So, at first, in honor of Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young win on Thursday I was going to do something kitschy you know, make this thing read like an obituary for the pitcher’s win, or write it as a eulogy for pitcher’s win, or, you know, make some other sort of contrived reference to the day the win died.
But in the end, you know what? The win did not die on Thursday. In fact, Thursday was not even an especially bad day for the win. The real win revolution began a long time ago — more than 30 years ago. I’ll get to that in minute.
Yes, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young despite a 13-12 record. Yes, he won it even though C.C. Sabathia won 21 games — only the second American League pitcher the last five years to win more than 20 games.* Yes Hernandez won it handily even though there was a lot of hand-wringing — a couple of those hands being my own — over the question: Can a pitcher win a Cy Young with 13 wins and 12 losses?
*Sabathia has now led the league in victories in back-to-back years and not won a Cy Young award. The last guy to lead the league in wins in back-to-back years was Roger Clemens in 1997-98 — and he won the Cy Young both years.The last guy to lead the league in wins in back-to-back years and NOT win at least one Cy Young wasWilbur Wood in the early 1970s.
A quick look:
Leading the league in wins in back-to-back years:
C.C. Sabathia (2009-10): No Cy Youngs
Roger Clemens (1997-98): 2 Cy Youngs
Greg Maddux (1994-95): 2 Cy Youngs
Tom Glavine (1991-92-93): 1 Cy Young
Roger Clemens (1986-87): 2 Cy Youngs
LaMarr Hoyt (1982-83): 1 Cy Young
Jim Palmer (1975-76-77): 2 Cy Youngs
Catfish Hunter (1974-75): 1 Cy Young
Wilbur Wood (1972-73): No Cy Youngs
All of this King Felix love suggests that the era of wins being the dominant pitching statistic has come to an end — anyway, that was my first reaction. But as I thought about it more, I kind of changed my mind. The win isn’t dead, nothing close to dead. People are just looking at it differently. The truth is that King Felix’s 13 wins are not CLOSE to the record for fewest wins for a Cy Young pitcher. The truth is that a 13-12 record is not even CLOSE to the least impressive record in Cy Young history.
And in the end, I’m not sure that Hernandez’s Cy Young award really has anything at all to do with the devaluing of the win. I think Felix Hernandez was just an unusual pitcher in an unusual year. Look: It’s not often that a pitcher as great as King Felix — someone who was already ACKNOWLEDGED as great even before the year began — plays for an offensive team as pitiful as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. Well, first of all, it’s not often that there even IS an offensive team as pitiful as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. This really was a stunningly bad team.
How bad? Well, for fun, I punched in Steve Carlton’s amazing 1972 season into the Mariners season. Repeat: I did this for fun. The 1972 and 2010 seasons are not especially similar. Teams scored about 14% more runs in 2010 than in 1972. And Carlton made 41 starts and completed 30 games in 1972, which obviously would not happen now. But I was curious — Carlton went 27-10 in low-scoring 1972 for an abominable Philadelphia team that lost 97 games. What if you mirror his season — Game 1 for Game 1, Game 37 for Game 37, Game 104 for Game 104 — and give him Seattle’s run support. What would the record look like then?
Well, I’ll tell you: He would have gone 20-10 with Mariners run support. That’s making 41 starts and with little bullpen use. Does that give you an idea how bad the Mariners offense was? If you adjust for era, put Carlton on a five-man rotation, give him the Mariners bullpen — yep, he probably would have gone something like 13-12.
