Can King Felix somehow win the Cy Young?

I’ve whittled the list to include just the four pitchers discussed so far:

Rk   W 6 L W-L% ERA G IP ER HR BB SO ERA+ WHIP SO/9 SO/BB
1 CC Sabathia* 19 5 .792 3.02 29 202.2 68 17 65 165 132 1.199 7.3 2.54
3 David Price* 16 6 .727 2.92 26 172.2 56 13 67 161 144 1.239 8.4 2.40
5 Clay Buchholz 15 6 .714 2.25 24 151.2 38 8 56 103 193 1.187 6.1 1.84
29 Felix Hernandez 11 10 .524 2.30 30 219.1 56 14 60 209 175 1.085 8.6 3.48
  LgAvg per 180 IP 10 10 .503 4.15 74 180 83 20 64 136 101 1.348 6.8 2.11
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table; Generated 9/6/2010.

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If you covered the W/L columns with your hand, there’s little doubt who has been the best pitcher in the AL this year. There’s no doubt who you’d pick if you had to win one game. The guy with the best K/9, highest K/BB ratio, the horse with the most IP, the guy who puts the fewest runners on per inning. And unfortunately, that same guy, due to the pop-gun offense that’s “supporting” him, has just 11 wins to his name.

In 2009, Zack Grienke won the AL CY with “only” 16 wins, ahead of, ahem, King Felix, who posted 19 wins (as did Sabathia and Verlander). Tim Lincecum won the NL CY with a mere 15 wins, ahead of Chris Carpenter’s 17 wins (against only 4 L’s) and Wainwright’s 19 wins.

The lowest win totals for non-closers in Cy Young voting (non-strike years) since each league was awarded their own Cy Young winner (in 1967):

  • NL: Tim Lincecum, 2009, 15 wins
  • AL: Zack Grienke, 2009, 16 wins

You see, big wins totals headline the Cy Young voting since the award started. Now, it’s generally difficult to get to 20 wins with mediocre stats, but as Felix is proving and others have claimed for a long time: the Wins totals are a fickle stat. I won’t call them “overrated” since the point of every pitcher is to get a win, but they are indeed fickle. Steve Carlton provided the blueprint on how to post ridiculous wins totals on a bad team by winning 27 in 1972 for the 59-win Phillies, earning him a unanimous Cy Young title.

The knock on CC is that he pitches for the high octane Yankees lineup. And ya know what, it’s absolutely true.  With a minimum of 140 IP, CC ranks 4th in terms of Run Support/game with 7.59 runs. And leading all of the AL: Phil Hughes at 10.02 (and 16 wins with a 4.29 ERA).  Care to guess who has the lowest RS for all pitchers with at least 140 IP?  Just take a random guess. 

Yep, King Felix ranks #1 in terms of lowest run support, at just 3.90. If you double his RS, you’d be in the same range as CC and in all likelihood, so would Felix’s wins totals. Just put Felix (and his same productivity) in pinstripes and he’d probably be a unanimous Cy Young. He might have won 25 games this year.

I’ve always been a fan of “game scores“, a better way at snapshotting the pitcher’s game performance than the awful “quality start” stat. It’s defined as:

Game Score is a metric devised by Bill James to determine the strength of a pitcher in any particular baseball game. To determine a starting pitcher’s game score:

  • Start with 50 points.
  • Add 1 point for each out recorded, so 3 points for every complete inning pitched.
  • Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th.
  • Add 1 point for each strikeout.
  • Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed.
  • Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed.
  • Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed.
  • Subtract 1 point for each walk.

AL leading game score average: King Felix, with 63.0. Next is Cliff Lee with 59.4.  Buchholz, Price and Sabathia check in at 58.1, 58.0, 57.9, respectively, ranking 5, 6, 8 overall. Said differently, the difference between #1 and #2 is roughly the same difference between #2 (Lee) and #10 (CJ Wilson).

