Felix Hernandez is in the Cy Young discussion, but he shouldn’t win

Aug 26, 2010, 10:17 AM | Updated: Apr 4, 2011, 7:52 pm

By Dave Cameron

(Editor’s note: Dave Cameron of USS Mariner writes a weekly column for the Brock and Salk blog focusing on baseball from a statistical perspective. Salk will be writing for USS Mariner as well.)

If there’s one good thing about this rather dreadful Mariners team, it’s that Felix Hernandez takes the hill every five days, making the game watchable for at least his portion of time. In the midst of struggling and untalented teammates, Felix stands out as one of the game’s elite players, and he’s performing at a level worthy of his abilities. As the season has gone on, he has only gotten stronger, and his run this August has been one of the best stretches of pitching he has ever had. Working against good teams, on the road, Hernandez has delivered several dominating performances, reminding everyone that greatness can still be found on an otherwise depressing roster.

Shining under the bright lights in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park has also given a larger audience the picture of what we see on a regular basis, so it’s not a big surprise that Hernandez is now being prominently mentioned in the AL Cy Young race. Last week, Buster Olney wrote that he would currently put him at the top of the Cy Young race. ESPN’s Stats and Info blog also penned a piece this week putting him forward as deserving of the award. However, as both writers note, Hernandez has to overcome the bias towards a good win-loss record.

While members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have correctly begun to understand that a pitcher’s win total is essentially meaningless, as it is heavily influenced by the performance of one’s teammates, there is still no historical precedent for them giving the award to a pitcher with an equal number of wins and losses. Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum both walked away with the hardware despite lower win totals a year ago, but they won 16 and 15 games respectively, while Hernandez only has 10 wins a week before September begins. He would have to win out to match their totals from a year ago, and given his supporting cast, that’s not something we should expect. These same teammates are the reason he’s 10-10 at the end of August to begin with. 2daebab1-74d5-418b-9d8f-e233fcfe8c61

Beyond the “will he win” question, though, lies the more interesting one for me, and that is should he win? I love watching Hernandez pitch, and he’s had a sensational year, but right now, I can’t say that he should.

The argument for him essentially boils down to his 2.47 ERA, which is certainly outstanding. Among AL starters, only Clay Buchholz and Trevor Cahill have a lower ERA than Hernandez, and both have done so in significantly fewer innings. Among those who are expected to get serious consideration for the award – Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia and David Price – Hernandez has allowed the fewest earned runs per nine innings. This is the most frequently cited reason for why he should get first place votes.

However, ERA suffers from the same big problem that a win-loss record suffers from – dependence on outside factors. Defense, parks, and official scorers all have a significant influence on a pitcher’s ERA, and in these areas that Hernandez has no control over, he’s benefited more than his competitors.

-Defense. the Mariners have put a good defensive team on the field this year, even if it hasn’t been as good as they had hoped. They rank ninth in baseball in Ultimate Zone Rating, the best publicly available defensive metric out there. If the Mariners had not given playing time to defensive specialists such as Jack Wilson and Casey Kotchman, it’s likely that Hernandez’s ERA would be slightly higher, even though that has nothing to do with how well he actually pitched.

-The park. Safeco Field is a great place for pitchers – this is no secret. I know its tempting to look at his home/road ERA split and decide that it hasn’t helped him, but that’s not really the case. Hernandez has been a much better pitcher at home than on the road, posting a 4.70 K/BB ratio in Safeco as opposed to the 2.59 K/BB ratio he’s posted away from the friendly confines. The park’s ability to keep fly balls from sailing over the wall allows pitchers to be more aggressive in the strike zone, and Hernandez has taken advantage of that. The reason that his home and road ERAs are so similar actually leads us to our final point, and one that matters quite a bit in this particular case…

-Earned runs. Because of the quirks of how earned runs are calculated (nothing you do is counted against you after an error that should have ended an inning), Hernandez’s ERA does not accurately represent his contribution to keeping the other team off the board. He’s only allowed 56 earned runs, but 70 total runs have scored while he’s been on the mound. His total of 14 “unearned” runs is by far the highest of any of the Cy Young candidates. Lee has allowed just five unearned runs, while Sabathia and Price have allowed seven apiece. Pitching out of a jam, even one you didn’t create, is still something that counts on the scoreboard, and Hernandez has not excelled in that area.

If we look at total runs per nine innings rather than earned runs per nine innings, Hernandez comes it at 3.09. That’s still better than Price, Sabathia, and Lee (all of whom are around 3.35 runs per nine), but not nearly as dramatically so as ERA might lead you to believe. And keep in mind that the 3.09 number does not account for Safeco or the Mariners above-average defense.

Hernandez has certainly pitched himself into the discussion. He could become the rightful winner with a strong finish to the season. However, right now, I’d have to give the award to Lee. They pitched side-by-side for several months, and it was clear to us then that Lee was outpitching Hernandez on a regular basis. His numbers have taken a hit since going to Texas, but again, we have to remember the ballparks – it is not easy to pitch in that heat in the summer. For me, Lee’s incredible work at keeping runners off the bases gives him the slight edge over the others, and he’d get my hypothetical vote today.

That can change in the next six weeks, and I hope Hernandez finishes with a flourish and convinces the voters that he’s the right choice. But right now, today, I don’t think he is, and it has nothing to do with his low win total.

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Felix Hernandez is in the Cy Young discussion, but he shouldn’t win