Friday, November 19, 2010

“King Felix” and the AL Cy Young: The Victory of Sabermetrics

More than any other sport, baseball has always been a game of statistics. For over a century, as fans, we are impressed with the homerun kings and strikeout specialists; yet, we reserve a certain reverence for the high BA and the low ERA (and my favorite stat, the RBI). However, over the past decade and a half, the more complex formulas of Sabermetrics (from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research) have colored our perception of statistical categories, as WHIP, OPS, and VORP have progressively crept into common baseball parlance. What was originally reserved for “nerdy baseball lab rats,” with the advent of on-line fantasy baseball leagues (like the one Corry and I played in last summer, finishing first and second, respectively) and the recent hires at ESPN/The Sporting News (and various other weekly baseball publications) of resident sabermetricians, has evolved into the modern way of analyzing the old ballgame.

While shocking to many so-called “baseball purists,” for whom the Cy Young Award (MLB’s annual top prize for the best pitcher in each league) represents not only big numbers in traditional categories (Ks, ERA, Wins) but also success in big game situations (i.e., usually a pennant race), Félix Hernández winning the 2010 AL Cy Young yesterday truly marks the “Victory of Sabermetrics” and assures its mainstream presence in baseball sportswriting. Generally speaking, since 1967 (when the award was first given to both leagues), a Cy Young winning starting pitcher needed to reach a plateau of at least 18-20 wins for a competitive team to even be in the running. Hernández, who pitched this season for the lowly Seattle Mariners (who finished 61-101 this season, dead last in the AL West and 29 games back of eventual AL champion Texas), barely won half of his decisions with a mere 13-12 record. However, his ERA and Ks were unreal this season: His K total was second best in the AL with 232 (one of five pitchers in the hitter-friendly AL to eclipse 200 total Ks) and his ERA was an MLB-best 2.27. Still, while the Mariners did not play a meaningful game after April, other AL pitchers with comparable stats (Cliff Lee, David Price, Clay Bucholz, CC Sabathia) were on competitive teams.

So, how does one justify awarding the top prize to a 13-12 pitcher on a 61-101 team? Sabermetrics. In all SABR-valued categories, the Venezuelan Hernández was in the top 5 or 6—and usually in the top 1 or 2 for each, including being #1 for TLoss (tough losses, a quality start that results in a loss due to poor fielding or batting from position players) at a whopping 8 (twice his nearest competitor) and not recording a single cheap win (the opposite situation). With wins in those situations, his total is 21; yet, before Sabermetrics, we would probably not even realize this. Also, Hernández was the only pitcher in all of baseball to face over 1,000 batters this season and, while perhaps meaningless to the Mariners’ fate, he was a formidable foe to those teams vying for the pennant—almost no-hitting the Texas Rangers on September 17th. All in all, nonetheless, (although a case could be made for last year’s champ Zack Greinke of the dreadful Kansas City Royals, who was also head-and-shoulders above the competition in traditional categories) I hold that King Félix stands alone in baseball history as the man who broke the purist hardball machine and brought Sabermetrics to the fore in 21st-century baseball.

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