The winner of the 2010 American League Cy Young will be ...
... an entire school of thought.
|Felix Hernandez's 13-12 record doesn't tell much of the story. (US Presswire)|
And in this corner, you've got sabermetrics. WAR and VORP and adjusted ERA and more, so much more. Working this corner is Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners, who has a league-leading 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts -- but whose 13-12 record on the worst team in the American League would normally disqualify him outright from the Cy Young conversation.
But here's the thing:
Hernandez is going to win it. Maybe I'm skipping to the end of the story right here in the seventh paragraph, but that's how this story ends. That's who wins the 2010 AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez -- and the sabermetricians.
With this victory for Hernandez, the revolution will be over. The coup will have succeeded. Sabermetrics -- which started with a bored, baseball-crazy security guard working nights at a pork-and-beans plant in Kansas City -- will be the new king. Long live Bill James (the aforementioned security guard) and the statistical revolution he wrought.
This is how it should be, by the way. Felix Hernandez has been the best pitcher this season in the American League, and in all of baseball. He doesn't have the wins to show for it, no, but wins (and losses) are a team statistic unfairly assigned to one player. At the heart of sabermetrics is more than a legion of new statistics, like WAR (which means "wins above replacement" and calculates a player's value against the value of a mythical replacement with a standard production baseline). Sabermetrics also changed the prism through which we evaluate traditional statistics -- even statistics as seemingly self-explanatory as wins and losses.
And so Felix Hernandez will win the Cy Young because he has been the best pitcher in the American League. He hasn't won the most games -- other than Fernando Valenzuela in strike-shortened 1981, no starter has won the Cy Young with just 13 wins -- but wins and losses are relative.
Look at it like this: When Sabathia pitched this season, he received roughly twice the offensive support (7.31 runs per start) as Hernandez (3.75 run per start). That alone doesn't explain how Hernandez could be superior to Sabathia despite an inferior win-loss record, but it goes a long way. So does the New York bullpen's 3.39 ERA compared to the Seattle bullpen's 4.25 ERA. And so does the Yankees' MLB-leading fielding percentage, compared to the Mariners' 20th-ranked fielding percentage.
Those are traditional statistics that work for Hernandez in the team context. Sabermetrics work for him individually, categories like WAR (he's first in the AL), WHIP (second) and opponent OPS (he's first) and a whole host of others. I won't list all the sabermetric statistics that show just how dominant Hernandez has been this season, for two reasons: One, if you follow baseball closely enough to know those sabermetrics categories, you already know this. And two, if you don't know what those sabermetric stats are, you'd have no idea what they mean anyway.
I say that with no disrespect, because I don't know what most of them mean, either.
WHIP? Sure, I know WHIP. I knew WHIP before I knew it was called WHIP. In 1995, when I covered the Florida Marlins for the Miami Herald, Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski told me his first calculation when scouting a minor-league pitcher was to add the pitcher's walks and hits allowed, and compare it to the pitcher's total of innings pitched. Any pitcher allowing less than one base runner per inning, Dombrowski told me, was dominant.
Back then it struck me as brilliant. Today it strikes me as WHIP -- and Hernandez is second in the AL at 1.057 hits/walks allowed per inning; Sabathia is ninth at 1.191. WHIP is one of the least esoteric of the sabermetric pitching numbers, and like I said, I don't know most of the others. Does that make me an idiot? To some people, sure it does.
Sabermetrics are a tough sell to the typical baseball fan for their complexity, and for their break from tradition, but sabermetrics also have proved to be a tough sell because of sabermetricians. It reminds me of a quote from Gandhi, who once said, "If it weren't for Christians, I'd be a Christian." If you've spent much time in church, you know what Gandhi meant: Instead of drawing others to their faith, (some) Christians push people away by being smug, judgmental or holier than thou.
Kind of like (some) sabermetricians.
If you don't like the religion comparison, fine. I have another one. (Some) sabermetricians remind me of (some) long-time UFC fans -- snobs who pat themselves on the back for discovering the sport first.. They sneer at everyone else, even late arrivals to their cause, as unworthy nitwits.
Sabermetrics is here, and it's here to stay, but Bill James started this irrefutably logical revival in the late 1970s and it should be firmly entrenched among mainstream fans by now. But it's not. It's informative and instructive and interesting, yet it's still on the fringes. Why? Mostly because people don't like change -- they like their batting average and their RBI -- but also because people don't like to be treated like simpletons. Walk into a statistical conversation with the wrong sabermetricians, and you'd better be wearing steel-toed boots. Because first chance they get, they'll stomp on your foot. You RBI-loving idiot ...
That said, sabermetricians will get their first major win next month when Felix Hernandez is crowned the AL Cy Young winner. Almost every baseball writer I know, even the guys who identify with traditional statistics over sabermetric values, say they did -- or would -- vote for Hernandez because the sabermetrics are too obvious to ignore: Sabathia has pitched for the better team, yes, but Hernandez has pitched better.
Hernandez will win, and it will be a victory for raw data and cold calculation. It will be a victory for fairness and common sense.
And it will be a victory for a slowly arriving school of thought that might have been here by now if its disciples were just a little bit more likable.