Do you need more stats?  ESPN uses DIPS (defense-independent ERA) and ranks Felix 3rd, behind Francisco Liriano and Cliff Lee. And according to FanGraphs (140 IP min), Felix also ranks 3rd in FIP at 2.95 (CC and Buchholz each clock in at 3.61 FIP; Price is at 3.47).  I think you get the point.

And if you like handy little prediction devices and tools, ESPN’s Cy Young predictor shows the following:

RK PLAYER TEAM CYP

  1. CC Sabathia NYY 169.0
  2. David Price TB 143.7
  3. Rafael Soriano TB 142.0
  4. Clay Buchholz BOS 133.8
  5. C.J. Wilson TEX 133.4
  6. Felix Hernandez SEA 130.3

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I referenced an article earlier but wanted to dive deeper on it because it, to me, beautifully illustrates what the voting masses tend to believe in when it comes to voting for the Cy Young. The author, Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant.com, is not voting this year, but weighs in heavily:

So who gets it? First, I am going to eliminate King Felix Hernandez from the pack, although, if I were building a team he might be my first pick. Hernandez’s numbers are impressive – a 2.38 ERA over 211 innings with 200 strikeouts – but he is nonetheless 10-10. He got ripped off last year, in my opinion, with a 19-5 record he should have been the Cy Young winner over Zach Greinke. Not this year.

Wins matter. The most important thing a starting pitcher does is win games, and though a starter has less control over his decisions than he used to in the days of complete games, he still has a lot to do with it. Sabathia doesn’t have 19 wins by accident. He has them because he holds leads, finds ways on nights when he doesn’t have it, such as in Chicago last weekend, and goes deep into games, deep enough to allow his team to bypass shaky middle relievers and get right to the closer.

For this reason, I have usually used three wins as a benchmark margin. If Pitcher A has three more wins than his nearest competitor, I am likely to go with him for the Cy Young if the other numbers are reasonable close. In comparing starters, innings pitched is a big stat for me, too, because a pitcher throwing 230 innings has pitched through fatigue and helped his team, for the aforementioned reasons, more than the guy who has averaged six innings per start and throws, say, 190 innings. The ERA can be misleading – some pitchers win 8-0 and lose 3-2, others win 8-4 and 2-1. It’s when you give up those earned runs that makes the difference in winning and losing. Pitching isn’t like a golf tournament where the lowest aggregate score wins, it’s Match Play – the job of a starting pitcher is to match the other guy on each given time out. This is why a great pitcher can win a ton of games for a bad team, like Steve Carlton in 1972, while others, no matter how talented, seem to find their way to .500 no matter what kind of team they’re on, such as A.J. Burnett. 

This is one guy’s thought but I suspect he’s far from alone in his beliefs and biases.  

So what do we know, what do we believe?

I believe Felix is the best starting pitcher in the AL this year.

I also believe that unless he can win 4-5 more games (he’s already at 30 GS) while CC, Price and Buchholz don’t win more than 1-2 more, he will finish 2nd in the Cy Young voting for the second year in a row. If the gap between the wins leader is any greater than 5, I can’t see Felix winning. If the gap is 9 or 10, there’s no chance.

King Felix will be the AL’s best pitcher in 2010 but will not win the Cy Young.

@Jason_IIATMS

About @Jason_IIATMS

IIATMS overlord

23 thoughts on “Can King Felix somehow win the Cy Young?

  1. Mark Smith

    One thing to remember is that luck does NOT even out over one season. We like to think that 162 games is a lot, and it is. But pitchers only go 34-35 games, and a lot can happen in those games. It may not even out over one season (things like FIP show this; BABiP does as well). Felix is having some bad luck this season, and to make matters worse, he plays on an awful offensive team. I understand how hard it is to leave pitcher wins behind. I really do. I’m a new convert, and I realize they are usually the most fanatical. But I do know how hard it is to buck what you’ve been taught, especially something so important to your evaluation of a player. All I will ask is that everyone tries to take an open mind when reading what Jason just showed, which was excellent by the way.

