Record aside, give the Cy to Felix
That should do it.
Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez should win the American League Cy Young Award. Frankly, the race no longer is even close.
Yankees lefty CC Sabathia? His 3.26 ERA after a rough start against the Rays on Thursday night is nearly a full run higher than Hernandez’s 2.31.
Red Sox righty Clay Buchholz? He has thrown 76 fewer innings than Hernandez. Rays lefty David Price? Forty-two fewer.
I’m not entirely comfortable with a 12-12 pitcher winning the Cy, even though I largely discount wins as a meaningful statistic.
I’m also not comfortable voting for a pitcher who operates with a lower degree of difficulty while pitching for a non-contender.
But tell me the alternative.
Tell me how it would be fair to penalize Hernandez for pitching for one of the worst offensive teams in the past 40 years.
People inside and outside the sport will be jolted if Hernandez wins the award with a record at or near .500. But the circumstances are so odd, the choice will be entirely justified.
Hernandez’s Mariners are on pace to score 513 runs. The last AL team to score fewer than 513 was the 1971 California Angels, according to STATS LLC. The last NL team to do it was the ‘71 San Diego Padres.
That’s right, the 2010 the Mariners could score the fewest runs of any AL team in the DH era, which began in 1973.
The M’s were at it again Thursday, getting shut out by the Blue Jays, 1-0, as Hernandez pitched a two-hit complete game, allowing his only run on Jose Bautista’s 50th homer.
Hernandez’s run support — a little more than three per nine innings — is the worst in the AL; Sabathia’s support, which is nearly twice as great, is the third best.
Oh, but this gets better — or worse, depending upon your perspective.
The Mariners have not scored even one run behind Hernandez in seven of his past 13 starts. Not one!
There is an old baseball adage for a pitcher who receives consistently dreadful run support: “Sometimes, you’ve just got to pitch a shutout.”
What is Hernandez supposed to do, allow fewer than zero runs?
Sabathia gave up seven runs, all earned, Thursday night. Hernandez has allowed that many earned runs in his last nine starts combined.
The award is not for Most Valuable Pitcher or best pitcher for a contending team. It is for best pitcher, period. And this season, Hernandez is that guy.
King Felix leads the AL in a number of meaningful categories — innings, ERA, strikeouts, opponents’ OPS. He does not lead in many of the rate stats, but let’s not nitpick.
The Mariners’ public-relations department came up with this little gem: In the past 20 years, 13 pitchers have led their league in ERA and strikeouts. Twelve won the Cy — and the one who did not was Pedro Martinez in 2002, despite being 20-4 with a 2.26 ERA.
Martinez’s ERA was nearly a half-run per game better than that of the winner, Barry Zito. Martinez pitched his home games at Fenway Park, a more hitter-friendly venue than the Oakland Coliseum. But voters were swayed by Zito’s 23 wins — and perhaps by the fact that he had pitched 30 more innings than Martinez.
Only seven years later, voters — with a big assist from sabermetricians — punctured the myth of the almighty win once and for all.
Zack Grienke, a 16-game winner, won the AL Cy. Tim Lincecum, a 15-game winner, won the NL award. Lincecum’s victory total was the lowest ever for a Cy Young Award-winning starting pitcher in a full season.
There’s your precedent.
Hernandez will finish with no more than 14 wins. His season has not been as dominant as Greinke’s 2009 campaign when judged by ERA-plus, a statistic that measures a pitcher’s ERA against the league average and adjusts it for ballpark factors. But Hernandez’s performance is roughly equivalent to what Lincecum’s was last season.
Which is to say, plenty good enough.
The Hernandez vs. Sabathia debate has been raging for a good month, breaking down along the now-predictable old school/new school lines. Sabermetricians can be a little, uh, strident, not to mention over the top with their disdain for wins. But their views often are enlightening, and in this case they happen to be right.
The race is over. Sabathia failed to keep it close.
Felix Hernandez, whatever his record is, should win the Cy Young.