After decades as the majority among the Baseball Writers Association of America, the traditionalist voters were finally overtaken by something that has eluded the Cy Young voting since its inception: Baseball logic.
In a year that was widely renowned as the “Year of the Pitcher, Part II,” Felix Hernandez stood head and shoulders above his American League counterparts.
In years past, the BBWAA voters have been duped by a statistical category that is becoming less meaningful each year: The win-loss record.
In 2001, Roger Clemens won the AL Cy Young with a 20-3 record—and a 3.51 earned run average. In that same season, another young Mariners pitcher, Freddy Garcia, finished the year with an 18-6 record and a 3.05 ERA—nearly half a run lower than Clemens.
Garcia also tossed 18 innings more than Clemens, giving up six less hits. And these are even in the categories deemed “traditional” by baseball writers and fans alike.
But none of this mattered to the voters; Clemens’ flashy record was enough to earn him 21 first-place votes and his sixth Cy Young.
This wasn’t the only similar situation in recent years: In 2005, Bartolo Colon won in a year when Johan Santana was clearly the better pitcher.
But all of that changed with Hernandez’s victory over the competition, namely CC Sabathia, the best pitcher on the league’s most popular team, the New York Yankees.
Hernandez won the award with the fourth-least wins in history (13), ahead of only Willie Hernandez in 1984 (9), Dennis Eckersley in 1992 (7), and Rollie Fingers in 1981 (6).
But there is one major difference: All three of the other pitchers were closers.
Beyond wins and losses, King Felix’s statistics were unmatched.
Hernandez was tops in the American League in ERA (2.27), innings pitched (249.2), and quality starts (30).
He was second in strikeouts with 232, just one behind Angel’s starter Jered Weaver, and in WHIP (1.06), behind only Cliff Lee.
Felix also led the league in Wins Above Replacement (6.0). That is, Hernandez earned his team six more wins than they would have had with a replacement pitcher.
Imagine if Felix played for the Yankees.
First, there would not have even been an argument; Hernandez would have won the award with these statistics simply because he played in the Bronx.
However, if Hernandez had received the average run support of CC Sabathia (a healthy 7.31 runs per game), his win-loss record would have skyrocketed.
Simply put, it is unfair to penalize a pitcher for playing for a terrible team.
Maybe it’s not the fault of the voters.
After all, the award’s name, Cy Young, has caused confusion similar to that of college football’s Heisman Award; should it be given to the league’s best pitcher, or the league’s most valuable pitcher?
Not even the voter’s know exactly which way to vote.
In college football, the Heisman certainly would not be given to a great player on a mediocre team. But if such a player is the best in the nation (or in this case, the American League), shouldn’t he be given the award? In the past, this has not been the case.
Sure, there have been exceptions, like in 2009 when Zack Greinke won the Cy for the 97-loss Kansas City Royals. But that year, Greinke’s stats were overwhelmingly better than those of any other pitcher.
In fact, it can be argued that the 2009 version of Greinke was much better than the 2010 version of Hernandez.
To give the award to another pitcher on a playoff team would have been tragic.
What if these performances had happened in the same year? Baseball traditionalists would have had a collective heart attack.
Even so, can’t it be argued that Felix Hernandez was not only the league’s best pitcher, but the league’s most valuable pitcher as well?
Going back to Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Hernandez’s 6.0 was more than half a win better than any other pitcher in the American League. This alone makes an argument for him as the league’s most valuable pitcher.
On a team that gave him the least run support among American League starters, Felix was able to win the Mariners six more games than they would have one with somebody else starting.
To put it in perspective, that is nearly 10 percent of Seattle’s wins this season (61).
No other pitcher came close to a WAR equivalent to 10 percent of his team’s victories.
And this time, the voters realized all of this.
The Mariners’ right-hander received 21 of the 28 first-place votes.
It is naive to think that all (or even the majority) of voters chose Hernandez because of his league-best Wins Above Replacement.
This statistic, and other sabermetrics categories of its kind, surely have not been universally accepted by the baseball minds, and probably will not ever been seen as important as the traditional statistical categories.
However, the BBWAA voters should be applauded for realizing the importance of the other “traditional” statistical categories beyond wins and losses.
Or, perhaps, they simply started doing their job.