When the Seattle Mariners’ Felix Hernandez was announced as the winner of the 2010 American League Cy Young Award, it was hailed as a victory for statheads. And in a sense, it was—by selecting Hernandez over New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia, the Baseball Writers Association of America did not make the mistake of judging the best pitchers in the game by their win-and-loss records.
But while the BBWAA avoided the logical fallacy of holding hurlers accountable for the performance of their supporting offenses, they failed to distinguish the Cy Young candidates’ performances from those of their backing fielders.
While King Felix led the Junior Circuit with his 249.2 innings pitched and his 232 strikeouts were just one whiff away from Jeff Weaver for tops in the league, the main reason for his victory was his 2.27 Earned Run Average—the best in baseball.
But was Hernandez really the best pitcher in the league? Strikeouts and walks are the two things over which the guy on the mound has the most control; Hernandez’s 8.4 K/9 rate and 2.5 BB/9 were very good, no doubt, but they were good for just seventh and 14th in the league, respectively.
In fact, Hernandez’s 3.3 K:BB ratio was less than a third of the mark posted by the rightful AL Cy Young: Cliff Lee.
How can Lee have been better than Hernandez? King Felix had the edge in ERA (2.27 to 3.18), IP (249.2 to 212.1), strikeouts (232 to 185), BAA (.216 to .246), and yes, even wins (13 to 12).
But while there’s no denying Hernandez’s superiority in the cumulative categories, his advantages in the rate stats are simply the result of luck.
Fielding-Independent Pitching is an estimator of ERA that ignores the issue of defense—it’s based solely on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. Lee’s 2.58 FIP was the best in the game; Hernandez’s 3.04 mark was over three-quarters of a run worse than his real ERA.
The most common counterargument to using FIP to judge performance is that it’s a measure of what should have happened, rather than what did happen. But to say this is to exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of the statistic—think of it as the measure of how well a pitcher performed, superimposed into a neutral context.
What’s the cause of the discrepancy? The culprit was Batting Average on Balls in Play—the proportion of balls hit inside the stadium that fall for hits. The average BABIP is around .300, and major departures from the norm are usually due to luck.
Lee’s BABIP: an even .302. Hernandez’s: a fluky .273.
Of course, not all batted balls are equal; a line drive is much more likely to fall for a hit than an infield fly. Using Hernandez’s batted-ball profile, his true-talent BABIP is .287—so his edge over Lee isn’t all luck, right?
Wrong. Lee’s xBABIP is .283, meaning that, with a .302 BABIP, he’s had a fair bit of misfortune.
Still not convinced that Hernandez’s batted-ball profile doesn’t absolve him? His tERA (like FIP, but it takes into account the types of hits he gave up) was 2.95—68 points above his ERA. Meanwhile, Lee’s tERA was 2.65.
The more balls get through the hole, the more hits are allowed. The more hits are allowed, the more runs score. It’s a domino effect that ripples through all the rest of a player’s numbers.
So we’ve established that Lee pitched better than Hernandez, but Felix still did pretty well for himself, and he did it through 37.1 more innings than his former teammate. Doesn’t that count for something?
Of course it does. But Lee’s talent more than made up for the innings discrepancy.
According to FanGraphs’ Runs Above Replacement calculations, Hernandez saved 57.1 runs compared to a replacement-level pitcher. That’s great, until you see that Lee was worth 61.6.
In spite of his early-season injury, Lee was worth 7.1 wins—the best mark of any pitcher in baseball—while Hernandez was worth 6.2. That means his lack of innings shouldn’t be a major detriment to his case; if anything, the fact that Lee was able to achieve that kind of production in limited time makes his numbers even more impressive.
And yet, Lee finished a distant sixth in the Cy Young voting. He was named on only six of the 28 ballots, and the highest he was named was third.
So forget what they say in the press releases, or whose name they engrave on the trophy. Cliff Lee is the real AL Cy Young.
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