Crown Felix Hernandez with a Cy Young
Last year was a test. This is the real referendum.
Now we get to see if the Baseball Writers Association of America wants to declare its relevancy. There is a battle going on for the American League Cy Young that, in reality, is baseball's version of the Battle of Thermopylae. Felix Hernandez(notes) is Xerxes. CC Sabathia(notes) is Leonidas. This should be a slaughter, Hernandez so desperately outclassing Sabathia and the rest of the pitchers in the league.
Except that it won't be, not even after the BBWAA got things right last year and gave the award to Zack Greinke(notes), whose 16 victories ranked seventh in the AL. King Felix has been the best pitcher in the league by every demonstrable measure except wins. He has 11 – and 11 losses, too, for the woeful Seattle Mariners. It is an unsightly figure, and it is every bit as misleading as a November political ad.
Whether the BBWAA voters award a pitcher who could conceivably finish under .500 with the recognition as best in his league is suspect at best. Could enough voters be as enlightened as Joe Posnanski? To usher fans into this new era, where we recognize that wins are often a function of team success and dozens of other numbers better illustrate a pitcher's individual contributions, the writers must set an example the public can embrace.
Giving Hernandez the AL Cy Young would prompt plenty of questions – ones that voters could answer in a logical, intelligent and educated fashion. The scions of sabermetrics have done a wonderful job of giving the world a new way to look at baseball. They haven't had the conduit to spread the gospel. And this is the best opportunity yet.
For transparency's sake: I am a seven-year member of the BBWAA, I do not have an AL Cy Young vote this year, and if I did, it would take a disastrous final three weeks of the season for …
1. Felix Hernandez not to earn my vote. I had a Cy Young ballot last year and voted him second. He was quite remarkable then, too. In fact, it doesn't take his dominance in advanced metrics – he's at or near the top in WAR, RE24, FIP, xFIP and an alphabet soup of others – to make Hernandez's case. Look at these statistics.
Pitcher A: 2.49 ERA, 7.5 hits per nine, 2.7 walks per nine, 8.2 strikeouts per nine, 7.02 innings per start.
Pitcher B: 2.39 ERA, 7.3 hits per nine, 2.5 walks per nine, 8.5 strikeouts per nine, 7.28 innings per start.
Pitcher A is Felix '09. Pitcher B is Felix '10. Felix '09 went 19-5. Felix '10 is 11-11. Felix '09 was tremendous and Felix '10 is slightly improved in every category. Felix '10 …
2. May lose the Cy Young to CC Sabathia. Let's do another comparison.
Pitcher A: 3.14 ERA, 8.1 hits per nine, 2.8 walks per nine, 7.3 strikeouts per nine, 6.97 innings per start.
Pitcher B: 2.16 ERA, 7.7 hits per nine, 2.0 walks per nine, 9.5 strikeouts per nine, 6.95 innings per start.
Pitcher A is Sabathia '10. Pitcher B is Greinke '09. In other words, it took a remarkable season to beat Felix '09 for the Cy Young, and it should take a remarkable season to beat Felix '10 for it. Greinke '09 was remarkable. Sabathia '10 is not.
He is excellent, and this is in no way meant to impugn Sabathia's excellence. He has carried the Yankees' rotation amid its chaos and eaten innings as if they were pastrami from Katz's. He is a gritty workhorse, a wonderful teammate, a great pitcher. He just ain't the Cy Young winner, nor is …
3. The man he'll face Monday in Game 1 of the week's best series, Tampa Bay's David Price(notes). He's one of a number of AL pitchers getting mention as a Cy Young candidate, perhaps as an intermediary between Hernandez's peripheral awesomeness and Sabathia's victory-and-leadership-induced excitement.
Price's 17-6 record stands up well to Sabathia's 19-6 mark. His 2.87 ERA is better than Sabathia's, even when adjusted for park factors. He does lag three starts and 30 innings behind Sabathia, and that will likely torpedo his candidacy, though it …
4. Has a better chance of sticking than that of Francisco Liriano(notes), the Twins' starter who should, at very least, be satisfied with Comeback Player of the Year. Liriano is likewise a victim of Stunted Victory Syndrome, his record just 13-7 despite playing alongside one of the best offenses in baseball.
Liriano is a favorite of sabermetricians, and his case helps illustrate one of the issues preventing advanced metrics from reaching a larger audience: They can't seem to agree on anything.
One of the newest metrics is called Wins Above Replacement, and WAR is a great tool for comparing players against their modern peers and across generations. It is also awfully problematic when there is a war over WAR. FanGraphs, the leading clearinghouse for advanced statistics, says Liriano ranks second in the AL with 6.1 WAR. Baseball-Reference.com, the historical stat central, has Liriano third in the AL with 4.7 WAR. On FanGraphs, Cliff Lee leads with 6.3. Baseball-Reference gives Lee 4.0 WAR.
When the disparity is that great, it's impossible for the average fan to embrace the statistic, no matter how sound the concept behind WAR and how precise the math. Finding a unified formula, however, will be almost impossible. The mathematical community is extremely proprietary, each person convinced his or her formula is the best – just look at the BCS rankings in college football – and nearly always unwilling to bow.
