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August 10, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Felix Hernandez slowly climbing into Cy Young Award race that could prove more of a referendum on advanced pitching stats than ever before

ADDITIONAL NOTE: If you missed by hour-long special on the Mariners last night on Sports Radio KJR, you can listen to it by clicking on the podcast below.
Just when you thought Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young Award win of two years ago was a victory for advanced pitching stats over traditional wins and the like, we bring you…this year. Whoo-boy, are we in for a debate over the next two months if things stay exactly the same as they are right now. A debate that will center around the basics of what awards are supposed to be about — celebrating actual results, or what we think those results should have been.
The good news is, two months can change a lot of things.

But I’ll tell you what, if the 2012 Cy Young Award field stays roughly where it is now, we are in for a series of arguments that are going to make 2010 look tame. We could be in for a no-holds-barred brawl over the very merits of statistics like Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Wins Above Replacement Level (WAR) and whether they have any serious place in an awards debate.
Two years ago, Hernandez — who pitches tonight in Anaheim — took home the Cy Young Award with only 13 wins in what was widely viewed as a triumph of more advanced stats being employed above “outdated” ones like win totals. But Hernandez’s season, to be honest, wasn’t all that difficult to champion. And trust me, I spent the final two months plus of that season championing it as hard as I could even when some folks on this blog and around the country thought I was nuts. But as I said, it wasn’t all that tough. Hernandez may not have had the wins that year, but it was tough to argue with his ERA and his innings totals. Not to mention his strikeouts, which are always high. If wins were the only thing holding him back, it wasn’t going to be tough to make the case that you could swap him out with C.C. Sabathia in New York or David Price in Tampa Bay and see a 20-win season.
Piece of cake. And once most voters around the nation were exposed to that logic, they came around as well. It wasn’t as tough as it may have seemed.
This year? Not as simple. In fact, there’s nothing simple about it. Hernandez once again belongs in the top-3 discussion for Cy Young, but there are many obstacles to overcome in him winning the award. The biggest just could be the guy who pitches against the Mariners on Sunday — Jered Weaver.
Photo Credit: AP

