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November 19, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Interpreting the AL Cy Young Vote

by Christina Kahrl

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Felix Hernandez didn't get many wins in 2010, but he did win one big decision, and it was with the benefit of something he didn't get a lot of: support, and support from those invested in the outcome, no less. By getting 21 of 28 possible first-place votes, Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award going away.

For all of the build-up that this was going to be a decision between CC Sabathia's league-leading win tally and Hernandez's performance, or his strikeout tally, or whatever numeric proxy you might find for him to quantify the fact that he was handily the league's best pitcher—all of it was pointless. Instead, happily, the voters certified the obvious, providing an assurance that this wasn't going to be one of those years when the guy who wasn't even one of the top two or three starters in his league was bringing home hardware because he had the good fortune to have a productive set of teammates at the plate.

It would be easy to ascribe the voting breakdown to a simple generational divide, since it seemed as if an awful lot of the cool kids—as these things go—were among those voting for Hernandez. Ken Rosenthal and Joe Posnanski? Amalie Benjamin and Larry Stone? Yes, these are the hep cats in the crowd. But it's also a decidedly untrue observation, since you'll find long-service writers like Lynn Henning and John Lowe and Ray Ratto among those voting Hernandez first. The “kids” added decisive mass, but they didn't own this vote. If anything, I'd suggest the vote represents a win for common-sense propositions we've been arguing about for decades, like the observation that a starting pitcher doesn't get to pick his teammates, or determine the extent of his run support. Whatever dragon of old-school sensibilities you wished slain, whether Jack McDowell's demonstrably untrue “knowing how to win,” or Bartolo Colon's victory in 2005, this was St. George's Day and Christmas, all wrapped up in one.

So first, let's not pigeonhole it as a symptom of generational divide. Only three people voting picked Sabathia first, after all, and while they were among the most senior BBWAA electors, they were also slightly less senior than a couple of the guys voting for Hernandez. Instead, I'd blame a big stack of obviousness on Sabathia's weak polling as far as first-place votes, but that's because voting for Sabathia this year made perhaps even less sense than voting for Colon in 2005. At least Colon was the second-best starter in the league in things like SNLVAR and SNWP behind the robbed Johan Santana among ERA qualifiers. Sabathia didn't even have that, ranking eighth in SNWP, and tied for sixth in SNLVAR. In essence, his case was wins and little else, which he had, thanks to an Expendables-grade big-name supporting cast, but like that turkey, just as damned to go to their collective unhappy end.*

Instead, however you want to characterize those who voted for Sabathia, I found the quartet who voted David Price first instead of Hernandez to be the most interesting subset among the voters, since it was their choices that elevated their man above Sabathia in the final tally, putting the lie to the entire initial framing of the expected outcome. If this was “wins versus performance,” there were obviously some voters who sought a bit of both, and found their man in tabbing the Rays' ace. So that was Price: second in the league in wins, and also SNLVAR and SNWP, and deservingly winding up in second place in these standings as well. If this was a matter of picking a quality pitcher who also happened to be pitching in a pennant-relevant situation, then apparently Price was your choice, for reason, while putting Sabathia's “most wins” position in the shade.

The problem is teasing out much meaning from what happened beyond the first-place votes, if there's any to be found. Having awarded King Felix his due, it was as if the electorate shrank from making the equally bold step of putting Sabathia as low as he deserved. Beyond wins and maybe innings, there isn't a lot to tell you that Sabathia deserved to rank this far above Jered Weaver or Cliff Lee, let alone Trevor Cahill or Jon Lester. So however right it is that Hernandez won for having a season that rates with Roy Halladay's, raw wins obviously still holds some form of attraction over the voters. Whether you want to ascribe this to shiny-bauble sentiment on behalf of a number bigger than 19, or a collective guilt for doing the right thing, the implication is that Hernandez's win represents incremental change, not a complete altering of the landscape.

That's going to be important to remember going forward, because selection of the electorate from within the BBWAA changes from year to year. A differently composed group of 28 would not have automatically conjured up this same result all the way down the line, even if you can hope that the decisive advantages Hernandez had in pure performance would compel any group of 28 to reach at least this same conclusion. But as a result, I would urge people to not see this as an end of a long argument about evaluating starting pitcher performance, or a beginning. It is simply progress, and the sort of thing we can keep plugging away at, to deliver more of the same.