  2. Tad

    The views of Dom Amore and others like him are extremely flawed in my opinion. His argument is basically saying, "well we're up by 10 runs so i can pitch sloppy today and give up 8 runs." What great pitcher do you know that actually thinks that way? To me, the Cy Young award is supposed to go to the best pitcher. To figure out who the best pitcher is, you would level the playing field of all other factors, especially wins, which is basically a measure of run support. I'm the biggest Yankee fan in the world, but this should be King Felix's award hands down. How can you take wins into account when King Felix is by far the worst in the league in terms of run support? It's a miracle he's kept a .500 record and reached double digit wins to begin with, as he's the only pitcher in the AL with >100 IP with a run support average of less than 4. If anything, Buchholz makes a case. But I also agree that the majority of voters will not be thinking this way, and unfortunately CC gets it.

  3. Mark Smith

    Brien, I'd be shocked if people learned.

  4. a mariners fan

    Larry – Your second point is just ridiculous. Yes, giving up 3 runs isn't exactly a brilliant start, but most pitchers will get bailed out by their offense here and there. Felix has 8 starts allowing 3 ER (you include games where unearned runs were needed to get to 3), and he is 0-6. And in only 3 of those starts did he allowed more than 3. CC has allowed 3 ER or more 14 times, and is 6-4 in those starts.

     

    If somebody wants to argue the ballpark or defense angle, that's legitimate. But every pitcher deserves to be bailed out by his offense from time to time.

     

    One point generally ignored. CC had the relaxation of pitching against flaccid Seattle three times (2 ER in 21 IP). Felix had no such working off days. He had the duty of facing the Yankees three times (1 ER in 26 IP).

  5. Mariners fan, I'm playing devil's advocate.  Yeah, Felix deserves to win a 10-9 game every now and again.  He also figures to lose a few 2-1 games.  I still say the better argument is that he should have won a bunch of those no-decisions.

     

    It's also true, the Mariners' season ended in May, and in May Felix just wasn't a Cy Young pitcher.  That's the best argument I could come up with against Felix winning the 2010 Cy Young.  Yes, it's true, CC wasn't a Cy Young pitcher in May either.

     

    As for CC against the M's … well, you guys are a hard matchup for us.  I was at Safeco last month — when I watch the M's, I can't understand why we don't play better against you.  But when the M's play the Yanks, I can't understand why you guys don't play better against everyone else.

     

    If you go over to the Sweet Spot at ESPN, Rob Neyer has commented on his article, and I think his points are better than mine.  Over the last TWO years, Felix has been terrific — clearly better than any of his peers.  If you gave a Cy Young award for 2009-10, Felix wins hands down.  No contest.

     

    So, I'm fine with awarding Felix a Cy Young, as something of a lifetime achievement award.  Not bad for a guy who's only 24 years old.

     

    But I still say that Cliff Lee pitched better for you guys this year than Felix did.

  6. Joseph

    How come no one mentions that Safeco is a much more pitcher friendly stadium than Yankees stadium?  Or that the teams in the AL East are better offensively than the AL West.

     

    Off topic here but I did want to ask a question about the recent start by Nova.  I know a starter has to pitch 5 innings to earn a win but are starters prohibited from getting a win if he pitches less than 5 innings?  The interesting thing about the game is that Nova left the game after 4.2 IP with the lead… a lead that was never lost during the game.  Most of these types of games, the official scorer usually gives the win to the pitcher that comes in right after the starter (which I think was Logan).  But instead the official scorer gave the win to Wood.  Given that the official scorer has discretion to award the win to the most deserving pitcher, can he/she pick the starter who failed to pitch 5 innings?  Personally, I think Nova deserved the win more than Wood.

  7. Jacory

    Its been made a point that while safeco is a pitcher friendly park it doesnt factor into felix's strengths as he is a ground ball pitcher and the marniners infield with the exception of 1st base has been less than stellar with chone figgins and jose lopez playing new positions at 2nd and 3rd and jack wilson out with injury.

