Max Scherzer vs. Felix Hernandez: Who Deserves the 2013 AL Cy Young?

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2013

In the grand scheme of things, the American League regular season awards race is not very exciting. There is, however, one battle brewing that is sure to divide fans all over the country. Who should win the league's Cy Young? 

Specifically, the two candidates standing out above the rest field are Detroit's Max Scherzer and Seattle's Felix Hernandez. That's not to say we don't like Chicago's Chris Sale, Texas' Yu Darvish or any of the other great pitchers in the American League this year, but Scherzer and Hernandez are 1-2, in either order, at this moment. 

Since we take pride in reflecting on and adding to the discussion and debate going on in the sports world, Bleacher Report writers Joe Giglio and Adam Wells have put together their reasons for Scherzer and Hernandez. Joe is on the side of Detroit's star, while Adam put his best foot forward for King Felix. 

Why Max Scherzer Deserves the AL Cy Young (Joe)

Unlike some of the voters who will side with Scherzer in this debate, the following case for the 29-year-old Tigers right-hander won’t revolve around his 19-2 record.

In fact, it’s my belief that advanced statistics, campaigns like #killthewin from MLB Network’s Brian Kenny and our constant search to unearth something different and more cerebral about sports has caused us to miss the most simple fact about the 2013 AL Cy Young chase: Max Scherzer has been the best pitcher in the American League.

With a 2.88 ERA, 6.1 bWAR ( WAR), 5.7 fWAR (Fangraphs’ WAR), 9.9 K/9 rate, 28 games started and 190.1 innings pitched, Scherzer is at or near the top of every relevant category for starting pitchers in the American League.

Over his last 20 starts, dating back to late May, the ace of Detroit’s staff has posted a 2.45 ERA and allowed four or more runs in a start just twice. In every single start this season, Scherzer has gone at least five innings.

Durability and dominance is what makes a Cy Young winner stand out from the crowd of contenders.

Unlike Texas’ Yu Darvish (DL stint) or Chicago’s Chris Sale (significantly lower fWAR), Scherzer has done it all in 2013: Missed bats, never missed a turn in the rotation and rarely put his team in a position to lose with bad starts. He rates, regardless of which calculation you chose, as one of the most valuable pitchers in the sport.

Unfortunately, the quality of Scherzer’s supporting cast has somehow distracted from his case. Due to an uncanny amount of run support (5.79 runs per game in Scherzer’s starts this season), the rightful Cy Young winner has a record of 19-2. For some baseball pundits, it seems like an apology from Scherzer is necessary to reconcile voting for him on the Cy Young ballot.

What’s lost in the rhetoric of wins and losses and old-school values vs. new-school thinking: Scherzer’s ability to so rarely take himself out of the running for a victory.

Instead of harping on how individual wins and losses don’t matter for starting pitchers (something Scherzer himself has echoed), take a minute to marvel at Scherzer’s consistency and durability.

By registering at least five innings in every start this season, the Tigers righty has put himself in position to benefit from run support, saved the Detroit pen from long nights and helped Jim Leyland weather an injury to Anibal Sanchez and inconsistency from Justin Verlander.

Furthermore, Scherzer hasn’t registered awful nights that would be in need of the extra run support. A quick look at his game logs doesn’t show games of seven or eight runs allowed. Run support is a fair argument to make if the pitcher in question is sporting an ERA near or above league average.

That’s simply not the case in 2013 with Max Scherzer.

Lastly, unlike his biggest Cy Young rival, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, Scherzer is getting stronger as the season progresses. With a 2.45 ERA since May 20, his total numbers at the conclusion of the season are poised to look even better than they are now.

Throw out the win-loss record, folks. Voting for Max Scherzer isn’t an affront to Bill James or Brian Kenny or anyone with the common sense to denounce pitching wins as a team-dependent statistic. Instead, it’s exactly what baseball fans should expect from voters: Choosing the best candidate based on the individual season in question.

Why Max Scherzer Doesn’t Deserve the AL Cy Young (Adam)

It should be noted, before we dive too deep into this, that there isn’t a lot of separation between Hernandez and Scherzer. Both have been, by a wide margin, the top two pitchers in the American League all year.