Weaver currently sports a 15-1 record and 2.13 ERA with just under two months of season left. And while most Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) members who vote on the Cy Young and other awards know that wins totals can be greatly influenced by offensive run support, it’s going to be tougher to get them to look past ERA.
AL ERA Leaders
Jered Weaver — 2.13
David Price — 2.49
Justin Verlander — 2.51
Chris Sale — 2.59
Felix Hernandez — 2.63
In fact, I’m not entirely sure they should look past ERA. More on that momentarily.
Typically, when a pitcher dominates in both wins and ERA, he is a lock for the Cy Young. We could see Weaver win as many as 24 games this year and post an ERA that is a-third-of-a-run better than his next closest competitor and a half-run better than Hernandez.
Now, believe me, I’ve heard the arguments against ERA. Heard that it is influenced heavily by defensive factors thought not be in the pitcher’s control. Clearly, a ground ball pitcher needs a stellar defense behind him to keep the ERA low. By the same token, a flyball pitcher needs to pitch home games in a park that isn’t a bandbox, while also needing strong outfielders, to keep the ERA from climbing.
We have since seen the development of sabermetric tools like Tom Tango’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) that try to isolate things a pitcher is in complete control of. Things like strikeouts, hit batters, walks and home runs allowed and innings pitched, which take the guesswork out of relying on fielders to catch the ball behind a pitcher.
Later, Dave Studeman of the Hardball Times came up with Expected FIP (xFIP), which is a version of FIP that “regulates” the rate of home runs a pitcher allows. Like I said, some guys pitch in a bandbox of a home park and others don’t. There is believed to be a degree of luck involved in which flyballs actually clear the fence and which end up in an outfielder’s glove. So, xFIP assigns all pitchers a league-average home run rate and calculates their FIP based on how many homers they would have allowed if all pitchers were equal. Jason Vargas benefits from something like this.
The long and short of it is, xFIP is considered the better of the two for calcuating what a pitcher’s true ERA would be if we only took into account the things a pitcher can control. And as such, we get a very different leaderboard.
Justin Verlander — 3.28
Felix Hernandez — 3.28
Chris Sale — 3.31
Jake Peavy — 3.86
C.C. Sabathia — 3.22
David Price — 3.17
Jered Weaver — 3.89
Felix Hernandez — 2.90
Chris Sale — 2.93
Justin Verlander — 2.96
David Price — 3.19
Jered Weaver — 3.22
C.C. Sabathia — 3.31
Jake Peavy — 3.33
So, yes, clearly, Hernandez now vaults up to the top of the pack in FIP and xFIP, with Weaver sinking back down. Using these formulas, this should be a two-horse race between Hernandez and Verlander. Maybe a three-horse race with Sale? But no Weaver.
Some folks suggest we should just look at WAR (Wins Above Replacement Level) to narrow down the field.
Justin Verlander — 4.8
Felix Hernandez — 4.4
Chris Sale — 3.9
Jake Peavy — 3.8
C.C. Sabathia — 3.5
David Price — 3.4
Jered Weaver — 3.1
Once again, this would appear to confirm a two-horse Verlander-Hernandez field with maybe Sale sneaking in to make it a trio.
Can I wrap my brain around it all? Honestly, no I can’t. Not like I did two years ago when it came to touting Hernandez over all comers.
Here’s something to remember: pitching WAR (at least the FanGraphs version) uses FIP as a prime component. So, it’s hardly surprising to see the FIP and xFIP leaders in roughly the same order as the WAR frontrunners.
And what this Cy Young race would come down to, if decided today, is whether you believe that newer stats like FIP, xFIP and yes, even WAR, should decide a major award.
Because there is a large degree of FIP that tells us what should have happened in a given season. Not what actually did happen. Think about that for a moment. It’s easy to prove that if you gave Hernandez six runs per game of support, his win total would pretty much double.
What isn’t so easy to prove is what his ERA should or could have been. There is still a highly subjective element to FIP that involves favoring certain stats — and the pitchers who do well in them — over others. Therefore, the overpowering strikeout pitchers like Hernandez and Verlander will almost always do better than the softer throwers like Weaver in calculating FIP.
In theory, having more strikeouts should guarantee that you allow fewer runs. But it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? Weaver up to now has allowed fewer earned runs on average than any other starter in baseball. What Weaver excels at is the art of pitching, changing speeds and eye level to keep hitters off balance to the point where any contact they do make is of the less severe variety.
He also excels at not allowing runs. That much we do know. The proof is right there in front of us.
There is still a growing debate out there about the degree to which pitchers like Weaver can control the type of contact off a hitter’s bat. Up until recently, the conventinal sabermetric argument was that things were largely out of a pitcher’s hands once contact was made. But now, with new technology that measures the velocity at which balls fly off bats, there is talk of some “skill” being involved when pitchers limit the quality of contact. And if that’s a skill that leads to run prevention, are we justified in saying that strikeout pitchers are automatically better than soft-tossers? I think there is still plenty of room left in that discussion.
And as a consequence of that, I believe a strong argument can be made that — for awards purposes — it doesn’t matter what we think Weaver’s ERA should be based on a formula of carefully-selected stats like FIP or xFIP. What matters when you are honoring the best is what that pitcher actually did.
Think about it.
Did we give the USSR hockey team the Olympic gold medal at Lake Placid and relegate Team USA to fifth spot or so based on what logically should have happened? No, the U.S. upset the Soviets and later won gold fair and square. It doesn’t matter that the USSR would probably smoke the U.S. some 99 times out of 100 if they were to ever play a rematch. The Miracle on Ice was an actual result and it allowed Team USA to play for and later capture the gold.
In baseball, we don’t calculate each team’s WAR at season’s end and pick a playoff winner. There’s really no way the Giants should have knocked off the Phillies and then the Rangers two years ago with an offense that bad and led by Cody Ross, of all people. But they did. And in the end, we awarded the World Series trophy based on what the Giants did over a three-week span. We didn’t do it based on the fact they probably would regress and miss the playoffs in 2011, as they later did.
So, why judge awards any differently?
If I was looking at whether to sign Weaver or Hernandez to a seven-year, $200-million contract, you’d better believe I’d be looking more at xFIP and WAR than ERA in order to choose one over the other.
But for the purposes of picking a pitcher who did what every pitcher is supposed to do — prevent runs — there is a black and white argument that Weaver has been the best at it.
There is a subjective argument that Hernandez has been better at the stuff a pitcher is more likely to control and yet another subjective argument that Hernandez can keep his stuff up beyond this season to a better degree than Weaver.
And the last I checked, awards are not given out for subjective stuff. They are given out based on results.
And that’s why I believe this year’s Cy Young race could well become a referendum on FIP and whether the stats it uses to represent what we should be looking for in pitchers will carry more weight than actual black and white results of how well a pitcher did at preventing runs.
It should be fascinating and lead to much hand-wringing and finger-pointing.
Unless, of course, Weaver — who had a stint on the DL — fails to surpass 200 innings. That’s usually a requirement for any Cy Young candidate. And it’s another subjective argument we’ll save for down the road — if and when it’s needed.
For now, this should give you plenty to chew on.



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