Seriously? Felix Hernandez, a 12-12 pitcher, deserves the Cy Young Award?
Yes, seriously. And it doesn’t take advanced metrics or abstract adjustments to make the case.
The Cy Young Award doesn’t carry the same baggage as the Most Valuable Player Award. “Value” in that award’s context is a thorny subject; voters disagree about whether a player on a last-place team can truly be “most valuable.” The Cy Young is simply about who is best in each league; pitching for a bad team can actually make a good season more impressive, as when Steve Carlton was 27-10 for a 59-97 Phillies team, or Zack Greinke’s 2009 season, 16-8 for the 97-loss Royals.
Still: 16-8 is a lot different from 12-12. So let’s take a look at the prime candidates.
Besides Hernandez (12-12, 2.31), the best starters in the American League have been Jon Lester (19-8, 2.96), C.C. Sabathia (20-7, 3.26), David Price (18-6, 2.84), Cliff Lee (12-9, 3.29), Trevor Cahill (17-8, 3.05), Justin Verlander (18-8, 3.31), Clay Buchholz (16-7, 2.39), and perhaps Jered Weaver (13-12, 3.02) and C.J. Wilson (14-7, 3.15).
Wilson has had a fine year in a tough park for pitchers, but a pitcher who walks more than four batters per nine innings is asking for trouble. Buchholz has been outstanding in a hitter’s park as well, but he’s been carefully managed: a Cy Young winner should have thrown more than 166 innings by this point if he’s been in the rotation all year. (This is why I’m only considering starters; relievers don’t pitch enough to have the same impact.) Weaver’s season has been similar to Hernandez’s, with a won-lost record held down by fickle run support, but Hernandez’s is better in nearly all particulars. The Angels are 17-16 in Weaver’s starts, 58-64 in all other games; the Mariners are 16-17 with King Felix on the mound, 43-79 without him. Big difference.
Verlander’s ERA is a full run worse than Hernandez’s, and Felix can only dream of getting the run support the Tigers have provided their ace: they’ve scored six or more runs in 16 of Verlander’s 32 starts, while the Mariners have scored six or more runs 24 times all year. Cliff Lee was similarly handicapped by pitching for Seattle in the first half of the season, but he was the beneficiary of five games in which the M’s scored six or more – they averaged 4.8 runs when Lee started – while Hernandez has pitched in just three such games.
Cahill has built on a promising rookie season to anchor a young Oakland rotation at age 22. But I can’t ignore the huge home/road split in his performance: 11-3, 2.18 at his pitcher-friendly home; 6-5, 4.17 on the road. (Seattle’s park is one of the best in baseball for pitchers, but Hernandez’s splits are 8-4, 2.06 at home, 4-8, 2.55 on the road.)
If the Cy Young were based on “most valuable” considerations, the two prime candidates would be the aces of the two playoff teams battling in the AL East, Price and Sabathia. Price shook off a disappointing ’09 to become the pitcher he was touted to be in Tampa Bay’s 2008 World Series season. His edge over Hernandez lies in his won-lost record, but he has only five wins in which the Rays scored fewer than six runs. Sabathia has been blessed with a high-powered offense as well, the Yankees scoring six or more in 15 of his 33 starts, accounting for 11 of his 20 wins. The new Yankee Stadium has been a big hitters’ park this year, but that’s not enough to offset the difference in their ERAs (Sabathia’s road ERA is 3.50).
So the choice comes down to Hernandez and Lester.
Let’s review Hernandez’s accomplishments for the year: Leads the AL in ERA. Has allowed the second-fewest base runners per inning (1.063, behind Cliff Lee’s 1.018). Third in hits per nine innings, 7.039. Second in strikeouts (227), seventh in strikeouts per nine innings (8.434). Tied, with Lester, for most games allowing two or fewer runs in a start of six or more innings (19 each). First, by a sizable margin, in all the advanced metrics I won’t list here, but you can find on the leaderboards at baseball-reference.com.
Lester’s resume is fine as well: second in the league wins, fourth in ERA, second in road ERA at 2.33 (Hernandez is fourth), sixth in base runners per inning (1.157), second in hits per nine innings (6.971), first in strikeouts per nine (9.706), fourth in fewest home runs per nine (0.529). It’s a great season, one that may be capped off in the coming week with his 20th win, an outdated milestone but one that impresses the voters. (In the modern era of pitching, with starters making fewer starts and relievers getting more decisions, 18 is the new 20. An 18-win season has been accomplished about as often from 1990-2010 as a 20-win season was from 1970-1990.)
It’s a close call between the two, but there are two factors that tip the scales for me in favor of King Felix. First, the Mariners are not merely a bad offensive team; they are historically inept on a scale comparable to a dead-ball team in a live-ball era. The Mariners are scoring 3.17 runs per game. No team has scored so few runs per game over a full season since the introduction of the DH in 1973. I don’t just mean no American League team; no National League team, with pitchers batting, has been so anemic either in the last thirty-eight years.
With Hernandez in the game, his teammates have scored zero runs nine times, one run five times, and two runs five times – nineteen low-run games in his thirty-three starts. His performance under these dispiriting circumstances has been remarkable; 12-12 is an exceptional won-lost record considering.
Finally, while Hernandez and Lester have had comparable seasons when it comes to qualitative statistics, Lester has done so while throwing 204 innings to date; Hernandez has worked 241.2, after reaching 238 innings last year at age 23. Lester’s load is more prudent for a young pitcher, and I expect him to have a better future, but that’s not the issue here. Similar outstanding performance over nearly twenty percent more innings? That spells Cy Young to me.