*: In Texas, or almost straight to video, which very well may be effectively the same thing.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

32 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

hyprvypr

Progress and change are usually slow right? I'm just happy to see any change in a sport that loathes it.

Nov 19, 2010 06:51 AM
rating: 2
 
T. Kiefer

All of the kind of arguments used to justify Felix Hernandez' award certainly weren't present when they were handing out the Gold Gloves, and from what I can tell from the commentariat, will be dismissed when voting for the AL MVP. Josh Hamilton is supposedly going to get the MVP because of BA (analogous to W), Texas went to the playoffs, and an inspiring story of recovery from drug addiction. Miguel Cabrera won't get MVP because 'peripherial' stats (like OPS, games started, intentional walks, etc.) don't matter as much, Tigers didn't go to the playoffs, and recovery from alcohol abuse isn't (as) inspiring. (Maybe Cabrera needed to become a born-again Christian in order for the story to become 'inspiring').
So the logic for Hamilton being MVP, if applied to pitchers, would have meant that Sabathia should've gotten the Cy Young. The logic applied to Cy Young, if it should be applied to MVP, will mean that Cabrera is the AL MVP.
Consistency is a foundation for both rationality and sanity.

Nov 19, 2010 07:43 AM
rating: -3
 
JoeSky60

Bitter? It's not like Hamilton wasn't in the race in peripherals, and had he not been injured, may, or may not have improved on them. Clearly, Hamilton, like Miggy, carried his team on his back most of the year. The fact that he had more talent around him, makes for a more interesting narrative for Miggy. He might have won, had he had better teammates. Then again, you have the Andre Dawson scenario. Either way, Cabrera(who I have on 2 fantasy teams) deserves the award, but so does Hamilton. Whoever loses, it won't be because a much less deserving player(Morneau, anyone?) won.

Nov 19, 2010 08:29 AM
rating: 4
 
jlefty

I have a problem with this. The more "interesting narrative" you mentioned doesn't seem like it'll go away anytime soon. Yet it is the exact same principle that people are (finally) turning away from in the Cy Young voting: that players should be awarded/discredited based on the players around them.

(I'm totally OK with the rest of your post saying that it's a close call between the two--I just don't see why the narrative should play any part at all)

Nov 19, 2010 10:15 AM
rating: 0
 
JoeSky60

I completely agree, but the narrative seems to have a lot to do with how many MSM people vote. Just sayin'.

Nov 19, 2010 15:47 PM
rating: 0
 
John Collins
(110)

Saying Felix is to CC as Miggy is to Hamilton is silly. Hamilton had a higher VORP and was a better defensive player. A strong -- decisive? -- case can be made for Hamilton as MVP that doesn't involve his personal redemption, the Rangers' division title, or anything like that. The "playing great" vs "value to his team" angle is a red herring too. Hamilton played better too.

Nov 19, 2010 09:26 AM
rating: 3
 
Jay Taylor

I think if I had a vote I would go with Cabrera for MVP, but it's not like it's a slam dunk win. Hamilton beats Cabrera in a lot of advanced stats (WARP, WAR, wOBA, TAv) so it's not an insult if Hamilton wins.

I like Cabrera's durability a lot which is why I give him the edge, but at the same time it's a lot harder to get good production out of Hamilton's position (plus he was a good fielder) then to get good production out of first base (where Miggy wasn't all that great).

Nov 19, 2010 09:35 AM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

Well, Cy Young is for the BEST pitcher, and MVP is for MOST VALUABLE player. Cabrera and Hamilton are close enough in context-removed value that other issues like winning, intangibles, etc. could legitimately factor in, IMO.

Nov 19, 2010 09:59 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

The thing is, three different sets of people voted on these things. The MVP and CYA are usually voted for by different slates of electors selected among BBWAA members from the team markets; there won't be much overlap (if any) in the two groups, so the results are going to be peculiar to each.

As for the GGs, that's not the responsibility of the commentariat at all.

