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On the American League Cy Young Award debate and open-mindedness…

Sep 29, 2010, 9:51 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners Photo Day Getty Images

“Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”

Mark Twain wrote that. And now I’m stealing it to head up a blog post about
baseball stats. That’s either really cliche or really stupid. Or
both. Yeah, it’s both.


My name is Drew Silva. I contribute here on Hardball Talk during the
weekends and on a couple of weekday nights. This piece is not about me,
nor is it about my way of thinking. It’s a call for open-mindedness
toward new advancements in the understanding of baseball and new
technologies that help in the evaluation of baseball players.


Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has covered the Indians beat for
over 20 years. He’s seen hundreds of blown saves and plenty of anemic
batting lineups, as has any other beat writer. But on September 11 of
this season he published a column on the Plain Dealer‘s website
that stated:

In pitching, the only thing that really matters is wins.

Hoynes wasn’t taking about team victories. Everybody knows that a team must collect wins in order to reach the playoffs, and then must win in the postseason in order to be awarded the World Series title. That’s obvious. It’s what everybody plays for. But Hoynes wasn’t talking about those kind of wins.

Hoynes was talking about the kind of victories that show up in a pitcher’s win-loss record and he was making reference to this year’s debate about the American League Cy Young Award. Hoynes believes that Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia should be given the highly-coveted hardware because he is a 20-game winner and that Mariners ace Felix Hernandez should be denied the award because he stands 13-12. Hoynes came to this conclusion because he is under the belief that a win, as he writes, is “the most important stat” a pitcher can accumulate.

Hoynes is … well … wrong.

He’s not wrong about Sabathia being deserving of an award — CC is great, and would take the Cy most years with the numbers he’s put up — but Hoynes is wrong about using a win-loss record as a barometer for pitching success. Those “wins” rely too heavily on outside factors.

Hernandez is the ace on a team with a historically pitiful offense. Sabathia pitches on a club with a $200 million payroll and a lineup built to mash. There should be no bias either way. The Cy Young Award, after all, is meant to be given to baseball’s best pitcher. Not the most fortunate.

This all got me thinking — and, whether right or wrong outlet, I tweeted my thoughts:

If the BBWAA’s awards are to be taken seriously, there should be a
requirement that all members understand baseball’s advanced statistics.

Relying on win-loss records as a means for player evaluation is foolish and beyond outdated. A win-loss record might have indicated something about a pitcher back in the 1920s, when starters finished games, but the stat is essentially useless in this modern era of seven-man bullpens and six-inning starts.

My tweet caused a small stir in a pocket of the online baseball writing community. C. Trent Rosecrans of CBSSports.com suggested that I was demanding that all writers think like me. Will Carroll of SI.com and Baseball Prospectus said I was doing myself a “disservice” with my “jihad” on the baseball establishment.

There is no jihad, and I couldn’t care less about hurting my reputation in the eyes of national baseball writers who still rely on win-loss records for a means of handing out Cy Young Awards. I’ve never written for the pursuit of fame and I didn’t start following baseball as a toddler with an eye on turning it into a career path. I started following baseball because my Dad taught me to revere Cal Ripken Jr. And because I thought Ken Griffey Jr. had the sweetest swing. And because, as a St. Louisan, Albert Pujols shaped my summers. Then Matthew Pouliot, Gregg Rosenthal and Aaron Gleeman asked me to write about baseball for Rotoworld and Tim Dierkes asked me to contribute at MLB Trade Rumors.

So I dug in. I gathered all possible knowledge — all possible data — on the game of baseball and will continue to do so until someone decides that I’m not cut out for it.

But, again, this is not about me or my way of thinking. In fact, it has nothing to do with who I am or what I’m about. This is a request that writers, who are paid to cover baseball, begin to embrace advancements in the understanding of their sport. Especially when it comes to evaluating players for the purpose of handing out awards. What I’m asking for is open-mindedness and a couple of hours of reading, really.

