Felix Hernandez became the in vogue pick for the 2010 American League Cy Young Award in mid-September, and could make history tomorrow.
No pitcher with as few as 13 wins as ever won the award, but that’s what Hernandez finished with in a marvelous season for an historically bad Seattle Mariners team.
The number of wins, however, created something of a rebellion among baseball writers, sparked by the acceptance of saber metrics as a more complete measure of a pitcher and his value than the old-school wins and earned run average.
In late September an SI.com survey of eight AL executives drew six votes for Hernandez, two for CC Sabathia, who won 21 games.
On the blogosphere, the argument that wins mattered less than other statistics – including some that traditionalists had tried hard to ignore for years – went viral.
Cy Young Award voters are members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and are asked not to reveal their votes, which are made before post-season games begin.
That doesn’t mean the issue isn’t discussed in print.
“The award is not for Most Valuable Pitcher or best pitcher for a contending team. It is for best pitcher, period,” wrote Ken Rosenthal at Foxsports.com. “And this season, Hernandez is that guy. Felix Hernandez, whatever his record is, should win the Cy Young.”
There were dissenting voices, as well.
“I had an AL Cy Young vote this season, and I carefully weighed all the considerations. In the end, I could not overlook the fact that Hernandez turned in his remarkable performance working in a pitcher’s park for a team that was out of contention by Memorial Day, especially since there were two other strong candidates elsewhere,” said Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune. “So I filled out my ballot like this: (David) Price, Sabathia, Hernandez.
“I have no idea who is going to win. But I know that a lot of people are going to tell me to go back to the Middle Ages if the think-tank candidate, Hernandez, does not win.”
Traditional views on the Cy Young Award may have begun to change in earnest last year, ironically, when Felix won a league-high 19 games and was second in the voting to Kansas City ace Zack Greinke, who won 16.
“Well, I’m a huge Greinke fan, and still, I argued a year ago that Hernandez was the best pitcher in league,” James said. “But if I had a vote, I might vote for Hernandez when this is over, just on the theory that when you shake out all the luck as best you can, he may be the best pitcher in the league again.
“But do I think enough people will vote for him? No.”
Voting is in he hands of two writers from each BBWAA chapter in the American League. In Seattle, the Cy vote went to Larry Stone of the Seattle Times and Kirby Arnold of the Everett Herald.
They each gave Hernandez a first-place vote on ballots that went five pitchers deep.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Hernandez pitched so well that he went from underdog to favorite for the award. After the All-Star break, Felix’s record was 6-7, but his earned run average was 1.53. The Mariners offense ranked as the worst in the AL since the advent of the designated hitter, and behind Hernandez it simply didn’t show up.
Overall, Hernandez led the league in ERA, innings (249 2/3), opponents batting average (.212) and starts (34), finishing second with 232 strikeouts and third with six shutouts.
More than ever before, this year writers took into account ‘newer’ measurements of a pitcher – Component ERA, Defense-Independent ERA, K/9 ratio and WHIP.
“We are going to see if the new wave of baseball writers, who rely heavily on stats, win out over the old-guard, a group that still puts a lot of emphasis on wins,” wrote Chris Ruddick of the Toronto Sun. “ King Felix was the best pitcher in the American League this season.”
In some cases, the feeling came down to old-fashioned ‘what-ifs.’
“Hernandez clearly has the most impressive overall numbers, but he didn’t pitch under the pressure of a pennant race with the weak-hitting also-ran Seattle Mariners, wrote Bob Matthews of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “On the other hand, his won-loss record probably would’ve topped Sabathia and Price had he pitched for the Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays.”
What if the pitchers involved had a say?
“I told Andy (Pettitte) the other day, if I had a vote, I would vote for Felix,” CC Sabathia told the New York Daily News in late September. “Just watching him pitch the other day against us – against this lineup – and to throw a complete game and get a win? That’s the best pitcher in the league to me. “
At the end of 2009, when Felix was asked who he’d vote for, he replied ‘Greinke.’
And this year? Asked the same question as 2010 came to a close, Hernandez smiled and said: “Me.”