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November 18, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Felix Hernandez deserves to win Cy Young Award on his own merits

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We’ll know at 11 a.m. PST whether or not Felix Hernandez has managed to win the second Cy Young Award in Mariners history. If he does, it’s a feat that’s probably come quicker than most people imagined, given all the rough edges that need to be smoothed over with any young pitcher.
In this morning’s paper, I spoke to all five — yes, five already — of the major league pitching coaches who have worked with Hernandez and who saw firsthand some of the obstacles he needed to overcome to make it here.
As good as Hernandez was this season — leading the league in ERA, innings pitched and quality starts, while finishing second in strikeouts and complete games — he should be able to win this thing on his own merits. What would be a shame is if he wins because some of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voters felt pressured into picking Hernandez because of the potential for a backlash against them.
There was a groundswell of online support for Hernandez as the season wore down. Yes, I contributed to it. So did many mainstream media commentators. But as momentum picked up steam, I tended to sense a different, more forceful support headed his way. The kind of support saying that any voter who did not pick Hernandez was officially out of touch and an “idiot” or “stupid” for believing anyone else deserved the prize.
We’ve been seeing this type of trend in the aftermath of many of the BBWAA awards handed out each year. Where voters are “outed” for not going with the popular online consensus based on whatever stat happens to rule the day. I don’t want to make this a “stats versus traditionalists” thing. It’s more like a “freedom of choice” thing. And I still believe, as much as I think Hernandez should win today and have thought it for three months, that voters should not be picking him out of fear of internet reprisals.