Want a stat that tells you more about a pitcher than a win-loss record? ERA, WHIP and K/BB ratio are a fine starting point and can all be computed in about a second. But why stop there? Why not bring in all possible data? FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is an ERA estimator that aims to keep pitchers from being punished by bad defense. Even better is xFIP, which takes into account the size of different ballparks and normalizes home run rates. WAR (Wins Above Replacement) spits out a simple number that expresses a player’s value in terms of wins. King Felix has a 6.4 WAR this season, meaning he’s meant 6.4 more wins to the Mariners than a run-of-the-mill starter. He ranks third among all major league pitchers in WAR, behind only the Phillies’ Roy Halladay and the Rangers’ Cliff Lee.

The formulas behind those more advanced stats involve some fairly complicated math, but nobody is asking for elaborate computations on the part of writers. That’s what a site like FanGraphs is for. Or Baseball-Reference. These numbers are readily available to the masses and yet some baseball writers and award-voters are choosing to ignore
them. Which brings me to my next tweet
:

It’s hard to understand why developing a better understanding of new
technology, new ideas would be seen as a negative. In any field. Ever.

Writers that prefer to avoid advanced baseball statistics often revert to calling those that do “statheads,” or “nerds,” or “geeks.” ESPN.com’s Rob Parker did it last week. Will Carroll did the same. While hardly offensive, name-calling stunts civil discourse. And last I checked, nerdy is rarely a bad thing once a person steps outside the halls of high school.

Why are a number of national and local baseball writers opting to ignore tools that aid in the evaluation of players? Some have suggested that it’s about a fear of math. Some think it’s intellectual laziness. Others have suggested that embracing new data would be seen as a form of selling-out by the old guard in the world of baseball journalism.

To me, this debate has become far too polarized. There’s no need to term this a clashing of belief systems and no need for politics to play a role because new data and new technologies need only to be seen as a positive. A dose of open-mindedness toward advanced baseball statistics and a willingness for progress is what this industry needs badly.

Then we have the issue of fan involvement, or, as Will Carroll calls it, “marketability.”

Carroll, who I respect and read often, suggested in a post on Press Coverage last week that stats like OPS and WAR bear little merit because they aren’t properly designed for mass consumption. 99% of baseball fans, as he says, don’t care about such metrics.

But here’s my question: why should they? Fans are allowed to view the game and follow the game as they please, because it’s not their job. Nobody is relying on Joe Cubs Fan to determine baseball’s Most Valuable Player or baseball’s top pitcher.

All of my friends are baseball fans, big baseball fans. But I don’t think any of them care enough about the sport to read up on WAR or Ultimate Zone Rating or something like xFIP. And that’s their prerogative, because they are not paid to write about baseball and are not asked to hand out awards that often mean big-money bonuses to the winners and shape the legacy of the game.

One last thing. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus suggested during this debate that we should all “stop caring about the awards so much” because the system is flawed and because the “concept of value or best is subjective.” He’s right about that second part.  Voting is always going to be left up to a select group of people and they have their own biases. But why is it so appalling to ask those voters to consider new data? Better data. Then the system might not be so flawed and then we might see votes that aren’t based on win-loss records.

As for the “stop caring” part, I heartily say NO. I won’t stop caring. Baseball fans and baseball writers shouldn’t have to. Because this industry can do better.

  1. Glenn - Sep 29, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    It is almost medieval to fear new insight or information. The cliche of “go back to you mother’s basement, you nerd” is getting comical at this point. It is like saying, “I’m really ignorant and very insecure about it.”

  2. andrewlw - Sep 29, 2010 at 10:16 PM

    How about this :
    one award for the best pitcher
    one award with the most wins
    They can cancel the most wins award once these old writers retire and or die.

  3. Buccofan - Sep 29, 2010 at 10:26 PM

    C. Trent Rosecrans was the Reds beat writer for the late, unlamented Cincinnati Post before it folded. He’s a hack, fat, sloppy, egotistical, overbearing, and not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, either. You can’t accuse him of intellectual laziness in a case like this, because he has little intellect with which to begin. I’m amazed that CBSSports.com would hire someone who writes as poorly and has zero insights like him.

