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By this time tomorrow, we’ll be preparing to see the Mariners either go for a series sweep or victory here in Cleveland against an Indians team that looks like it will be really bad for some years to come.
But really, aside from some pride for a Mariners team fighting to secure a winning record in 2009, there is little at-stake that will be remembered beyond this year. Except for the guy taking the mound in the series finale.
For Felix Hernandez, there is everything at stake on a personal level. As Hernandez began reeling off victories following a public “calling out” by manager Don Wakamatsu, there began to be whispers of a Cy Young Award possibility. At the time, it all seemed a distant longshot at best, given the starts by both Zack Greinke of the Royals and Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays.
All those two had to do to keep this a two-horse race was continue along their way without stumbling. Well, that hasn’t happened. Both got off to 10-3 starts by June. But Halladay has won just three games since June 7 — a 2 1/2-month span. Greinke has just one victory — one — since June 28.
Now, say what you want about wins, and many fans and media members think they are overrated in pitchers and more a function of their teams, but they do matter in Cy Young voting. So does earned run average, despite the growing contention that it is also overrated and more of a function of team defensive play behind a pitcher than an indicator of true mound skill.
There is validity to both points and we can argue that on another day.
But if you want to gauge a Cy Young contender’s chances — put money down on something — here is a fact you cannot ignore.
No AL starting pitcher since 1960 has won a Cy Young without finishing at least top-2 in either wins or ERA. Not a one. The last guy to do it was Vern Law, who was third with 20 wins and seventh in ERA at 3.08.
So, argue the merits of it all you want. But unless you feel like challenging a half-century of history, the odds say that Hernandez will have to finish top-2 in either wins or ERA.
And right now, Hernandez is holding down the No. 2 spot in ERA. In fact, he has seriously closed the gap with Greinke and now sits at 2.66 compared to the league leader’s 2.44. Halladay has dropped back to 2.78.
That’s impressive, considering where Greinke was a couple of months ago. And unless Greinke, stuck at 11 wins, finds a way to start posting victories soon despite his gosh-awful ballclub, his ERa total will become a nice little side story to a guy who is a non-factor in final Cy Young voting. Seriously, 13 or 14 wins for Greinke won’t cut it, no matter how good his ERA is. Not even close. It would be different if he had an ERA of, say, 1.50. But with his wins total now stagnant, the ERA — while excellent — is not looking good enough to make up for it.
In the wins category, there are seven guys positioned between 12 and 14, with Hernandez at 12. Of the pitchers ahead of Hernandez, only Halladay (at 13 wins) has an ERA within 0.75 of the M’s ace. Most are a run or more worse.
So, unless C.C. Sabathia or Josh Beckett pulls away and wins 21 games or so, while narrowing their ERA much closer to 3.00, chances are Hernandez will best them in voting if he can get up towards the high-teens in wins. But the wins will matter. I don’t see Hernandez earning a Cy Young if he wins 15. It just doesn’t happen that way. Same with16 wins. That’s still very close to pioneer territory. Give him 17 wins or more and a top-2 ERA, with peripheral stats that remain as high as they are, and he has an excellent shot.
I write this not just as an observer, but as a Cy Young Award voter in prior years who will have another vote this time around. We get two votes per Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) chapter and I have one. Having spoken to voters over the years, I have a feeling for what they look at. And without a doubt, earned run average might be the single most important stat these voters consider. There are obviously a whole bunch of things that go into any candidacy. Wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, strikeouts-to-walks-ratio, and yes, nowadays wven Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) do play a role. But looking at the list of names to have captured the Cy Young in recent seasons, ERA factors prominently.
First, it helps you separate the “men from the boys” in paring down the list of candidates. Then, before you go even further, looking at the peripheral stats so popular nowadays for a growing segment of baseball fans, I believe the guy with the best ERA is given the benefit of the doubt in most voters’ minds. They look at the pitcher and say “OK, this guy has the best ERA, Give me a reason not to vote for him.”
Nowadays, if things are real close, the FIP stat could be used as a tiebreaker.
Hernandez is 3.10 in FIP, fifth best in the AL, while Justin Verlander, a guy with 13 wins, is at 2.78. Verlander keeps sneaking up there and I’ve said all along, he’s one of those darkhorse guys who could wind up topping everyone if he piles on the win totals and gets his ERA below 3.00.
Verlander has a 3.29 ERA but a 2.78 FIP, which suggests he’s better than his defense has helped him look. Among the leaders, only Greinke, whose FIP matches his 2.44 ERA, can claim his defense hasn’t really made him look better than he is.
But still, it’s questionable how many voters will use FIP, still an emerging stat.
Again, looking back at 50 years of history, finishing right at the top of either ERA or wins still appears the best way to go. Maybe five years from now, things will be different. But for right now, like anything else in this world, Cy Young voters are still evolving, as are all stats, good and bad.
And right now, based on historical trends, Hernandez is right up near where he wants to be in the two stats that have mattered most to Cy Young voters.
Now, he just has to hope his bullpen doesn’t keep throwing away wins.