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November 19, 2010 4:10 PM

The Sabermetrician's Triumph

Felix Hernandez.jpgOn Thursday afternoon, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners was named the American League Cy Young Award by the Baseball Writers Association of America. The 24-year old right-hander received 21 of 28 first-place votes with runner-up David Price of the Rays receiving four first-place votes and Yankee left-hander C.C. Sabathia, the recipient of 2007 award, garnering the final three first-place votes.

Hernandez finished the year 13-12 with a 1.057 WHIP, was second in the league with 232 strikeouts, and led all AL pitchers in ERA (2.27), innings pitched (249.2), and opponents' batting average (.212). Price, on the other hand, went 19-6 with an ERA of 2.72, a 1.193 WHIP, and 188 strikeouts in 208.2 innings. Sabathia, finally, led the league with 21 wins against just seven losses, posted a 3.18 ERA, a 1.191 WHIP, and struck out 197 in 237.2 innings. At first glance, it appears that either Price or Sabathia is equally, if not more worthy of the award. This is where the more nuanced statistical analysis paints a far clearer picture.

Price and Sabathia's teams each made the playoffs with 96 and 95 wins, respectively, whereas Hernandez's Mariners finished with the worst record in the AL at 61-101. As counterintuitive as it sounds, this is actually a feather in King Felix's cap. Seattle scored just 513 runs in 2010 - good for last in all of baseball - while the Yankees were first with 859 and the Rays third with 802. Not surprisingly, this differential translated into quite a significant disparity in the run support that each of these three pitchers received. The Mariners averaged just 3.07 runs in the games Hernandez started, while the Yankees and Rays scored 5.89 and 5.30 runs in games started by Sabathia and Price, respectively. This astounding gap shows just how slim Hernandez's margin of error was, as he could generally expect little support from the worst offense in baseball.

Nor were Hernandez's difficulties just limited to offense. The Seattle front office created this team in the offseason in the image of a low-scoring, run-saving, pitching-heavy contender. What they ended up with was a relatively porous defense, despite the fact that defense was both their anticipated and professed strength. The Mariners committed 110 errors, fifth worst in the American League, whereas the Yankees and Rays committed the fewest (69) and third fewest (85) in the league. This defensive deficiency translated to 17 unearned runs in Hernandez's 34 starts, while Price and Sabathia were saddled with just eight apiece in 31 and 34 starts, respectively.

Because the Mariners were so offensively and defensively challenged, it is important to evaluate Hernandez on his individual merit, and this is where more advanced sabermetric data is of particular value. The Venezuelan star was fourth in the league in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of the aspects of his performance a pitcher can control) and third in the league in WAR (Wins Above Replacement, a statistic that determines a player's value relative to an average replacement) behind just Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander (Sabathia and Price failed to crack the top seven in either category). Though Hernandez was fortunate, to an extent, that his opponents recorded just a .273 BABIP (batting average on balls in play, good for sixth in the league and below the league average of approximately .300), a significant part of that is certainly due to his prowess on the mound. Hernandez ranked in the top ten in virtually every sabermetric statistic, providing further quantitative ammunition for his candidacy.

The end result of all this data is that Hernandez is clearly a deserving award-winner. Although his 13 wins are the fewest ever by a starting pitcher in a full season who won the coveted award, his team's shortcomings should not hamper his individual recognition. Not only was Hernandez operating with the league's worst run support, but also his team surrendered on average one unearned run every other start he made. Ultimately, the voters recognized that Hernandez's individual performance was undeniable and, by virtue of that performance, both voted him the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner and acknowledged the value of sabermetric data.

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