  4. SouthofHeaven - Sep 29, 2010 at 11:22 PM

    Eloquent, well-written positions R 4 QWEERS!!!!!!!! GOOD pitchers know how 2 WIN!!!
    Kidding, obviously, and you’re right about just about everything you wrote here. Bravo.

  5. mthompson - Sep 29, 2010 at 11:29 PM

    It’s hard to understand why developing a better understanding of new technology, new ideas would be seen as a negative. In any field. Ever
    This is an excellent point. I can’t understand the resistance to these newer stats, it’s not like it’s some sort of voodoo…it’s math. Concrete and logical. Hopefully it’ll only take a couple of years to gain momentum. After all, many of these guys have been forced into using technology over the course of their careers; that’s similar, right?

  6. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Sep 29, 2010 at 11:35 PM

    “Hernandez is the ace on a team with a historically pitiful offense. Sabathia pitches on a club with a $200 million payroll and a lineup built for dominance. There should be no bias either way. The Cy Young Award, after all, is meant to be given to baseball’s best pitcher. Not the most fortunate.”
    Put this another way, if Felix had gone 9IP and given up 1ER in each start (for an absurd 1.00 ERA), you know how much his record of 13-12 would change to? 16-8, he’d gain a measly 3 wins and eliminate 4 loses out of 12 decisions [meaning 5 ND] because the Mariners offense, per JoePos, was the worst in the last 40 years or so.

  7. JBerardi - Sep 29, 2010 at 11:37 PM

    I continue to be amused that writers who form all of their opinions based purely on wins and rbis feel like they’re somehow justified in scolding others for being beholden to statistics. If these guys want to talk about the break on Sabathia’s slider or whatever, fine… but they don’t. They’re pure stats themselves. Hence the insecurity.

  8. JBerardi - Sep 29, 2010 at 11:39 PM

    Oh yeah, and, if Will Carroll says you’re wrong… congratulations, you’re right.

  9. StuckOnWords - Sep 29, 2010 at 11:51 PM

    Drew, exceptional take on an appropriate analysis on the matters of Cy Young aware. May I offer constructive criticism?
    Please review the use of “who” versus “whom”. “Who” may only be used as the subject of a sentence. “Whom” is the object. There may not be two different subjects in a sentence. Ask yourself who/what is the subject. If it is not the person to whom you are referring, consider that the person is being referred to…the “whom”.
    You have written an excellent article here. Win the readers who are well-versed in the language arts. It blares to those of us who notice such things.
    Sincerely, best regards, and deep respect,
    StuckOnWords

  10. Panda_Claus - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:01 AM

    The conversation continues to rage over the support a very good pitcher on a good team gets, versus the poor support another really good pitcher on a bad team gets.
    Let us instead focus on the modest support a really good pitcher on a really good team gets. Fewer people are talking about that guy (David Price).
    On Sunday Price gets one more chance to win 20 games, while Hernandez gets his chance to win his 14th. The only starter to win a Cy Young with fewer than 15 wins finished 13-7 in a labor-affected season (Valenzuela).
    If it’s all about stats on the other hand, compare Hernandez’ stats to Jered Weaver’s stats. Apart from their identical 13-12 records, their other numbers are surprisingly close.
    Hernandez is toiling for a dreadful team, yet he’s only won 21.3% of his teams victories, not drastically different than 22.3% for Sabathia or 20.2% for Price. At least Steve Carlton made a case for winning the Cy Young for a bad team by winning 45.7% of his team’s wins in 1972.
    For what it’s worth, Seattle had the last-ranked offense in the AL last year too, yet Felix was 19-5 last year and won 22.3% of his team’s wins in 2009. Interestingly, the across baseball ERA has dropped from 4.31/4.32 the past two years to 4.10 this year, a drop of 0.21/0.22. Hernandez’ ERA was 2.49 last year and is 2.27 now, a league-average drop of 0.22.
    I think you could actually make a stronger argument that Hernandez should have won the 2009 award over this year’s award.
    I still think Price should be the 2010 winner.

