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Coller: American League Cy Young Race a Battleground over New Stats PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Matthew Coller   
Monday, 04 October 2010 07:30
Felix Hernandez
The argument over whether Felix
Hernandez should be the AL Cy  Young
winner will boil down to whether the
writers  place weight on his wins total
with the abysmal Mariners.

Last week, ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption co-host Michael Wilbon told the Scott Van Pelt Show if Seattle Mariners’ pitcher Felix Hernandez had an earned run average similar to Bob Gibson’s historic 1968 season (Gibson’s ERA was 1.12) he still wouldn’t vote Hernandez for the Cy Young Award. “I will not vote a guy with 13 wins for Cy Young, no way,” Wilbon said.

Friday night, MLB Network analysts Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac came to the same conclusion as Wilbon, agreeing that New York Yankees 21-game winner C.C. Sabathia should be given the award for the year’s best pitcher. The arguments for Sabathia revolve around a concept best described by former NFL coach Herm Edwards: You play to win the game.

The problem: Hernandez leads practically every other basic statistical category including ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched. Despite his dominance, the Mariners ace suffered from having virtually zero offensive support. In four of Hernandez’s 12 losses, the Mariners were shutout. The team’s slugging percentage was lower than the Yankees’ on-base percentage. The Yankees doubled the Mariners number of home runs and finished with more than 300 more runs than Seattle.

The argument has morphed from who is 2010’s best pitcher to what statistics should be used to evaluate pitchers or old school vs. new school. The “wins people” like Wilbon, Reynolds and Plesac hold the traditional view that the most important measure is winning the game. Baseball Prospectus writer Jay Jaffe, who writes columns often using new statistics, says emphasis on wins is generational.

“If you saw baseball in the 1960s and early 1970s when pitchers routinely went the distance, you're more likely to maintain those same assumptions about pitcher value as ruled the day back then, even though higher scoring, higher strikeout rates and other changes have made it much harder for a pitcher to complete what he starts,” Jaffe said.

Another explanation, Jaffe says, for those slow to look at the picture painted by new statistics may be the passing down of ageless baseball theories mixed with a hint of insecurity. “They're slow to change,” Jaffe said.  “Even slower to admit that their authority may be threatened , and if they're insiders, they're likely to hear ballplayers or ex-players handing down the same received wisdom over and over again.”

Jaffe notes that this type of thinking has led to deserving pitchers being left out in the cold for more than just Cy Young Awards, but also the Hall of Fame. “I cover the Hall of Fame beat, and win totals are generally the starting point of discussions of candidates,” Jaffe said.  “If you don't have enough of them, you won't even make a 2nd ballot without 200 - ask Gooden, Cone, Appier. The writers haven't even voted in a starter with less than 300 since (Fergie) Jenkins in 1991.”

Baseball Prospectus, like any other media outlet, evaluates players with the purpose of myth busting, conversation starting and fantasy advice. Unlike Jaffe, Wilbon, Plesac or Reynolds, former New York Mets general manager and current MLB Network Radio host Jim Duquette has evaluated talent for more than argument’s sake, but with millions of dollars and the success of a franchise on the line.

“It’s the old adage, don’t put too much emphasis on one particular area,” Duquette said. “It’s changed from 15 years ago, saying ‘hey this guy is a 20-game winner year after year,’ (now) that just works from a PR standpoint.”

“Some of the old school evaluators have been a little slow and there are certain statistics I don’t know if they’ll ever embrace,” Duquette said. “But, there are certain statistics that even the old school scouts say that there is some value, especially from a future performance standpoint, they say it can enhance evaluation. So I think they are slowly embracing it. There are also some old school people that say ‘there’s nothing like a win, its winning ballgames that matters.’”

Duquette admits that the ultimate goal is winning, but can’t take it as far as Wilbon’s Hernandez to Gibson comparison. “That’s craziness to me,” Duquette said. “It just doesn’t make sense…this guy’s (Hernandez) record is really impacted by how poor his team is. The lack of run production from that club (Seattle) is of historical proportions,”

Duquette’s vote would go to Hernandez, but he also added that Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price has been shortchanged in Cy Young talks due to the Sabathia vs. Hernandez, new stats vs. old stats discussions.

Last season’s Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke may be an indicator of who will win the award in 2010. Greinke won 16 games while three other pitchers won 19, but the Royals’ ace led the league in ERA. In last year’s National League Cy Young voting, Tim Lincecum won despite having four less wins than the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright.

Though most stat sites have Hernandez as the league’s top pitcher, Jaffe implied the race could be close or even go to Sabathia because of the shear amount of old school voters, “If you came to Bill James in the 1980s or have grown up with the internet in front of you, you're likely to be hipper to new stats,” he said. “But, you probably haven't been around long enough to have a vote in the Cy Young race.”


Matthew Coller is a senior staff member of the Business of Sports Network, and is a freelance writer. He can be followed on Twitter

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