See, this was just a strange year. The guy who most people would consider the best pitcher in the league played for a team so odious offensively that the won-loss record was simply pointless. And people were paying attention. That’s a good thing. For years, writers and analysts have talked about “hard luck” pitchers. Well, Hernandez had such hard luck, that finally people realized it wasn’t luck at all. It was absurdity. Anyone who reads this knows I don’t like won-loss records anyway, but more often than not the record gives you at least SOME reflection of how well a pitcher pitched. But in King Felix’s case, it did not and everyone understood it. Plus Hernandez’s other basic stats were so good — he led the league in starts, in ERA and was just one behind in strikeouts — that he was more or less the obvious choice no matter his record.*
*A few other people seem to have made this point but it’s worth making again: Felix Hernandez DID NOT win the Cy Young because of new-fangled advanced stats. I realize that this has been written by a couple of people, but it just isn’t true. He did not lead the league in Fangraphs WAR — in fact he finished third behind Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander. He was also third in xFIP — that ERA that attempts to cut out defensive contributions — behind Francisco Liriano and Lee. The Baseball Reference numbers were better for him — he did lead in Baseball Reference WAR and Win Probability Added — but even there he was second in ERA+ to Clay Buchholz. The advanced numbers made plain that Felix had a great year, but other pitchers were very similar. It wasn’t odd-looking acronyms that won Felix the Cy Young but things like ERA and strikeouts, you know, the stuff about as old as baseball.
I have mentioned a couple of time that the anti-win revolution began a long time ago. Yes, of course, wins have played a huge role in Cy Young voting. In 1983, LaMarr Hoyt probably wasn’t one of the 10 best pitchers in the American League — he wasn’t in the Top 10 in ERA, just as a starting point — but he got an inordinate amount of run support (an astonishing 19 games where the White Sox scored five or more runs for him) and he won 24 games. Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990 and won the Cy Young though Roger Clemens ERA was a full run lower and he was inarguably the more dominant pitcher.Jack McDowell won 22 games and won the Cy Young in 1993 when Kevin Appier only won 18 and pretty clearly pitched a lot better. And there are other examples.
But, still, the significance of the win in my mind began dwindling way back in 1974, when a pitcher won the Cy Young with (gasp) a 15-12 record. Are you kidding me? A 15-12 record? And that was way back in 1974? How did that happen? And that was nothing. Five years later, a pitcher won the Cy Young with a 6-6 record. SIX AND SIX. And in the years since then, pitchers have won Cy Youngs with nine wins, with seven wins, with six wins, five wins (FIVE STINKING WINS?) and, it’s almost impossible to believe, with four wins (no way, four wins? No way. That didn’t happen).
If you know your Cy Young history, you could probably put names by those records. Mike Marshall won with that 15-12 record. Then Bruce Sutter won with the 6-6 record. After that it was Willie Hernandez who won with nine wins, Dennis Eckersley with seven, Rollie Fingers with six wins, Steve Bedrosian with five and the ever-popular Mark Davis who won with a 4-3 record. Of course, these are all firemen/relievers/closers, and it has been obvious for more than 35 years that these pitchers absolutely were not to be judged by wins. No, they were to be judged by a new statistic called “saves.” The Baseball Writers embraced saves pretty quickly. Of course it was one of the legendary baseball writers, Jerome Holtzman, who invented it.
The point, I think, is that the all-mighty win really started to lose its mojo then. Baseball observers began to realize that the game was changing, and that pitchers who only threw the late innings could be as valuable, could even be MORE valuable, than starters with lots of wins.
Yes, plenty of people continue to love the win as a statistic. Just this week, National League Cy Young winner Roy Halladay threw his support behind the win. So did a few writers. They came hard at us with that old logic: “A pitcher’s job to win games.” Of course, it really isn’t. It’s a TEAM’S job to win games. Anyway, the game isn’t the same. As starters complete fewer and fewer games, as they pitch fewer and fewer innings, as relievers play a bigger and bigger role, well, it’s plain silly to look at pitcher wins the way we did even a few years ago. I think Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young award just punctuates the point.
But this is not an obituary. And this is not a eulogy. The win ain’t dead, and I don’t think the win should be dead either. Seems to me the won-loss record is a perfectly fine thing to look at, a fun thing to talk about, a connection to the past, and it’s simple to understand. You can use it to teach math to kids. Plus it often tells us something very interesting. For instance, I think Hernandez’s won-loss record was quite revealing. It told us that the Mariners were ghastly at hitting baseballs. Fortunately, the voters* realized that this wasn’t Felix Hernandez’s fault.
*I should point out here — or somewhere, I guess — that I was one of the American League Cy Young voters. My ballot looked like this:
1. Felix Hernandez, Seattle
2. C.C. Sabathia, New York
3. David Price, Tampa Bay
4. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles
5. Cliff Lee, Texas