There are two primary arguments against King Felix deserving the Cy Young. The first lies in his win-loss record, a mediocre 12-11. The second argument against his Cy Young case is that Seattle’s Safeco Field is a pitchers’ park, yielding significantly less runs than the average park and artificially bolstering Felix’s numbers. I’ll tackle these issues one at a time.
Win-loss records are a horrible way of gauging a pitcher’s ability and value to a team. Early on in my stats writing I did a piece on SF’s Matt Cain, illustrating all the ways that win-loss records can be influenced by factors outside the pitcher’s control. Felix Hernandez has allowed 3.0 runs per 9 innings this year, good for second in the AL among qualified pitchers. Unfortunately, during his starts the Mariners only score 3.2 runs per nine innings. You cannot possibly argue that Felix Hernandez is at fault for such poor run support, since he doesn’t even bat as an AL pitcher. A theoretical winning percentage for a team that scores 3.2 runs and gives up 3.o is 53%. Hernandez has won 12/23 decisions, good for 52%. His win-loss record follows our theory based on his run support.
For comparison’s sake, C.C. Sabathia, another AL contender for the Cy Young Award, sits at 20-6, a 77% winning percentage. Giving up 3.4 runs per nine, but receiving a generous 5.8 runs of support from the Yankees’ offense suggests a theoretical winning percentage of 74%, not significantly far from his actual figure. The point is this: pitching wins are a product of many factors, some controlled by the pitcher, and some not. So why don’t we only judge the pitcher on the factors he can control? Good question. Felix 3.00 R/9 and 2.35 ERA. Sabathia 3.38 R/9 and 3.05 ERA. Advantage: Felix.
This brings us to our next counter argument, that Felix gains a huge advantage by playing in Safeco. This is only partly true. USSMariner blogman Dave Cameron made a great point a couple weeks ago that Safeco is a great pitchers’ park for lefties. Why? Right handed hitters are crippled by Safeco’s deep left field power alley, the alley where righties hit ding dongs over the fence in other parks. Since lefties generally match up worse against righties than fellow southpaws, the traditional splits are nullified by Seattle’s ball park. In other words, lefties almost always have an advantage against other lefties, and Safeco, in addition, gives them an advantage against righties. Felix is not aided nearly as much by Safeco because A) he is right-handed, and B) he is a groundball pitcher, and thus less affected by the distances the the outfield fences.
Stat Corner tells us that that left-handed power hitters are still at a disadvantage hitting in Safeco, facing a 9% HR reduction, but righties face a much steeper 16% HR reduction. In comparison, Sabathia (a southpaw) is hurt by Yankee stadium, which boosts home runs to right-handed hitters by 10%.
There’s no doubt Safeco still helps Felix out, but not nearly to the extent that it helps a left-handed, flyball pitcher like, say, Jason Vargas. In the end, it’s a tight Cy Young race to be sure, especially with David Price still lurking around with a sub 3.00 ERA for the Rays. In the end, if things hold up, the award will likely go to Sabathia because of his 20+ wins and the fact that he plays for a contender, but there is no reason to believe that he is any better at pitching than our King.
Update: Felix pitched an 8-inning, complete-game loss today. Though he walked a few too many, 4, his GB/FB ratio was 15/4. He allowed just one earned run.
*Stats to this point:
Hernandez – 233.2 innings, 2.35 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 3.23 xFIP
Sabathia – 224 innings, 3.05 ERA, 3.58 FIP, 3.83 xFIP
Price – 193.2 innings, 2.79 ERA, 3.49, 4.01 xFIP
Liriano – 183.1 innings, 3.44 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 3.08 xFIP
Buchholtz – 165.2 innings, 2.39 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 4.23 xFIP
Cliff Lee – 200.2 innings, 3.19 ERA, 2.65 FIP, 3.23 FIP
FIP and xFIP are ERA-estimators based on K, BB and groundball rates.