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Straightening out the AL Cy Young race

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: September 14, 2010 - 11:15 PM
Recently, there's been growing debate surrounding this year's American League Cy Young race. The three most popular candidates are David Price, C.C. Sabathia and Felix Hernandez, all of whom are having outstanding years. One could argue that a few other starters deserve to be part of the mix, including our own Francisco Liriano, but for today we'll stick with the trio mentioned above. Let's compare some key numbers for those three hurlers:
 
Pitcher A: 217 IP, 3.03 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.4 K/9IP, 2.8 BB/9IP, .653 opp OPS
Pitcher B: 186.2 IP, 2.75 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.1 K/9IP, 3.5 BB/9IP, .640 opp OPS
Pitcher C: 225.2 IP, 2.39 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.5 K/9IP, 2.5 BB/9IP, .599 opp OPS
 
Undeniably, all three of these pitchers are having terrific seasons, but it should be clear from those numbers who's been best. It's Pitcher C, and it's not even close. He's markedly better than both of his opponents in every single category.
 
One factor that is not reflected above, however, is the situation surrounding all three players. Pitcher A (Sabathia) pitches for a playoff-bound team with an elite offense, and as a result, his win-loss record sits at 19-6. Pitcher B (Price) works under similar circumstances, and sports a 17-6 record.
 
Meanwhile, Pitcher C -- which is obviously Hernandez -- plays for a last-place team with a historically terrible offense. This has led him to an 11-11 record despite his spectacular performance on the mound. On 12 occasions this year, Hernandez has pitched seven or more innings, allowed two or fewer earned runs, and come away with a no-decision or a loss. This has happened to Sabathia and Price a combined total of six times.
 
The Cy Young Award is meant to go to the best pitcher in the league, and there's zero doubt that Hernandez has pitched far better than Sabathia or Price this year. Yet, because of the flawed logic that goes into the voting process, he could well finish third in the voting. That's because the writers who vote on this award have historically weighed W/L as the most important measure of success, despite it being the statistic over which a pitcher has least control.
 
Sadly, some of the leading voices in the baseball community have been trying to lead fans astray on this matter. Yesterday, Jon Paul Morosi of FoxSports.com posted an article in which he suggests that Hernandez doesn't merit consideration for Cy Young honors due to the fact that he isn't pitching for a playoff-bound team. An excerpt from Morosi's column:
There’s an award for a pitcher such as Hernandez. It’s called the ERA title. Not the Cy Young Award, as voted on by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
 
To be the best, one must do what Sabathia and Price have all season — compete against the best lineups, in postseason-type atmospheres, before crazed crowds at hitter-friendly ballparks.
 
Of course, as I pointed out above, Hernandez leads his opponents in not only ERA, but essentially every measurement of pitching aptitude other than win/loss record. I'd certainly disagree with Morosi's second assertion; I'd argue that "to be the best" one simply must be better than everyone else. Hernandez has been. And, ironically, Morosi last year supported the case of rightful Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, who of course pitched a ton of playoff-type games in Kauffman Stadium for the last-place Royals.
 
In a chat on ESPN.com yesterday, Joe Morgan stated that it's "a joke" that there is even debate about this year's Cy Young race, proclaiming that "the name of the game is to win and [Sabathia has] won," all while ignoring the fact that Sabathia pitches for the top scoring offense in the league while Hernandez pitches for a team whose OPS this year is lower than Nick Punto's career mark. Then he made some point about Cliff Lee not winning games since being traded to Texas while ignoring the fact that Lee has been battling a back injury since switching clubs.
 
The Baseball Writers Association of America, which votes on the Cy Young Award, hit an all-time low for me back in 2005 when they selected Bartolo Colon over Johan Santana in a situation that was eerily similar to this year's Sabathia/Hernandez juxtaposition. Santana rated significantly better than Colon in essentially every metric other than W/L record, and yet Colon coasted to an easy victory based solely on his 21 wins and his team's success.
 
The BBWAA seemingly showed that they'd finally moved away from their fixation on win/loss record last year when they awarded Greinke with the Cy Young despite his 16-8 record (not to mention Tim Lincecum in the NL, who finished with just 15 wins). This year, they will undo all that progress if they hand it to the undeserving Sabathia while punishing Hernandez for the crappy offense Seattle's front office put together.
 
I want to care about the Cy Young Award. I really do. It's an important part of the way the game's history will be written and one day it may be the deciding factor in a Hall of Fame case. (Does anyone doubt that Bert Blyleven would have been inducted long ago if he had a few Cy Youngs sitting on his shelf?)
 
Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to care when the voters show so little consideration for the numbers that actually indicate how well someone has pitched. And to see respected national figures like Morosi and Morgan present the kind of woefully misguided arguments linked above is disheartening, to say the least.

 

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