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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. cull1224 - Sep 30, 2010 at 10:59 AM

    I agree whole-heartedly with the article — wins are totally overblown in judging the effectiveness of a pitcher’s season. Telling me that CC is 21-7 (off the top of my head) ,Buchholz is 17-7,and Felix is 13-12 tells me nothing about how well each of them pitched. CC could have pitched to an ERA of 4.70 ,but gotten the best run-support in the league. And Felix could have pitched to an ERA of 1.7 with the worst run-support. You just don’t know by looking at their record – thus, it is a fairly meaningless and useless tool in determining the “best pitcher.” Personally, as a RSox fan, I’d like to see Buchholz get the award, but I have heard how poorly the Mariners hit with FH pitching, therefore making his 13-12
    record immaterial. CC, by the way, has an ERA over 1/2 a run higher than FH or CB. And his record is skewed by playing on the offensive juggernaut called the Yanks. Nope, Felix was the best pitcher this year. This award is NOT given to the best pitcher on the winningest team (thereby ruling out DPrice as well.

  2. Drew Silva - Sep 30, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    Exactly.

  3. kevinapps - Sep 30, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    If someone says, “In my opinion, the sky is orange,” that’s wrong. You don’t get a free pass to spout nonsense just because you said “in my opinion.”
    And facts cannot be wrong. By definition, a fact is “something that actually exists; reality; truth.” Facts can be used in a misleading manner, but they cannot be wrong.

  4. lenny - Sep 30, 2010 at 11:03 AM

    http://sportssob.blogspot.com/
    Felix Hernandez is MLB’s version of Boise State
    29 Sep 2010
    By: L. Smalls
    Felix Hernandez is the Boise State of MLB. He may not win the Cy Young this year because of factors that are obviously outside of his control. The same way Boise State (and TCU) was denied an opportunity to play for a National Championship last year due to factors outside of its control. Why doesn’t everybody else look at the situation the same way I do and get this thing right?
    The Cy Young is supposed to be an individual award and not an award given to a team for a group effort, correct? They award the Cy Young to the best individual pitcher for a season and not the pitcher who plays on the best team, correct? Not so fast. If Hernandez does not win the Cy Young this year after posting an ERA of 2.27 and dominating opposing batters to a tune of 30 quality starts (6 IP, 3 or fewer ER’s) while Sabathia or Price win while not performing INDIVIDUALLY as well as Felix while enjoying almost twice as much offensive and bullpen support then it is obvious the award is not what it seems to be on the surface.
    On the surface the Cy Young is an award given to the league’s best pitcher for that year but behind that façade it is just another team award given to the “have’s” and hard to award to the “have not’s”. Pitchers from Seattle, Pittsburgh and Baltimore can forget about winning the award because their offensive teammates don’t live up to their end of the bargain when the ace is on the mound and quality starts are wasted in 1-0 losses. If the Mariners would have scored more than 7 runs during his 12 losses then Hernandez would be a 20 game winner right now and I would be working on my “honey do” list instead of sitting at my laptop with a cup of coffee and an elevated heart rate.
    What makes things worse for AL pitchers on offensively challenged teams is that they don’t even get to pick up a stick and help out their own cause. Felix dominates opposing batters and then takes a seat and watches as his team make Kyle Davies, KC (8-11, 5.31 ERA) and Kevin Millwood, Bal (4-16, 5.10 ERA) look like they should be considered for the Cy Young themselves! And don’t get me started on Seattle’s bullpen which is probably more to blame for this conversation than Seattle’s anemic offense. If you leave a game with a lead in the 8th inning in professional baseball you should be confident you will win the game most of the time but this was not the case this year in Seattle.
    It is obvious Felix Hernandez will have to go the same route Boise State has gone this year. Boise State had to set themselves up for a chance at the national championship by first dominating their schedule and completing an entire season undefeated and using last year’s success to begin the season as a top 5 team this year. The fact that they are in position to play for the national championship is largely based on last year’s performance because they otherwise would have again started the season ranked outside the top 10 and found it impossible to climb high enough to get into the championship game even if they did win all their games again. If Felix doesn’t win at least he has set himself up to win next year with another dominating season, it’s just a shame that he has to do it twice while Yankees and Rays players don’t face the same challenges.

