The Sabathia versus King Felix Debate… Team Stats For Individual Awards

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

It’s funny. The writers here at The Sports Debates usually sit around in our weekly production meetings and disparage the idea of individual awards and the acclaim those who receive them get. If you ever want to hear a humorous hour-long rant about how much the ESPYs suck, be a fly on the wall in a TSD content meeting.

Yet, here you are today reading our musings on the most virtuous way to win the Cy Young award. Sure, today’s debate topic is entitled, “The Sabathia versus King Felix Debate,” but let’s not be fooled into thinking this debate is about two solid American League pitchers. This one is about which key statistic used to evaluate the winner of the Cy Young award – win-loss record versus ERA – is more acceptable.

The idea that win-loss matters more – or even as much as – a pitcher’s ERA is crazy. The quality of a pitcher’s performance can only be evaluated on what that pitcher can control. The only factor in a baseball game a pitcher can control is his own performance. Therefore, statistics that take into account more than just the individual for an individual award are suspect at best, and unreliable at worst. Using win-loss to gauge a pitcher’s excellence is the worst.

Let’s take, for example, the award’s namesake, Cy Young. Cy Young had a bunch of wins and losses, but his ERA is what contributed to his esteem as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Sure, Young has the most career wins ever for any pitcher in baseball with 511. But, he also has the most losses at 316. He also has a hard-to-believe 2.63 ERA over the course of a 22 year career. Sadly, he failed to ever win any Cy Young awards. He must have been so disappointed.

Sabathia finished in 22nd place in ERA for 2010 with 3.18. That is a solid season from a solid pitcher, but that is not the type of quality season a Cy Young award winner receives the hardware for. There are 21 other pitchers in baseball that surpassed his ERA. A Cy Young award winner must surpass conventional and stretch the outer reaches of the statistical categories. Within that context, note that Felix Hernandez led all of Major League Baseball with a 2.27 ERA for the season. His 13-12 does not in any way reflect the quality of his pitching performances game after game. He is the ace pitcher of the Mariners’ staff and routinely faced the opposing team’s best pitcher. Yet he failed to be intimidated and still delivery one outstanding performance after another in 2010.

The ERA is truly the measuring stick by which a quality pitcher is judged. If you don’t believe me, take into account what ACTUAL PITCHERS say. Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Justin Verlander said about Greinke’s award last season, “He had an outstanding year. I know that his win (total) wasn’t as good as some would like to see out of a Cy Young winner, but I believe that wins are not the most telling stat of how a pitcher performed.”

I have researched and can bore you all with twenty different examples where ERA is a better use case to judge the quality of a pitcher’s season, and therefore his legitimacy as a Cy Young award winner. But, why go there when I can point out that even Joe Morgan, quite possibly the WORST in-game commentator across all sports and all networks, admits that a team’s record matters much less for the Cy Young award than it does for the MVP. Morgan isn’t so bright, so if even HE gets it, why can’t Babe Ruthless?

Morgan is right, though (man, it really bothers me to say that). The ERA is personal while a team’s win-loss is not. If the Cy Young is designed to measure the quality of an individual performance, how can a team stat be used fairly in the judgment? It just doesn’t make sense.

The Cy Young award identifies the best pitcher in the league. In no way does the criteria of the award take the quality of a pitcher’s team into account. For an example, consider the case of former New York Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. Wang won 19 games in both 2006 and 2007. He clearly pitched well, but he also clearly played for a great team that padded his win-loss stats. Nineteen wins don’t happen on accident, but a high number of wins are not the prevailing criteria for the greatness of a pitching season. A 3.63 and 3.70 ERA are solid, but not Cy Young territory by any stretch.

A pitcher simply cannot control the quality of the hitters on his team. In the context of this debate, Hernandez isn’t the GM or manager of his team. He cannot sign players or coach them to their potential. He can’t help that Ken Griffey, Jr. wanted some shut eye during a game, or that the lineup could not consistently hit, or that bullpen couldn’t protect a lead. What he was able to control he did masterfully, as seen by his exhibition of the best ERA in all of baseball.

Hernandez was second in the Cy Young award voting in 2009 even though his team was not playoff worthy. He had a 2.49 ERA last season, too – along with 19 wins. But he lost the award to the Royals’ Zach Greinke… a pitcher with three fewer wins but an unrivaled ERA of 2.16. It sure seems like ERA mattered more than win-loss record last season. It should also matter that much this season, giving Hernandez the Cy Young award instead of C.C. Sabathia.

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