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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

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