  11. Drew Silva - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:10 AM

    I very much appreciate it. Writing, at the very core, is a learning process, right? (Doh!)

  12. avg joe - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:34 AM

    This this this!
    They (crusty sportswriters) are just as dogmatic in using their traditional stats. Their stats are just… worse.
    Excellent article, Drew.

  13. quintjs - Sep 30, 2010 at 3:47 AM

    When the Cy Young award goes to the leagues best pitcher, why isn’t this a slam dunk for Felix since he has pitched MORE INNINGS than any of his rivals while giving up LESS RUNS than any of them (well, same ER as Price, but far more innings so cut the guy a break).
    How is that guy NOT the best pitcher in the league? There isn’t a need to get tied up in advanced stats.
    How much attention will voters given to Heymans executive poll where 6 out of 9 executives would give the award to Felix, i.e. those who work in baseball and should know the most about it, give the award to Felix, so how do you vote for someone else – you know better than top executives?
    (by the way, how much does anyone want to bet the 3 who didn’t came from badly run teams?).
    Oh, and if wins matter – Jon Lester – better ERA than CC or Price, about the same wins – and every game is a playoff game in Boston so the pressure argument doesn’t suffice (not saying every game in Boston actually is a playoff game, just writers think that).

  14. wrg885 - Sep 30, 2010 at 6:38 AM

    Go get ‘em Drew. Great piece. Not to suck up or anything but this post along with the defense of your tweet I have gained respect for your writing. Keep it up man. On a related note I still take a pitcher’s W/L record with some degree of significance for some reason even though I know it’s almost useless. Maybe it’s because my local paper is still emphasizing such flawed stats that were common and accepted years ago, ie W/L, RBI, etc. Last year’s CY award results helped decrease the amount of weight a W/L meant to me and I’m hoping that Felix wins it to further help me ignore this stat.

  15. quintjs - Sep 30, 2010 at 6:39 AM

    edit: not actually a better ERA than price.

  16. The Baseball Idiot - Sep 30, 2010 at 7:50 AM

    That’s interesting. I never knew an “opinion” could be wrong. It can be misguided, misinformed, and mis-many other things. But opinons are not right or wrong, they’re just opinons.
    Facts can be wrong, but who beyond the sabermetric devotees decieded that sabermetrics as evaluation tools were ‘facts’ and still not opinions of those who developed them. If this has happened, I missed the memo.
    Statistics in baseball are great, but I doubt that many of them can be referred to as “facts”.
    Why do you work so hard to deny other people the right to have thier opinion while claiming the right to have your own?

  17. SparksALot - Sep 30, 2010 at 8:27 AM

    “Statistics in baseball are great, but I doubt that many of them can be referred to as “facts”.”
    Uh, what? So if a guy gets 100 hits in 400 at bats, it’s not a fact that he gets a hit 25% of the time? I’ll admit some advances stats such as UZR that are constantly evolving are looked at a bit too much as gospel. That said, most stats, even the advanced ones, are simple number crunching. So yes, they can be referred to as facts because they are representative of what has actually happened on the field. I don’t know what gets more factual than that.
    (PS – The reply link doesn’t seem to be working, which is why I made a new comment)

  18. Darren - Sep 30, 2010 at 8:36 AM

    I keep reading about how voters and their stubborness refuse to accept that wins aren’t important, well isn’t it that same stubborness that refuses to accept that wins are just as important. There is no one stat that supercedes the rest but to not accept wins as an important stat is, in my opinion, ludicrous. If we discount wins then at some point there will be a sub .500 pitcher winning the award and honestly would you be okay with that? I’m not coming from a stance that wins are more important than ERA, WHIP and such but I believe them to be an equally valuable statistic. Zack Greinke had 16 wins on an equally bad team last year and though he was more “lucky” to get those wins on a bad team, baseball is built around luck. Wins are as important on an individual basis as they are on a team basis, if they weren’t they should just put the teams in with the best ERA in the playoffs.