Nov 19, 2010 11:10 AM
 
sephrath

FWIW, the gold gloves are voted on by players and managers, not the Baseball Writers. Can't really compare them.

Nov 21, 2010 06:20 AM
rating: 0
 
dodgerken222

Progress will be complete when the Cy Young Award becomes the Walter Johnson Reward.

Nov 19, 2010 08:22 AM
rating: 2
 
dodgerken222

Make that W. J. AWARD...typo. By the way, Josh Hamilton was pretty much out/hobbled the last month, by which time he had been the major reason why Texas had the division wrapped up. Texas would not have won (certainly wouldn't have run away with it) without Hamilton. Detroit could have been mediocre without Cabrera. The name of the award is Most Valuable Player. If it were for best player it could be called the Babe Ruth Award or something. The Cy Young Award is for pitching excellence; it doesn't mention how valuable he was to his team. They are two different awards, and have inherently different standards. If you want Cabrera to win it, then change the name of the award. It's ridiculous to give the MVP to a player on a non-contending team, with all due respect to Ernie Banks, Andre Dawson, et al.

Nov 19, 2010 08:36 AM
rating: -2
 
jlefty

Who is to say the 'Valuable' is in reference to the team he plays for? Miggy is a very valuable ballplayer whose talents weren't properly utilized by his team this year.

It's like saying that it's ridiculous to not give the award named after the all-time leader in wins to the pitcher who lead the league in wins.

What's in a name?

Nov 19, 2010 10:26 AM
rating: 4
 
dodgerken222

What's in a name? Just about everything. If a person has something that's valuable, then without it he has less of a net value. When Ralph Kiner led the league in homers and asked for a raise, Branch Rickey told him that they could have finished last without him. A player is not valuable to his team in a given year if they are totally out of contention. Yes he might have potential future value for the team (or another team)....but in that given year he is NOT a candidate for most valuable player. This is especially true in the wild card era, where there are usually at least seven teams in contention in a league going into September. This is an instance where there SHOULD be a double standard, with numbers bein more important in the Cy Young race than in the MVP balloting.

Nov 19, 2010 12:55 PM
rating: -2
 
John Collins
(110)

I gotta go with Lefko on this, re: value. A $100 bill is more valuable than a $20 bill, even if the hundred has been misplaced and its value isn't being appropriately accessed. Kiner got screwed. Let's not take Rickey's clever ways of exploiting his workers as Confucian aphorisms.

Nov 19, 2010 18:33 PM
rating: 8
 
grandslam28

With gold glove defense and probably the most impact on is team Robinson Cano should get the MVP. Cabrera's was out of it and the Rangers could still have won that division with an average outfielder instead of Hamilton. The Yankees would not have been in the division race and may have been passed by the Red Sox had Cano not been so good.

Nov 19, 2010 13:28 PM
rating: 0
 
John Collins
(110)

Not GG defense either by FanGraphs' reckoning, or by BP's fielding metric. I expected it too, but the numbers weren't there.

Nov 19, 2010 18:35 PM
rating: 1
 
BarryR

Up until the mid-80s, the Cy Young plaque read "Awarded to the Most Valuable Pitcher", it was then changed to "Most Outstanding" which may well have helped Felix.
Beyond that, Felix was helped by an oddity in that it was hard to tell who his real competition was. When I thought about it, as important as David Price was to the TB pitching staff, he had fewer wins and IP than Sabathia, who provided the same glue to the Yankees staff. So in the end, Hernandez was the default choice, based on all sorts of metrics, as well as IP and K. This might have been different had Sabathia won 18 instead of 21 -- there is a difference in the pressure of pitching in a pennant race (no matter how irrelevant the ultimate outcome has been made by the playoff system). And Christina, it's interesting that you mentioned Jon Lester instead of Clay Buchholz, whose numbers certainly had an impact on Lester's support -- and vice versa.

Nov 19, 2010 13:35 PM
rating: 1
 
John Carter

Sabathia 6th? Nay, at worse 4th after Felix, Price, and Weaver. I would have Sabathia unhesitantly above Buchholz and Lestor on my ballot - with absolutely no animosity towards the Red Sox nation on that - an organization I highly admire.