  8. Nice article – a few thoughts. One, Steve Carlton’s season was amazing – 346 innings and 41 GS! with an ERA below 2. Amazing.
    2nd, let’s think about another sport – for example football and the QB. The situations are reversed. The QB leads the offense, and in baseball, we can (perhaps) say that the pitcher leads the defense. I guess the debate still works, but you never see an MVP with a losing team.
    Felix looks to have more no-decisions than the others…

  9. If this season doesn’t convince people how useless the win statistic is, I don’t know what to do anymore.

  10. Jason, great post!
     
    Allow me to play devil’s advocate and make the best case I can AGAINST Felix’s Cy Young Candidacy.
     
    1.  No matter how much we love sabermetrics, are we REALLY saying that wins and losses don’t count for the Cy Young?  A few weeks ago, Felix had an 8-10 record.  Luckily, he’s won his last few decisions.  But if we’re really saying that xFIP is more important than winning a lot of games, then we’d have to be prepared to go all the way and have a Cy Young winner with a losing record and maybe fewer than 10 wins.  I don’t know about that.
     
    2.  When I look at Felix’s 10 losses, he gave up at least 3 runs in every loss.  I don’t cry for pitchers who lose games after giving up 3 runs.  That’s not a hard luck story (Felix has had a bunch of no-decisions when he gave up fewer than 3 runs — he could easily have 17 wins — but I’m not inclined to take away any of Felix’s 10 losses).
     
    3.  What about pitching well when it matters most?  True enough, Felix had a 0.82 ERA in August, after the Mariners were practically eliminated from post-season play.  There’s not much pressure on a guy pitching for a team that’s 30 games below .500.  What about Felix’s performance earlier in the season?  Seattle was picked by many to win the AL West.  On May 1, the Mariners were half a game out of first place.  The Mariners won only 8 games in May, and fell out of contention.  How did Felix pitch in May, while it still mattered?  He went 0-3 with a 4.79 ERA.
     
    4.  I don’t see how a pitcher can be named Cy Young, when for most of the year he wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own team.  If the Mariners have a team Cy Young award, it should go to Cliff Lee.  How did Cliff Lee pitch for Seattle during the critical month of May?  He had the best FIP in baseball, at 1.53.  Overall, Lee’s 2010 line for Seattle (8-3, 2.34 ERA, 0.95 WHIP) is better than Felix’s.
     
    I dunno. Personally, award debates make my head hurt.  But I look at CC, and he’s anchored the pitching staff for the team with the best record in baseball, and that ought to be worth something, just like pitching lights out baseball when it no longer matters is also worth something.  If Felix wins the Cy Young, that’s fine.  Come game 1 of the World Series, I’d rather have CC on the mound for my team.

  11. a mariners fan

    Larry, I'm sorry you had to watch the Mariners offense. Its brutal. I missed your mention of "devil's advocate." I think the best argument against Felix is the defense and ballpark. You're right about Cliff Lee. He was the better pitcher when he was here. Lee was a machine. Lee was awesome. However, Felix has been better than Lee since the trade.

     

    I'm still expecting CC to win 22 or 23 and claim the Cy Young, but it's a good sign that Felix will probably be a close second despite his eventual 13-11 record (He'll probably go 8 scoreless and get another no decision before the season's over because the Mariners couldn't get a rally off some September call-up)

  12. Larry@IIATMS

    Mariners fan, Safeco is a great ballpark.  I wrote about it here.  I spend about 6 weeks a year in the Seattle area (Whidbey Island), and I pull for the Mariners when they're not playing the Yanks.  I also picked the Mariners on this blog to make the post-season.  That's why I mostly write about economic issues!