  19. Jonny5 - Sep 30, 2010 at 9:12 AM

    Great job Drew. I think if wins and losses don’t count for the guys who’s job it is to score runs, why should it count against guys who’s job it is to prevent them?

  20. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Sep 30, 2010 at 9:22 AM

    “Zack Greinke had 16 wins on an equally bad team last year and though he was more “lucky” to get those wins on a bad team, baseball is built around luck.”
    That isn’t true. Check out this post* by Joe Posnanski. He compares the current Mariners team’s run production throughout time, and comes to the conclusion that they’ve scored the least amount of runs in almost 40 years(!). The next year the AL introduced the DH to increase scoring. And while KC had a pretty bad offense, they scored 180 more runs (at present with 3 games to go) than the Mariners.
    Also see my post above. It Hernandez had thrown a complete game in all of his losses, only giving up one run, he’d still only be 16-8 because the Mariners scored one run 5 times in his losses, and scored more than one only 3 times. The Toronto game a few days ago was the epitome of Hernandez’s season, he gives up two hits, one HR, and Sea losses 1-0 so Felix takes the CG loss.
    *http://joeposnanski.si.com/2010/09/17/amazing-baseball-stuff/#more-5578

  21. Snappy - Sep 30, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    Straw man alert! “Wins are as important on an individual basis as they are on a team basis, if they weren’t they should just put the teams in with the best ERA in the playoffs.”
    Drew said at the very start of his post that wins are the most important measure of a team’s success, they’re just not the best for an individual pitcher in a given season.
    Given the criteria for crediting a win (Games where they start, or enter in a tie or behind. Starters play at least 5 innings. Player either finishes a winning game, or leaves with a lead that is not surrendered) you could calculate them for any player. How many wins does Robinson Cano have?

  22. tbliggins - Sep 30, 2010 at 10:07 AM

    I think you completely missed the point that there are many factors out of a pitcher’s control that contribute to whether he gets a win, regardless of what % of his team’s wins he has.

  23. Chris Fiorentino - Sep 30, 2010 at 10:32 AM

    The only way to realistically and fairly have an award winner chosen is to hash out which numbers count, and for how much, then let the computers take over. ANY OTHER METHOD is PURELY SUBJECTIVE and, in my opinion, meaningless. Is someone BLATANTLY wrong for voting for David Price for the Cy Young? No way. Felix? Nope. If a guy WANTS to give the award to CC for most wins, then that’s his choice. If a writer wants to give the award to Clay Buchholz because he feels he pitched the best this year, that’s his prerogative. Who is ANYONE to say that another person is “right” or “wrong”. Now, if we had a system where you gave “x%” for wins, “y% for ERA”, “z% for IP, K, BB, WAR” etc, then there would be little or no debate once the system is in place. It is what it is…the awards are ALWAYS going to be subjective…and who are you, or any of us, to say what is “right” and what is “wrong”?

  24. Drew Silva - Sep 30, 2010 at 10:48 AM

    The point is to consider all of the data. I’m not asking that every single voter comes to the same conclusion. I’m asking that voters don’t ignore advanced metrics.

  25. kevinapps - Sep 30, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    If someone wants to make an argument for Lester or Price or Sabathia, those are all defensible positions.
    If the argument was somehting like, “While Hernandez has been marginally better this season, Sabathia’s win totals are enough to swing my vote in his direction,” then I would have no complaint. But the argument tends to be, “Even though I admit that Hernandez has been far and away the better pitcher this season, I’m giving my vote to Sabathia because Wins trump all.” When you admit in your argument that Sabathia hasn’t been in Hernandez’s class this season, that’s probably a poor argument.
    My personal ballot would be:
    1. Hernandez
    2. Lester
    3. Sabathia
    I could also see arguments for Weaver, Price, and even Cliff Lee (who noone is talking about because he struggled after going to Texas, even though his season numbers still look impressive).

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