A lot of noise has been made in the sabermetrics community stating that Felix Hernandez should win the 2010 Cy Young Award, and while most of the arguments are rational and valid, they tend to be short sighted, comparing King Felix to only CC Sabathia.
Advanced metrics and statistical analysis show that while Felix has won only 12 games, while losing 11, he’s actually pitched much better than Sabathia this season. Felix boasts strikeout rates, walk rates, home run rates, ground ball rates, and accumulated Wins Above Replacement (WAR) that are all superior to that of Sabathia.
Each has been a dependable work horse, pitching well over 200 innings this season. However, writer perception, combined with a Zack Greinke victory in award-voting last year, which he won out from under Felix Hernandez, has spawned a pretty heated debate, where perhaps some people who were chanting Felix’s name last year are now again in his corner, but for completely opposite reasons.
However, the season that Greinke had last year was very special by all measures. His 9 WAR were the best by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez’s 10.1 WAR season in 2000, a season often considered to be the most impressive by any pitcher ever considering the hitting environment in which it was pitched. He posted a FIP of 2.33, and an ERA of 2.16 on a Royals team that played pretty bad defense. He won 16 games while losing only 8, and led the league in strikeouts. So while the league eschewed three wins for each Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Sabathia, they didn’t completely diverge from accumulation statistics or conventional metrics.
The reality is that while once again Felix as been impressive, even more impressive than his amazing 2009 season, he still falls to second-best in terms of peripheral statistics, especially when combined with conventional measures.
R.J. Anderson of Fangraphs wrote about the guy that should truly win, Francisco Liriano.
Liriano is 14-7 with a 3.28 ERA and 189 strikeouts in 178.1 innings. While Felix tops all of those numbers in terms of total count, Liriano has the King beat in most rate stats. Liriano has more strikeouts per nine innings pitched, a lower FIP, a higher ground ball rate, and has given up only four home runs this season, good for 0.20 per nine innings.
Most impressively however, is that Liriano has managed to accumulate 6.3 WAR in about 55 less innings than it has taken Hernandez to accumulate 6.1. Liriano has four less starts, and is averaging close to an inning less per start, but when he’s been on the mound he’s been significantly more effective. That’s not to take away from Hernandez, who has had yet another tremendous year, but if he’s given the Cy Young Award it will truly be a multi-year award, as once again Felix has been the second-best pitcher in the American League by most contemporary measures, as well as the most traditional.
As much as Sabathia’s 20 wins (and counting) will help his case with the most dusty, closed-minded voters, Liriano may be hurt by not reaching a similar plateau. David Cone is the starting pitcher to win the American League Cy Young Award without pitching at least 200 innings, which he did in the strike-shortened 1994 season. The lowest inning count for a full-season starting pitcher American League Cy Young Award winner was 213.1, done by Pedro Martinez in 1999 (he won the award with 217.0 innings in 2000 also). Each of those seasons he won the award unanimously, after posting two of the best modern-era pitching seasons ever.
ZiPS projects that Liriano will receive two more starts (and a relief appearance) before the end of the season, for only 15 innings. That would put him at 193 innings for the season, a full 20 innings behind Pedro Martinez 1999 mark.
But while a low inning count may hurt Liriano, it seems like a much easier argument to make. While several closers have won the award, there have been a couple of National League winners to win the award, even pre-sabermetrics, without 200 innings or a recorded save. In 1981, another strike-shortened season, Fernando Valenzuela won the Cy Young award with 192.1 innings pitched in a season where the Dodgers played only 110 games.
1984 may be the best argument however, for Liriano’s candidacy in 2010. In a full season, Rick Sutcliffe pitched only 20 games for 150.1 innings. He won the award unanimously, but also boasted a 16-1 record. Sutcliffe benefitted from an era before advanced statistical analysis, as his 10th ranking in WAR that season (3.7 WAR) would hardly fly in 2010.
Either way, the reality is that Sabathia will probably win, but if he doesn’t, Liriano should be the guy, as he better fulfills the combined criteria of both traditional and contemporary metrics.