So, in the meantime, Liriano can dream about the Cy Young another year and just hope …
5. Trevor Cahill(notes) doesn't steal that Comeback Player of the Year award. Mind you, Cahill was coming back from a subpar rookie season, so it's not as if he had achieved greatness before this year.
And yet here he is, the most difficult pitcher to get a hit off in the AL this year, giving up only 6.6 hits per nine. Of course, hitability, if we can call it that, is a debate itself. A mini-guerre du Twitter erupted between ESPN's Buster Olney and Keith Law on Cahill's candidacy. Law argued that Cahill's incredible luck – batters' .222 average on balls in play against him is around 80 points below MLB average – had more to do with Cahill's success than anything. Olney argued that what happened happened, and there's no sense in qualifying it with luck or anything else.
While Cahill may get a couple stray second- or third-place votes, the ability to compare his hits per nine …
6. With that of C.J. Wilson(notes) outside the traditional vacuum at least allows the public to make more informed decisions. Wilson is allowing seven hits per nine, second best in the AL. Hitters' BABIP against him is .270, still well below league average but more than 40 points higher than Cahill's.
Some advanced metrics, like FIP and xFIP, both of which gauge pitching acumen without taking into account the team's fielders, prefer Wilson. And then there are others, like RE24 and WPA – at this point, rather than explain, I'll simply direct you to Alex Remington's Sabermetrics for Dummies series – that like Cahill.
The down-and-dirty truth: both are excellent, neither beats Felix, nor, for that matter …
7. Jon Lester(notes), who is the fifth left-hander on this list. It's incredible how stacked the AL is with lefties. Only one of the NL's top 13 pitchers in FanGraphs WAR is left-handed. At Baseball-Reference, it's just three of 13. In addition to Sabathia, Price, Liriano, Wilson and Lester are John Danks(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Ricky Romero(notes) and Gio Gonzalez(notes), among others.
Lester is turning in another typical season: quiet, efficient, dominant. His propensity to stumble at the beginning of the season takes him out of Cy Young talk almost every year, but there he is, in September, among the league leaders in ERA, strikeouts and, no matter the measure, WAR.
The best part for Boston: Lester is only 25 and is locked in for $25 million over the next three seasons, with a $13 million option for 2014. It's a contract that might serve as a good starting point for when …
8. Clay Buchholz(notes) plans to begin negotiations on a long-term extension this offseason, a source close to him said. Any chance Buchholz had at challenging Hernandez and Sabathia for the Cy Young died Friday, when Oakland battered him for five runs in one inning and sent his ERA from a league-leading 2.25 to a behind-Felix 2.53.
Still, for a pitcher who hadn't thrown more than 92 innings in a major league season, it was a coming out long in the making. Buchholz introduced himself three years ago with a no-hitter in his second start, and over the next two seasons he was eminently hittable. Buchholz makes up for his lack of strikeouts with a high groundball rate – and, yes, a .270 BABIP, which is likely a product of luck but could be helped by a harder-than-ever fastball and …
9. A cutter, which everyone in the baseball world has tried at least once since Mariano Rivera(notes) perfected it more than a decade ago. Rivera gets plenty of 10 Degrees love, so this is coming from a good place, but a kind request to voters: Don't fall into the Mo trap with your Cy Young ballot, even if it has been expanded from three slots to five.
Rivera is having a great year, yes, and the Yankees probably wouldn't be in first place without him. Relievers should not win the Cy Young, though. Never. Ever. Rivera will finish the season with less than a quarter of the innings Hernandez pitched. Buchholz will throw nearly three times as many innings as Rivera.
And even though his 53 innings this season have been among the 53 best of his career – 32 hits, 11 walks, 43 strikeouts and, most remarkable, only one home run, on May 16, to Minnesota's Jason Kubel(notes) – at least FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference can agree Rivera's WAR doesn't rank among the top 25 in the league. So after going through the league's best pitchers – with apologies to Jered Weaver(notes) – and seeing the best they've got to offer …
10. Can we please just crown Felix Hernandez the AL Cy Young winner?
He is the victim of, as Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus put it, "among the hundred worst offenses of all time, the 40 worst offenses of the postwar period, and the 10 worst offenses of the last 20 years." The Mariners are historically bad at supporting their pitchers, and for all the stress Sabathia encounters pitching in a pennant race, imagine going onto the mound knowing that allowing one run might cost your team the game. In six of Hernandez's last 11 starts, the Mariners haven't scored for him.
Even if he wins his last four starts, Hernandez won't reach the magic number for Cy Young victors: 16. And it was a goal of Hernandez's this year, one he noted specifically during a spring training interview.
"Last year was a great year," he said. "And I'm planning on doing it again, only I want the Cy Young this time."
He can have it if 27 men and one woman do the right thing for the BBWAA, the right thing for baseball and the right thing for the man who's been the best pitcher in the AL this year by every measure.