When Felix Hernandez overcame his mediocre win-loss record (13-12) to earn the Cy Young Award in 2010, his victory that was touted as a sign that the electorate of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) was finally starting to think progressively when it came to evaluating performance. Specifically, it was regarded as a death blow for win-loss record as a primary indicator of how good a year a specific pitcher had. Voters rightly recognized that Hernandez had lost numerous potential victories simply because his team had not scored for him during brilliant outing after brilliant outing. They looked at peripheral stats and determined that Hernandez indeed had the best season of any American League pitcher despite his pedestrian record. The vote wasn’t even close, with Hernandez receiving 21 of 28 first-place votes.
I fear, however, that win-loss record could re-emerge as a factor in what is shaping up as an extremely close Cy Young race in the American League. Hernandez is right in the thick of it, despite that three-game stretch earlier this month when he went 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA. That took Felix out of the category of “definitive favorite” and threw him back into the pack. I’d rank Justin Verlander as the current favorite, but David Price is certainly a factor, along with Chris Sale and Jered Weaver. Some people are starting to push the candidacy of Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney, with his 43 saves in 45 opportunities, a 0.66 ERA and 0.78 WHIP, but I think relievers have a pretty steep hill to climb to warrant a first-place Cy Young vote.
That’s a discussion for another time, but back to the topic at hand. In 2010, Hernandez was pretty decisively dominant in all categories except win-loss, and it was pretty easy to wrap your brain around the fact that he was the league’s best pitcher that year. There were some gaudy win-loss records, led by C.C. Sabathia at 21-7, Jon Lester at 19.9, and Price at 19-6. But Sabathia and Lester both had ERAs over 3.00, while Price emerged (correctly) as Hernandez’s biggest challenger, finishing second and receiving four first place votes. The fact that Sabathia was third, with the three other first-place votes, shows that victories still carry some sway.
What I see this year is that Hernandez’s top contenders also happen to have catchy win-loss records — Weaver at 18-4, Price at 18-5, Sale at 17-7, with Verlander at 15-8, and Hernandez now at 13-8. All those pitchers probably have two starts remaining. All other things being roughly equal, I wonder if voters will, perhaps even sub-consciously, penalize Felix for having fewer victories and a worse winning percentage.
I hope that’s not the case, because Hernandez’s record could easily be nearly as impressive as the rest, as followers of the Mariners know all too well. Last night’s game was typical — Hernandez worked eight innings and left with the score tied 1-1, but earned no-decision.
Here are some of Hernandez’s no-decisions this year:
March 28 (Opening Day in Japan) vs. Oakland: He pitches eight innings, giving up five hits and one earned run. He leaves with the score tied 1-1 (which will become a familiar pattern). Mariners win 3-1 in 11 innings.
April 19 vs. Cleveland: Hernandez pitches eight shutout innings, leaving with a 1-0 lead, but Brandon League gives up two in the ninth, and the Mariners lose, 2-1.
April 30 vs. Tampa Bay: Hernandez pitches eight innings, giving up five hits and one run while striking out nine, but leaves with the game tied, 1-1. The Mariners lost 3-2 in 12.
June 17 vs. Giants: Hernandez gives up six hits and one run in seven innings, but leaves with the game tied at 1. The Mariners scored in the bottom of the ninth for a 2-1 victory.
July 8 vs. Oakland: Hernandez works 7 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and one run. He leaves with the game tied, 1-1. The Mariners lost 2-1 in 13.
July 29 vs. Kansas City: Hernandez works seven innings and gives up five hits and two runs. He leaves with a 5-2 lead, but the Royals scored three in the eighth to tie, and Hernandez lost the “W”.
Sept. 19 vs. Baltimore: Hernandez gives up six hits and one run in eight innings, striking out eight, but leaves with the score tied 1-1. M’s lose in 11. 3-1.
That’s seven potential victories lost because the Mariners either couldn’t hold a lead for him, or couldn’t score more than one measley run. Hernandez had a 1.17 ERA in those games. You’ve got to admit, 20-8 sounds a lot better than 13-8. Of course, every pitcher has some tough losses or no-decisions, but Hernandez, as usual, has more than his share.
I’m not saying that Hernandez deserves to win the Cy Young Award, mind you. I don’t think anyone can come to any definitive conclusion at this time. I actually have a Cy Young vote this year, and I honestly don’t know whom I’m voting for yet. The last few starts for each candidate will be critical. I’ll let the season play out and then delve into the statistics. Still, I can’t help but wonder if, unlike in 2010, Hernandez’s relatively paltry win total might bite him this year.