Inside Baseball: A Cy Young For Felix?

The American League Cy Young winner will be announced Thursday, which means this could be the best thing to happen for Mariner fans all year.

Felix Hernandez is among the favorites for the award, which is rather remarkable because he went 13-12 this season. But, hey, he led the league in ERA and innings and finished second in strikeouts.

Hernandez also led AL pitchers in Wins Above Replacement and Win Probability Added, which is important to the stat geeks among us. You know who you are.

CC Sabathia, meanwhile, went 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA (Hernandez’s was 2.27), leading the league in wins. And Sabathia performed in the middle of a pennant race.

One factor that should be considered yet surely will be overlooked is unearned runs. Hernandez allowed the remarkable total of 17 unearned runs this year. How remarkable is that? Well, a full 21.2 percent of his runs allowed were unearned; the AL average in 2010 was 7.3 percent. For Sabathia, 8.7 of his runs allowed were unearned.

Now, the unenlightened might argue that unearned runs are not Hernandez’s fault. But nothing could be further from the truth. Take a 9-1 loss to Cleveland on August 15. In the seventh inning of that game, with the score tied 0-0, Hernandez got the first two outs before a runner reached on an error by the Chone Figgins. Felix then allowed a single, single, double, intentional walk, and home run before being replaced.

Figgins didn’t allow those hits; Hernandez did. And yet they don’t show up on his ERA. The final line: Six runs, none of them earned. Yes, Hernandez should have been out of the inning, but he reacted to the error by having a complete meltdown.

And that wasn’t an isolated incident. Remove that game from the record, and 13.8 percent of the runs Hernandez allowed last season were unearned — still an extremely high total.

Which brings up a larger point: Why does the most common measure of a pitcher’s excellence not include unearned runs? Do those runs not count? Do they not play a role in the outcome of the game?

Differentiating between earned runs and unearned runs hearkens back to baseball’s early days, when the typical team averaged three errors per game. These days, it’s about 0.7 errors per game.

If you look solely at runs allowed, Hernandez gave up 2.88 runs per nine innings; Sabathia allowed 3.48 — still an advantage for Felix. If you adjust for their home parks, Hernandez’s runs allowed were the equivalent of giving up 3.15 runs per nine innings in an average park; Sabathia’s were equivalent to 3.22 in a neutral park. Advantage, Hernandez, but barely.

I would have no problem with a 13-12 pitcher winning the Cy Young Award, if hee deserved it. But when you add in that Hernandez didn’t pitch in a meaningful game after May and the Yankees made the playoffs, it’s difficult to argue that Felix should win the award.

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