Sabathia's high inning total is, indeed, very significant. That is a lot more batters he was able to get out. Most pitchers would have far worse rate stats if they were left in the game as long as Sabathia was - and Sabathia's rate stats might have been much better if the Yankees had better options getting to Mariano. Sabathia's lower LOB% is evidence of this. The inning total is why Sabathia's VORP is rightly much greater than Lester's.

It is even with Buchholz, but let's look closer: Sabathia had a better strikeout rate and a better walk rate. Buchholz had a better hit rate which can be easily attributable to his luckier BABiP rate. Buchholz gave up far fewer home runs, but, again, I think there was probably some luck in that. Home runs are a small sample item and Sabathia's GB/FB was almost as good as Buchholz's. So, the more reliable skill related stats point strongly to Sabathia. Finally, there is the reliability factor. This was Buchholz's breakthrough year. Which pitcher would you bet on repeating their performance next year? Sabathia is the better pitcher.

Nov 19, 2010 22:07 PM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

P.S. Same goes for Cahill and Lee as Lestor - I think surely VORP is the primary pertinent BP stat here, not a rate stat like SNLVAR.

Nov 19, 2010 22:16 PM
rating: -3
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

SNLVAR's a tally, not a rate. Not that I'm entirely unsympathetic to your point about IP, but jes' sayin'.

Nov 20, 2010 08:30 AM
 
sephrath

I think the pendulum has swung a little to far with regard to wins. It used to be that they were overvalued, I think now they are under valued.

The goal of the team is to win games. Players know this. I am sure Sabathia or Price, etc, had a few games where they had a big lead... say 5,6-0 and the team allowed a runner on 3rd to score in order to get an out, and that the pitchers probably were pitching to the score, not trying to be perfect with every pitch, etc.

I don't know how much of a difference it would've made, but I bet if Sabathia was constantly in games where he had 0,1,2 runs of support, he probably would've given up less runs. And the opposite with Felix.

Overall, all these skill based stats like SIERA which are derived from things like K/9 bb/9, etc, are better at telling you who's skills are more sustainable going forward, then they are at judging how good a player actually was. E.G. I fully expect Buchholz, Price, and Cahill to have era's closer to 4 next year then to 3 based on their skills, but that shouldn't take away from what they actually did during the 2010 season.

Anyway, Felix deserved the Cy Young, but wins shouldn't be as devalued as they seem to be these days, nor should they have the value they had even 5-10 years ago. We need to slide to a happy medium.

Nov 21, 2010 06:34 AM
rating: -1
 
awayish

not that this is a bad thing at all, but voters tend to be more accepting of new ideas when it's done for an underdog kind of guy like felix. traditional narratives about winning suddenly don't look so hot when they are in support of a yankees pitcher.

Nov 21, 2010 06:54 AM
rating: 0
 
awayish

Writers still vote for the best story, and felix’s story is more attractive than mere stats. Usually, pitcher wins and team success etc seem to rouse the strongest hero worship in some people who happen to write about baseball, but it’d be wrong to assume that these are all that can invoke a cy young narrative.

Will the writers learn some math as a result of this…? A guy like felix who forces them to challenge old ideas is certainly contributing to some sort of reflection. I’d like to say that I hope they learn some math, but I really don’t care.

Nov 21, 2010 07:00 AM
rating: 0
 
dodgerken222

This argument was made on the MLB Network, wherein Sabbathia and Price were pitching to the score and therefore didn't have to make "perfect" pitches and so willingly gave up runs. How come when Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux had phenomenal ERAs that they were not pitching to the score? Certainly the Bosox must have given Pedro some big leads. Furthermore, in their no-decisions, which were more than five games for each, Hernandez has an ERA under 2 and Sabbathia was over 4. Surely in these games runs were important.
This concept of "pitching to the score" is about as mythical as saying that a pitcher with a good won-loss record just "knows how to win."