     

    Stepping back from the devil's advocate role, I think Felix does deserve the Cy Young.  Even his performance in May was not that terrible.  If sabermetrics is good for anything, it should be able to isolate the performance of a player from the performance of his team.  If sabermetrics teaches us anything, it is that we pay too much attention to guys on winning teams.  OK.  Count me in as a convert.  Now if you could just get Jason a Cy Young vote …

  13. Ryan

    I just need to put this out there to counter any further "But CC pitches in the more-difficult AL East" arguments, such as the one Joseph made. And I know this is imperfect, but it does have some validity – just another way of looking at things.

    This season, the top 7 run-scoring teams are the Yankees, Red Sox, Reds, Rays, Twins, Rangers, and White Sox. Felix has faced those teams 13 times, including 3 starts against the Yankees (the best run-scoring team). CC has faced those teams 9 times, including 0 against the Yankees (obviously).

    The bottom 7 run-scoring teams are the Mariners, Pirates, Astros, Orioles, Indians, Athletics, and Royals. Felix has faced those teams 9 times, including 0 against the Mariners (obviously). CC has faced those teams 13 times, including 2 starts against the hapless Mariners.

    I know CC will likely be facing the Sox and Rays a few more times this year, but still – don't be so quick to assume that his schedule/workload has been more difficult than Felix's.

     

  14. Mark Smith

    A starting pitcher has to go 5 innings before he can win a game. He can lose it before 5 but not win at all. After that, the scorer gives it to the person who most “deserves” it, like you said. The idea is that the starting pitcher failed because he didn’t make it at least 5 innings and shouldn’t be considered.

  15. Geoff

    “The most important thing a pitcher can do is win games”? Give me a break. The most important thing a pitcher can do is go deep into games, bypass shaky relievers and get the ball to his closer (or finish the game himself). The fact that Phil Hughes has 16 wins this year and Felix has just one more win than AJ freaking Burnett shows just how overrated the win statistic is. Okay, maybe ERA is a little overrated and it is a pitcher’s job to match the other team’s pitcher and keep his team in the game. But can you really expect any pitcher to match zeroes as much as Felix has this year? In his 10 losses this year, the Mariners have scored 10 runs total while he’s been on the hill for crying out loud! By weighting wins over all other statistics so heavily, voters are being extremely ignorant. Just about everyone who objectively looks at this race agrees that Felix deserves this award, except those who actually have a vote. And that’s a travesty.

  16. John

    YOU CANT CONVERT FELIX NUMBERS BY ADDING MORE RUN SUPPORT.

     

    For cryin out loud the numbers ARE the numbers. You cant know anything about cause and effect, probabilities or outcomes. We can only deal with what the player actually did. You have no idea how CC would have pitched if he had low run support–You pitch to the score and the season. CC does what he has to do to Win that particular game And calculates what he needs left to finish the season. It is a fallacy of all logic to REPLACE the actual situation the player was ACTUALLY in and then convert his numbers..that is the height of stupidity and completely disregards reality for fiction.

  17. Jason@IIATMS

    @John: Of course you can't convert Felix's numbers by adding RS… however, it's fine to imagine what #'s Felix could post if he had the benefit of league-leading RS instead of league-worst RS.

  18. Ryan

    @John: I think the real "height of stupidity" is suggesting that a major-league pitcher does only what he needs to earn a "W" in any given start.

  19. Jeff

    @Larry, a counter-devil's advocate for your first point; yes I think someone with a losing record can (and should) get the Cy Young.  MVPs have been given out to last place teams.  World Series MVPs have been given out to losing teams, why not a Cy Young to a losing pitcher?  If someone starts 40 games, has a WHIP under 1 and an ERA well under 2, pitches 250 Innings and is the only one in the league over 200 strikeouts, only 50 walks and blows everyone out of the water on those stats, would you really give the CY to someone else if he had an 8-10 record?  Granted, you'd need to have a starting 9 like the '63 Mets that can't field or hit, but it's certainly possible.

     

    I think everyone agrees that wins MATTER.  I think everyone also agrees that the stats that should lead into wins (ERA, IP, WHIP, k/W ratio) matter.  This year, the voters need to figure out the weighting.