  5. tbliggins - Sep 30, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    That is quite a jump there. The reason BSU & TCU didn’t play for a national title is because of the system in place for D1 to crown its mythical national champion. In the current system is it near impossible teams like BSU & TCU to claim they had a top-2 season when they play 2-3 quality opponents. The only thing holding Felix back from winning this award is voters who overvalue pitcher wins.

  6. -z- - Sep 30, 2010 at 11:25 AM

    You want stats?? – In 1972 Steve Carlton went 27-10 on a team that went 59-97 – The Mariners have already won 61 games – Wins, wins, wins! – Give him “Miss Congeniality” and lets get on with life.

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

    Carlton pitched 346.1 innings that year. No pitcher will ever touch that in this modern era of “protecting the investment.” Win-loss records are outdated.

  8. kevinapps - Sep 30, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    1) That season by Carlton was something like 12 WAR. Hernandez’s 2010 is 6 or so. Bringing up a historically great season from 40 years ago does not do much to strengthen the case against Hernandez.
    2) In 1972, league average Run Support was 3.9. The Phillies averaged 3.2 overall, but 3.8 when Carlton started. In 2010, league average Run Support is 4.5. The Mariners are averaging 3.2 overall and 3.1 when Hernandez starts.
    Basically, a historically great pitching season backed by approximately average Run Support led to 27 wins on a bad team. A very good (but not all-time great) pitching season backed by horrible Run Support has led to 13 wins (so far).

  9. David - Sep 30, 2010 at 11:54 AM

    Writers refusing to even attempt to understand these statistics is akin to attempting to ignore email, websites and twitter. Writers generally arent allowed to be technologically illiterate and keep their jobs, why are they allowed to be illiterate on the subject they cover?

  10. Attymatt - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:02 PM

    I understand why everyone thinks its cool to dog on wins, and I agree that Felix should get credit because the team around him sucks. I also understand that CC gives up runs that don’t mean anything because sometimes its a blow out and you take the safe out at second blah blah blah.
    What I don’t get is why the Felix voters select the statistics they do. When the season started I heard a lot about how Jack Z was such a genius for stacking up such a good fielding team. During the season it was a lot about how Derek Jeter is a crappy shortstop, and don’t believe your lying eyes but Tex sucks at first too.
    Then there is the always present ballpark factors and the historic number of home runs at Yankee Stadium et al.
    But now everyone seems to want to jump on the wins don’t count bandwagon (fine, we get it) and then turn to such things as Ks and IP and that FxIP thing.
    Why don’t they just call it the John Nash award and let the math guys write out lengthy formulas on a chalkboard.
    Remember that game when Price and CC dueled to a 0-0 departure, and then they both left the game, neither to get a win? Yeah, King Felix would have lost that game 1-0. Its what he does.

  11. The Baseball Idiot - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:22 PM

    It was an established “fact” that black players weren’t good enough to play in the major leagues. Ask Ty Cobb, Cap Anson and Judge Landis.

  12. kevinapps - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:29 PM

    That was never a fact. That was the opinion of those in power.
    Just because something is widely believed (the Earth is flat, Wins are the most important measure of a pitcher’s value, etc) does not make it a fact.

  13. mets87 - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    Congratulations, you managed to say absolutely nothing with that post.

  14. mets87 - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    Wait, you mean Will Carroll, the guy who doesn’t have any training in the medical field but claims to be an injury expert may be WRONG?! No way!!!