Nov 21, 2010 08:33 AM
rating: 6
 
louisbarash

There seems a rather large consensus that Hernandez was a clear winner. While I think he was deserving, I am not (despite not having thoroughly studied the issue) sure it wasn't a lot closer than people think. Two separate issues: (1) Many of the stats that people relied upon to anoint Hernandez are not adjusted for park effect or defense. Hernandez pitched in the best pitchers park in the league, in front of the best outfield defense and a good infield defense. His home performance was significantly better than his road performance. Relatively speaking, Price and Sabathis pitched in far worse parks, and while they both had good defense (do you think Felix's numbers might have been different had Posada caught every one of his games?), my sense is that it was not quite as good as Seattle's. If you adjust for those factors, I think Hernandez' 22 SNW gets closer to Sabathia's 19.6 or Weaver's 19.9. (2) Roy Halladay weighed in on the "wins matter" question, and I think there is a sabermetric point here, too. I am not saying King Felix is not a winner, he consistently keeps his team in the game. But because you pitch to win the game, if your team does give you some runs, you pitch differently. With a team that scores runs, you can ignore the leadoff double (unless you are behind in the late innings) and just go after the next batters. If your team doesn't score a lot, you're going to try cut off that run. The quality pitcher on the quality team is going to give up more runs and hits, and have fewer strikeouts, than a comparable pitcher on a weaker team. The context of King Felix's games this year was always the same; one run could decide it. I'm not saying it was fun, or that Price, Sabathia or any pitcher in the league could have matched the performance under the same trying circumstances. But it does have some impact on the metrics that have been pointed to as justifying awarding the Cy Young to Hernandez.

The combination of park factor, defense, and consistently pitching to maximize zero run results is probably not a difference that would completely close the gap between Hernandez and the rest in stats like VORP and SNW. But if one is going to argue the merits of newer stats, one must understand their limitations, too. I think this was a closer contest than most people are saying, close enough that I wouldn't have been particularly disappointed if Price or Sabathia had won.

Nov 21, 2010 09:11 AM
rating: 1
 
awayish

1st point is valid, 2nd is not.

Nov 21, 2010 10:06 AM
rating: 1
 
juiced

One problem with your comment is that Tampa actually played as the best pitcher's park in the American league this year. Bill James' handbook scores it an "80", meaning that Rays/their opponents scored only 80% the amount of runs that they combined for in road games.

So while its definitely appropriate to say that park effects close the gap between Felix and CC somewhat, it doesn't apply to Price, who is being overrated by the pundits who say (1) hey he's 19-6 better than Felix, and (2) hey, his ERA was .40 better than CC. Considering Price's fewer innings and park, baseball prospectus puts several AL pitchers ahead of his, including CC Lester Felix Bucholz Weaver etc.

Nov 22, 2010 19:52 PM
rating: 0
 
dodgerken222

With a big lead, guy on third and one out, infield plays back..which helps the pitcher. In a one-run game, same situation, infield plays in...which helps the hitter signicantly. I would guess Felix had a lot more of those situations than Sabbathia.

Nov 21, 2010 11:30 AM
rating: 0
 
bbienk01

I do agree that pitchers are taught to pitch differently with a large lead. As dodgerken222 pointed out, the infield plays back with a man on third and less than two outs. Also, pitchers are more likely to throw a fastball down the middle to get a strike when they are behind in the count if a home run won't have a major effect on the score.

But that being said, its not enough to just say that this is the case. I have no idea how often these situations come up, and before we assume that a pitcher on a high-scoring team allowed more runs because they were "pitching to the score," I'd have to see some evidence that these situations came up enough to have a real effect. I seriously doubt that it makes a large difference over the course of a season, certainly not enough to explain the difference between CC Sabathia's numbers and Felix Hernandez's.

Nov 21, 2010 12:33 PM
rating: 1
 
juiced

The big four should be Halladay, Felix, Pujols, and Hamilton. The big four will be Halladay, Felix, Votto, and Hamilton.

Pujols was an entire win over replacement better than Votto, but Votto was close enough that his being on a winning team will convince the voters to vote for him.

Nov 21, 2010 20:03 PM
rating: 0
 
escapingNihilism

would Hernandez still have won were his record 12-13?

Nov 22, 2010 11:47 AM
rating: 1
 
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