He allowed 5+ runs in 6 different starts, but allowed 0 earned runs in 9 different starts. He also was more of a workhorse, pitching 267 innings, with 11 complete games; and, went into extra innings 3 times.
In 1990 Roger Clemens, who seems to be the consensus sabermetric A.L. pitcher of the year, had a 1.93 ERA in 228 1/3rd innngs, allowing 49 earned runs (10 of the 59 runs he allowed were unearned), with 4 shutouts, and 7 complete games. He went 21-6 in 31 starts. Clemens’ worst start was allowing 6 earned runs in 6 innings
But, Clemens’ 4 shutouts came after the All-Star break, and he missed most of September, not contributing while the Red Sox were in a tight race with Blue Jays for the A.L. East (Boston won 88 games in 1990, beating out Toronto by 2 games). By late July, Welch was already 15-3, had had a sub-2 ERA deep into May, and won 9 straight starts in May and June. He’d established himself quite solidly as the pitching story of the year well before Clemens made his 2nd half push. Meanwhile, the A’s were steamrolling to a 103-win season, clearly the best team in MLB, and seemingly poised to become one of the top few dynasties of the post 1936-1964 Yankees time frame.
In 1990, if you covered baseball and considered the Cy Young to be the pitchers’ equivalent of the MVP, Welch was not a hard choice on your ballot. Remember that in 1990 most people had very little access to computer-based coverage of baseball, and sabermetrics was at best a sidelight. Imagine that you were a reporter, columnist, or TV talking head somewhere in the two eastern time zones. You didn’t see the A’s often, either in person or on TV, but you knew they were really good, and most mornings, looking through the newspaper or watching ESPN, you saw that they’d won yet another game late last night. Almost every time Welch made a start he won, and put up a solid line score to show that he deserved the win. The few times you watched him pitch, it was the same story. At the end of the year, looking down the stat lines, you saw Welch had put up the most wins since 1968, pretty much had the numbers to back up the 27 wins, had a great backstory (alcoholism, his duel with Reggie Jackson in the 1978 World Series, a decade as a fine Dodgers pitcher, a turbulent 1989 in which he became a father, lost his mother, and had his new home in the Marina district of San Francisco damaged in the Loma Prieta quake), and, for the 1990 season anyway, seemed to be the best pitcher on a surging dynasty. Did you have enough good reasons to go against all that and vote for Clemens or Stewart instead of Welch?
Welch got 107 points on the Cy Young ballot, to Clemens’ 77 and Stewart’s 43 (Dennis Eckersley got just 2 points, compared to Bobby Thigpen’s 20).