  15. Chris Fiorentino - Sep 30, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    I agree, but I also think that the only true way to objectively give awards is to remove subjectivity and pick a system that calculates the winner via all of the agreed upon stats. I haven’t heard a single argument that shoots down this method yet and I have talked about it for months. If you simply put all the numbers in a computer, you remove all subjectivity. The only subjective part is the agreement on what numbers to use and the weight that they are given. Once that is figured out, then plug them in and the CPU will spit out the winner. End of story. It would probably cut out about 20% of the blog posts the last month, so that could be a downside to it ;)

  16. Giant Space Ants - Sep 30, 2010 at 2:04 PM

    Remember when CC gave up 5 runs in 7 innings, but the Yankees scored 12 so he won anyways? Yeah, the Mariners would have scored 2 and he’d of lost. It’s what they do.
    Of course, it’s incredibly dumb to base any sort of argument for a full-season award on one game, but…

  17. frugal - Sep 30, 2010 at 3:40 PM

    I’ve followed this debate on this and other sites and I have a few observations. First, I want to say that I don’t identify with either school of thought. I’m not a stat guy, though I follow, use and like some of what is being done with numbers these days. As such, I’m also not an anti-seamhead guy, though I love baseball in large part because I realize that the beauty of the game is in it’s symmetry and complexity at the same time and that it can very seldom be accurately reduced to a single numerical value. Numbers can be comforting, but they are almost always accumulated attached to some non-numerical context.
    So….my observations:
    Those arguing for Felix seem to have set up the debate to be simply a race between CC and Felix. I think this has happened because the comparison is a stark one in which Felix leads in all of the new stat areas and CC only has wins. Unfortunately, there are other worthy candidates in the AL who combine some of the newer numbers with wins and who might be good synthesis candidates. Jon Lester jumps immediately to mind, though there are a few others.
    Those that back Felix also ask us to ignore his win totals because he pitches for the Mariners while at the same time wanting to use some stats that are also a function of his team and/or home park (ERA; WHIP)
    There is a line of thought that says that pitchers don’t have control over how many wins they get. This is exactly where the old and new school analysis clashes and where it becomes difficult for each faction to understand the other. New school guys can reduce everything to a number. They can quantify everything that Felix or any other pitcher did while he was in a game this season. Old school guys want to consider why he was not in some of the games that he started as long as he might have been. They look at some of Felix’s NDs and see that the team scored late to win or that the bullpen gave up runs late to lose or whatever and they think that maybe Felix could have a few more of those important wins if he were more durable/efficient/whatever. For example, they see that Cliff Lee was a teammate of Felix for three months this season and they see that in all seven games that Lee pitched as a Mariner and in which the team scored four or more runs, Lee was 7-0. In that period of time, the team scored 4 or more in 11 of Felix’s starts. Felix was 6-0 in those starts with 5 NDs. In some the team scored late and in others the team’s bullpen failed, but the thing those old school guys wonder about is why was Felix not in the game when it mattered? Lee somehow managed to win every time he got enough runs to win. Why didn’t Felix? Lee pitched a bit more than an inning deeper into games over that time and that might be all the difference in the minds of some.
    Please don’t misunderstand. I believe that neither analysis is wrong. It is simply that each faction goes into the analysis looking at different aspects of what it means to be the best pitcher in the game. I know that some writers are less than diligent at doing their jobs. Some new school analysts fudge the numbers or ignore certain stats to make their cases at times also so I think there is enough laziness to go around on all counts. For example, I see in the comments that someone who backs Felix cited a survey of 9 executives where six backed Felix with the comment “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?” Which executives? If only nine were surveyed, why? What kinds of executives? And if there were any from the Royals, Mariners or Orioles yes, I do think I might know more about the game than they do.
    All of the name-calling and failing to respect those who look at the game from a different viewpoint does nothing to help bring the different sides together.
    I think there is a good chance that the actual AL CY winner could be neither Felix or CC. I’m actually hoping that will be the case. Then there is a chance that the winner will not be one based simply of a mathematical value nor will it be based strictly on wins. So there would have been some consideration given to bits of both sides in an effort to find a guy who combines the best of everything. Given the polarity of the opinions in much of this debate, that result might be the one that truly would require us all to be open-minded in accepting the result.