But I strongly disagree with my colleague that Scherzer has been the best pitcher in the AL this season. I do applaud his efforts to avoid discussing the 19-2 record, because educated fans understand that many factors go into a pitcher’s win-loss record that they don’t have control over.

One of my favorite arguments against citing wins and losses in Cy Young voting is the fact that John Lackey won 12 games in 2011 with Boston despite a 6.41 ERA. 

Examining the criteria that matters most in deciding the best pitcher, Hernandez beats Scherzer in every conceivable way.

One of the biggest problems I have with Scherzer’s candidacy isn’t something he has control over but does knock his case down a peg: competition.  Specifically, the offenses in the American League Central.

Scherzer has made 28 starts this season—eight of them have come against Kansas City, Minnesota and Chicago. Those three teams rank in the bottom half of baseball in runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

On top of that, Scherzer has made five other starts against the Mariners, Astros (twice), Phillies and Mets. Nearly half of his games this year have come against lineups that rate as fringe-average, at best.

Houston, Minnesota, New York and Seattle are four of the top six teams in total strikeouts, making it easier for Scherzer to pad his stats.  We can also throw the Indians, who rank eighth in strikeouts and a team Scherzer has started four games against, into that mix.

While I can appreciate ERA, unless you are as bad as Lackey in 2012 when he gave up 259 base runners in 160 innings, it is a flawed stat to judge a pitcher by because it doesn’t tell us everything a pitcher had control over. You have to consider the defense behind the pitcher when looking at ERA.

And to my surprise, because I take every available shot to joke about how bad a defender Miguel Cabrera is, the Tigers rate better than the Mariners in ultimate zone rating and defensive runs saved by a significant margin.

Going by the numbers which Scherzer and Hernandez have direct control over (fielding independent pitching, expected fielding independent pitching), the King comes out on top by fairly solid margins. Hernandez’s FIP is 2.58 to Scherzer’s 2.72. Hernandez’s xFIP is 2.68 to Scherzer’s 3.14.

Baseball Reference does give Scherzer an edge over Hernandez (6.0 to 5.2) in wins above replacement because, by definition, it looks at things like runs allowed and adjusts for opponents and defense.

As I will keep pointing out, when you factor in defense, you are giving credit to the pitcher for something he doesn’t directly control.

Fangraphs’ version of wins above replacement, which relies on FIP because it directly ties into what a pitcher has control over, gives Hernandez a slight edge (5.8 to 5.7). That alone isn’t enough to push Hernandez over the top, but it does illustrate why Scherzer’s season, impressive as it has been, isn’t better than Hernandez's.

Why Felix Hernandez Deserves the AL Cy Young (Adam)

I won’t regurgitate the stats like WAR , FIP and xFIP that have already been discussed ad nauseam to highlight why Hernandez is the choice for the AL Cy Young award.

Instead, I want to talk about things like the team behind Hernandez. I touched on it in the bit about Scherzer but wanted to dive a little deeper into the subject here.

The Mariners are, by UZR and defensive runs saved, the worst defensive team in baseball this season, and it’s not particularly close. They’ve sacrificed 96 runs on defense, 19 more than the second-worst team in baseball (Philadelphia). Their UZR of minus-72.8 is 19 points worse than the next worst team (Houston).

By comparison, Detroit’s minus-12.0 UZR and minus-43 defensive runs saved looks like the Ozzie Smith of team defense.

We can also look at the division Hernandez pitches in and his opposition.

Remember earlier how I talked about the competition Scherzer has faced? I am more than aware that Hernandez pitches in the same division as the Astros, but he has taken the mound against them as many times as Scherzer (twice).

And being totally fair, Hernandez has made 12 starts against teams that rank in the bottom half of baseball in runs scored. But he has also started 16 games against teams in the top 10 of that same category.

Staying in the division, Texas, Oakland and Los Angeles all have top-10 offenses in runs scored this season. Hernandez has made 11 starts against those three alone, covering 69 innings with 79 hits allowed, 29 earned runs (3.78 ERA), 15 walks and 66 strikeouts.

