Another Win for Cy Young Voters

In 2008, Brandon Webb led the National League with 22 wins. But Tim Lincecum struck out 62 more hitters in almost the same number of innings, had an ERA .68 runs better than Webb’s, and was rewarded with a well-deserved Cy Young Award despite having “won” four fewer games.

In 2009, Adam Wainwright had 19 wins. Tim Lincecum won 15, but with 49 more strikeouts, an ERA .15 runs better, and a WHIP .16 walks/hits better than Wainwright. Again, the voters got it right, rewarding Lincecum’s superior season.

In the American League in 2009, three pitchers won 19 games, including Felix Hernandez, who did it with a 2.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 217 K in 238 2/3 innings. But Zack Greinke pitched nearly as many innings with a ridiculous 2.16 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 25 more strikeouts than Hernandez. Greinke winning the award with 15 wins made it seem fairly clear that Cy Young voters were looking beyond wins at the actual successes that are within a pitcher’s control. Strikeouts, walks, and innings pitched seem to speak much louder to today’s voters than context-driven wins.

This year’s AL award challenged that assumption. Felix Hernandez dominated baseball like no other AL pitcher, striking out 232 batters in 249 2/3 innings, with a 1.06 WHIP and a 2.27 ERA. CC Sabathia had an excellent year, not approaching any of Hernandez’s numbers, but pitching 238 mostly effective innings and going 21-7 thanks to huge run support from the powerful Yankee lineup. Hernandez was victimized again and again by poor run support and bullpen meltdowns, finishing 13-12 and testing the willingness of the writers who vote for the Cy Young to vote for a pitcher whose team wins barely half of his decisions.

Today, the voters spoke loudly, awarding the honor in a landslide to the league’s best pitcher. Let’s be clear. This is not a victory for the new, advanced “sabermetric” stats. If voters used WAR, FIP, and WPA to vote for the Cy Young winner, Hernandez’s closest competition would have come from Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver, and Francisco Liriano, not from Sabathia and David Price, who actually finished second this year. This was a victory for ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts- numbers whose value has been clear for decades, if not centuries. And while ERA includes a small element of context (official scorers’ subjective decisions, fielders’ ability to turn batted balls into outs), these statistics are as valuable and as telling as they always have been.

Years from now, I imagine we’ll live in a world in which Cliff Lee’s 185/18 strikeout to walk ratio will get as much press as Hernandez’s ERA. When more writers and fans understand the value of the successes within a pitcher’s control, and can get a better feel for the pitcher’s talent in a context-neutral environment, pitchers will be rewarded more for their contributions to their teams’ success than for their teams’ contributions to their success.

Until then, let’s take pleasure in the fact that, by using simple, time-tested metrics like ERA, strikeouts, and innings pitched, the voters keep picking the right guy. Congratulations to Felix Hernandez on an incredible season.

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