  18. Travis W - Sep 30, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    Well I think it is simple, really…. sabermetrics are superior stats than what we’ve traditionally seen over the last 40-50 years+ because they eliminate the greater number of variables beyond the actual performance of the pitcher, ie defense, schedule, ballparks, run support, and so forth. Sabermetrics hold the pitcher accountable only for those data which are within his realm of control.

  19. kevinapps - Sep 30, 2010 at 4:04 PM

    More “durable/efficient/whatever”??
    You think the guy that leads the league in IP should be more durable. And the guy that leads the league in ERA should be more efficient.
    Instead of being the best, he should have tried being even better. Fair enough.

  20. paul - Sep 30, 2010 at 4:10 PM

    I will take King Felix, Jon Lester or Clay Bucholz over Sabathia any day.
    Only going by interviews because I certainly don’t even pretend to know anything about him but Sabathia seems like one of the good guys in sports and a helluva pitcher but those 3 go to the mound and just play friggin catch with their catcher and win games with almost no help this year. Seattle has Ichiro and the rest is a AAA team. The Red Sox have played all year with half a AAA lineup and not very good defense at all.

  21. dprat - Sep 30, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    And, congrats, Drew, not only on your post but also on this non-defensive response to a grammatical correction. I’m probably 1.5 generations older than you, that is, from a generation to whom things like proper use of who and whom are more likely to matter. I very much appreciate your acknowledgement that you have more to learn, which makes you stand out even more from the writers you criticize in your post. Kudos all around!

  22. btberry - Sep 30, 2010 at 5:25 PM

    If it’s just a matter or wins they should call it the Most Wins Award and take the writers out of it. Just have tie-breakers based on other nonsense.
    At the same time, I think the advanced statistics tend to go too far in that they attempt to tell the whole story without successfully doing so. It’s never completely objective because there are too many variables and to attempt to use advanced stats to make it objective is pretending that it’s something it’s not. I’ll give an example … Sabathia had a chance to lock in his legacy with two late season duels against David Price and the small payroll of the Rays. Both times Sabathia failed … once admirably, and once embarrassingly. King Felix, on the other hand, has not had any such moments whether good or bad. No statistics can really capture the complex reality.
    Personally, I would tend to bypass someone like Hernandez who hasn’t playing a meaningful game since April unless they’re so overwhelmingly better than everyone else statistically. While he has been better, I don’t think overwhelmingly so. Based on a number of factors, wins being a large one, I would tend to give the nod to Sabathia, except for what I point out above … he failed to get one of the precious wins when it mattered the most: against the division rival Rays late in the season. That’s why I would go with David Price this year. He’s the number one AL pitcher I would want on the bump for my team in a big game. To me, that’s what the Cy Young award means.

  23. Drew Silva - Sep 30, 2010 at 5:27 PM

    Why is it Hernandez’s fault that he hasn’t been involved in a meaningful game since April? That’s the fault of the Mariners offense, mostly.

  24. bajmafrank1 - Sep 30, 2010 at 6:12 PM

    Have we forgotten that CC has been pitching THE ENTIRE SEASON in a pennant race? That he has been pitching in THE AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST? That expectations are higher for him? Intangibles, gentlemen…INTANGIBLES.

  25. frugal - Sep 30, 2010 at 10:22 PM

    Yes, he could have been more efficient. In those 18 starts he made while he was still a teammate of Lee’s he went more than 7 innings just 7 times. By contrast over that period Lee went more than 7 innings in 9 of 13 starts. It’s not a question of how many innings he has pitched, but rather how deep he can go in games that he starts. Largely due to a lack of efficiency with pitch counts, he was not able to do that over that time frame. I’m not knocking him for this. That’s the pitcher he is. What I was saying is that there are people who look at the numbers and feel that Felix should have gone deeper a bit more often and he might have been able to add to his win totals and this puts the idea in their minds that pitchers do indeed have some control (and I emphasize some) over the number of wins they can gather. You are right to see it the way you do, but they are also right if that’s the way they choose to see it.

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