     

    Some random fodder for thought.  I've always thought it odd that a pitcher can benefit from his own bad fielding (he gets an error, but a lower ERA).  So, to clean up/clarify that bit, the top two in your group analysis have somewhat deflated ERAs (which doesn't make a huge difference, but brings them closer to CC and Price)

    CC – 1 error (throw, June 3rd) leading to 0 runs

    Price – 0 errors

    Buchholz – 2 errors (throw, April 22) and (pickoff, August 28) leading 1 "unearned" run.  If this run had been earned his ERA would be approx. 2.31.

    King Felix – 2 errors (throw, April 26) leading to 1 "unearned" run and (fielding, July 31).  If this run had been earned his ERA would be approx. 2.34.

     

    Thanks for the synoposis – if nothing else it's put rather firmly in my mind that, despite the ERA, Clay Bucholz (who's having a great year) isn't even in the top-3 thus far.

  20. jon

    I just wish we had K Felix here, wearing pinstripes.  Then we could resolve this argument, once and for all. ;)

     

    I'm all for a rotation with CC, Lee, and Felix – I'm willing to bet we'd win more games than Seattle did.

  21. Kevin S.

    John, read this: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1815
     
    Then this: http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2009/09/12/pitching-to-the-score/
     
    Then get back to me about a pitcher “doing enough to win.”

  22. Kyle

    I think this is quickly becoming a sabermetrics versus oldschool debate. Not necessarily on this post, but as a mariner fan I am seeing it on all the felix vs CC debates. That really isn’t fair to Felix (or CC who does have good numbers).

    This is mostly to Larry’s (Dev Advo) arguments, but more importantly to most of the people who share those opinions. King Felix guys are not even asking the voters to look at xFIP or WAR. Just look at K/BB or ERA or Innings or K’s or OBA or CG or quality starts or take your pick of the basic stats that you need a second grade calculator to determine. CC has done an amazing job anchoring the best team in baseball, but there is LESS pressure when you are going to get 8 runs a game.

    As for this “doesn’t matter after May” idea…Ask CC how easy it is to play for a bad team when you are out of it (Cleveland pre Brewers trade). The personal pressure Felix puts out for the team that discovered him at 16 and the fan base that adores him makes him want to be perfect every start.

    As for the ballpark argument, I concede that the parks are not similar, but felix has dominated the red sox and the yanks at their parks this season and last season. The bottom line is that to make it sound like we are picking out obscure sabermetrics to support our guy is not the case. It isn’t fantasy to say that if felix recieved better run support (or didn’t have Brandon League and David Aardsma blowing saves all season) then he would have a better win-loss record. The Cy Young should go to the most dominating pitcher in the league and CC is hurt in that argument in my opinion BECAUSE he wins games in which he was not as dominant as Felix was in losses because of the team batting for him while he sits on the bench. My feeling is that if you line up stats and can knock out any line (ERA, Ks, Wins, Etc) and lose your case for being Cy Young over another guy then you shouldn’t win. Felix can still be in the discussion over any guy if you pick any one stat to remove. If you remove on stat, wins, from CC the decision of who is Cy Young is a no brainer. No matter how old school you are, no one stat by itself (Not even these sacred wins) is that important…

    Finally, I will say that the most that can be said is RIGHT NOW Felix deserves the Cy Young in my opinion because he has had a better Season so far with less to work with, but in the next month either guy could get hurt (hope not for either) or get lit up ni two of their last 4 starts while the other dazzels. This could become a non-issue by the time the season is done.

  23. Luck will absolutely even out over a season.  This is not a factor of luck however.  The Mariners being a bad team is not bad luck, Felix just won't have as many wins over the season because his team is worse – that's expected, not luck.

    I would like to point this out: What matters more than ERA for an AL pitcher?  They don't bat, they have no influence on the offense at all, so why look at ANYTHING other than ERA?  Strikeouts are beneficial, but only insofar as they help the pitcher out of an inning without giving up an earned run, so why should we care about anything other than that?  All that matters is whose ERA is the lowest.

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