Hernandez has had more starts than Scherzer that last five innings or less (five to three), no one is denying that. But he also dwarfs the Tigers All-Star in starts of at least eight innings with one or fewer earned runs allowed (eight to three).

Those eight starts for Hernandez came against the Tigers, Angels (twice), Blue Jays, Pirates, Padres, Twins and Brewers. Scherzer’s starts were versus Seattle, Houston and Cleveland.

Which is the more impressive feat among those two groups?

There are small differences between the two pitchers, like innings pitched (Hernandez has 194.1 to Scherzer’s 190.1) and strikeouts (209 for Scherzer, 200 for Hernandez), but there’s not enough of a difference in either category to put one over the other.

Based on the factors I have mentioned, it is clear that Hernandez, as of this moment, is the right choice for the AL Cy Young award.


Why Felix Hernandez Doesn’t Deserve the AL Cy Young (Joe)

Full disclosure: Felix Hernandez is one of my favorite pitchers to watch. Since his arrival in Seattle in 2005, my subscription has been money well spent. In other words, when King Felix starts, my attention is on Seattle Mariners baseball. His status as one of the best pitchers in baseball is justified. The 2010 Cy Young, despite “only” 13 victories, was more than warranted.

That being said, Felix Hernandez doesn’t deserve the 2013 AL Cy Young.

Despite leading the AL in fWAR (5.8) and topping Max Scherzer in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.58), expected Fielding Independent Pitching (2.68), starts (29) and innings (194.1), King Felix is lacking in two critical categories: run prevention and recent production.

On the other hand, he’s benefiting from baseball fans looking too hard at a situation that doesn’t need much clarity.

While FIP and xFIP are great measures of how well a pitcher is truly throwing independent of his teammates and ballpark factors, ERA is still a very, very usable metric to measure run prevention. After all, the main goal of a pitcher, regardless of how it is achieved: prevent runs.

Felix has done that well above average by posting a 3.01 ERA and 122 ERA-plus, but, unless he brings that mark down below the 3.00 mark, his candidacy would mark the first AL Cy Young winner with an ERA over 3.00 since CC Sabathia in 2007.

If we look strictly at ERA in 2013, Felix ranks below Scherzer, Chicago’s Chris Sale, Texas’ Yu Darvish, Detroit’s Anibal Sanchez, Oakland’s Bartolo Colon, New York’s Hiroki Kuroda and Seattle teammate Hisashi Iwakuma.

Part of Felix’s run-prevention issues have stemmed from his inability to avoid rough outings from snowballing out of control.

Over his 29 starts, Hernandez has allowed four or more earned runs in seven different games. Roughly one of every four Felix Hernandez outings has resulted in the opponent posting at least a four-spot on the board, if not more.

While Max Scherzer has pitched better as the season has worn on, Hernandez looks to be fading. Over his last 20 starts, Hernandez has a 3.75 ERA. That has ballooned his ERA over 3.00 for the season and could be a precursor to even more run-scoring for Seattle opponents down the stretch.

Right now, the AL Cy Young race belongs to Scherzer by a slim margin. If Hernandez continues to slip, that gap could grow.

Lastly, Hernandez doesn’t deserve the Cy Young based on a wrong that has already been corrected.

In 2010, voters corrected the way Cy Young voting took place for years, eschewing 19 wins from David Price and Jon Lester, 21 from CC Sabathia and 18 from Trevor Cahill to place the award where it rightly belonged: In Felix Hernandez’s trophy case.

That outside-the-box thinking has been done before and will be done again only when the right candidate is deserving of the treatment.

In 2013, Felix Hernandez has been an excellent pitcher, but he hasn’t been the best in the American League, regardless of how hard you try to look at the numbers.


We hope you enjoyed our fourth MLB Lead Writer debate between Joe and Adam. Now it's your turn to tell us what you thought down in the comments section. Let us know who's side you're on in the AL Cy Young debate and why!

If you missed any of them, here is Round 1,  Round 2 and Round 3. Round 5 will be coming next week!

You can follow Joe Giglio on Twitter and talk all things New York sports by clicking here.You can follow Adam Wells on Twitter to talk about baseball by clicking below.



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