Many of you may scoff at the notion that internet pressure could possibly sway a vote. I wish that wasn’t case, but unfortunately, the world isn’t perfect. Already, in my fairly extensive four-year stint of doing the online thing full-time (in addition to my regular newspaper job), I’ve seen plenty of mainstream writers across the country tailor their work to appease the internet masses. Some of the stuff written has been gaggingly obvious. They stick to subjects guaranteed to generate a positive response, but shy away from topics that don’t play as well.
Generally, I don’t have a problem with it. We all write stuff we think people are going to want to read. Nobody wants to go looking for fights just for kicks. But there have been times where putting some of that popularity at risk might have been worth it to salvage some professional integrity.
Want examples? Here’s one that easily jumps to mind. Most mainstream writers have figured out since about 2009 that if you write any story promoting Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), or any or the other, modern defensive statistics, you’ll have the online crowd singing your praises.
But how many of the “online-approved” mainstream writers wanted to risk their popularity by questioning how UZR could have gotten it so wrong on Jason Bay’s defense last year? For those who missed it — and you could easily have, given the general hush-hush treatment of this topic — some major corrections were made last winter to how UZR scores outfielders at Fenway Park. The whole park factors thing is largely guesswork when it comes to defensive statistics and the folks who administer UZR (to their credit), admitted they were being unfair in how the stat was being measured. So, overnight, Bay went from being derided as a “terrible” outfielder all through the winter meetings and trade rumor season, into suddenly becoming a decent glove guy.
There were a handful of articles on the topic, but, for the most part, the development was greeted with silence, both from the online crowd and — more importantly — the mainstream media that is paid to investigate such developments. The very guys who had spent the previous year scoring brownie points online by writing about UZR and modern defensive metrics. With the amount of ink defensive stats have gotten the past few years, both on this site and others around the country, that was a pretty major development. Because if a stat could be so “off” for one player, how many others were impacted? How valid was UZR in the first place? Maybe it was only Bay and one or two others impacted. Maybe it was no big deal. This isn’t about bashing modern defensive stats, which are still a big step forward from what we had previously. The point is, you barely heard about the UZR subject, especially from some of the mainstream writers who have earned a positive reputation from the online community by promoting such stats.
Here in Seattle, there are certain topics that play very well online. And there are certain topics you’d want to avoid if your goal was to be liked by everybody. I’ll let you figure out what they are. It isn’t all that difficult.
Back to Hernandez, since today will be all about him in a few hours.
If some mainstream writers are already going out of their way to avoid topics that might be legitimate, fearing they won’t play well to the sabermetrics crowd, then how will that impact a vote where their ballots will be open to public scrutiny? I’m all for transparency, to a certain degree. But not if it results in a witchhunt.
We’ve already seen Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers state, jokingly, that he expects a backlash for voting David Price ahead of Hernandez. His reasoning? That Hernandez’s team was out of the race by Memorial Day and he plays in a “pitcher’s park” at Safeco Field.
Now, I respectfully, even forcefully, disagree with Rogers. Does that make him an idiot? Absolutely not. Rogers has forgotten more about baseball than many of the folks who will blast him online will ever know. He isn’t stupid, even if I disagree with him. And I’m glad that, recognizing the potential backlash he could face — being branded as “stupid” by an entire community of baseball fans online — he still voted his conscience.
Rogers picked Price because he believes the park factors and pressure-packed games made a difference.
I don’t agree. It’s always been my understanding that Cy Young votes are different from MVP ballots in their wording and that team standing was not supposed to play a role.
Then again, I allowed it to play a role in my Cy Young vote two years ago, when I picked Roy Halladay over Cliff Lee. Despite Lee’s overwhelming Cy victory, the two were about as close statistically as you can get. I picked Halladay because he had the better xFIP (home run normalized Fielding Independant Pitching) and a much tougher in-division schedule in which he faced the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays a bunch of times as opposed to beating up on the Royals and (then-struggling) Tigers as Lee did.
In that case, I allowed team standing and strength of schedule to influence my vote. So, I’m hardly about to deride Rogers as an “idiot” for delving deeper into his. And the reality is, Hernandez does pitch at a “pitcher’s park” at Safeco — a park that helps Jason Vargas and Doug Fister look like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens stats-wise on many a night.
Tropicana Field isn’t exactly the same thing, at least where home runs are concerned.
Normally, I don’t mind a good debate. But I feel we’ve crossed a line at some point, where we’ve stopped debating and weighing the merits of people’s opinions and adopted a “for us, or against us” policy on these types of votes. Where too many people spend more time after these votes trying to pinpoint dissenting voices who go against the grain, rather than examining who actually won and why.
Yeah, it’s more fun to pick people apart. Easy to do as well. I can very easily pick apart, in line-by-line, dissection, probably 98 percent of what I read every day in both the mainstream media and online blogs. The line-by-line stuff lacks the context of criticizing an entire body of work as a whole and is easily done. If you read the comments on this site, you’ll see that the folks who attack another reader for something written usually pick out one or two lines, rather than examining the entirety of a point.
But that’s the way we, as an online community, have chosen to roll. I’m not sure it adds much of anything debate-wise. We see a lot of finger-pointing and name-calling, but rarely do we try to understand the person whose point of view is different from ours.
Instead, we get a sort of political correctness that states you either vote Hernandez for the Cy Young, or you’re just an out-of-touch, simpleton dinosaur who doesn’t get it. I’ve probably been guilty of fostering some of that online sentiment, and it’s wrong. No matter how “right” you or I may believe our positions to be. Things are always changing, no matter how convicted we may feel present-day.
An entire online community believed Jason Bay was a horrible defender last year in Boston. Until he was declared to have been OK.
The bottom line? You can have an opinion without resorting to absolutism. Without bullying people into seeing things your way. That never works. You either get a bunch of people voting for a cause they don’t truly believe in, or, with some media contrarians, you might see a backlash from folks wanting to stick it to Hernandez and their online tormentors by extension.
We don’t need either.
There’s a reason we have secret ballots in elections. And there’s a reason the BBWAA has decided to opt for more transparency in the voting process in recent years. Heck, do you know which coaches voted Derek Jeter for a Gold Glove? No, you don’t. But you will know which writers voted for Hernandez this year and who didn’t.
And we, as a whole, should better ourselves and the discussion by trying to understand why those who disagreed with us voted the way they did. We shouldn’t be trying to shout them down like some new puritans attempting to convert everybody. That type of “debate” is phony intellectualism at best. At worst, it’s the type of debate that decides a vote before it’s even held.
Hernandez deserves better. He deserves to win on his own merits. Not because we’ve silenced any dissenting voices.



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