Greetings from Kansas City! Home to great barbecue, baseball history (the Negro League Hall of Fame), and my grandmother’s all-time favorite golfer, Tom Watson. Wednesday evening, after Roy Halladay was unanimously chosen the NL Cy Young Award winner, I was perusing the net, digesting the commentary and scrounging for material, when our good friend Repoz over at BaseballThinkFactory posted a link on Facebook. I had to click.
It was, in the irony of all ironies, a blog post from the irascible, former New York Times baseball columnist Murray Chass. In a textbook anti-stats, antediluvian rant that may as well define “generation gap,” Chass claimed that Hernandez winning the AL Cy Young Award would be, among other things, a sign of the “Dark Side” taking over, and that this was the “wrong year for Hernandez.”
Well it looks like the BBWAA just became a sith.
Thursday, Felix Hernandez, winner of just 13 games, took the 2010 crown. Until Hernandez, 16 victories was the floor for starting pitchers to have won the award in a non-interrupted season (David Cone set that mark in the strike-shortened 1994 season). Lefties David Price and CC Cabathia, who combined for 40 victories, finished second and third, respectively.
Hernandez’s Cy Young was seen as a triumph for the sabermetricians; the “stat nyerds,” as Alex Belth noted in his hilariously titled post. The blog at Baseball Reference called it a “great day for stat geeks like us,” adding that it “goes to show you how little Wins and Losses mean as an individual pitcher stat (despite being, obviously, the most important team stat).” At Baseball Musings, David Pinto wrote, “With this vote, and last year’s awards, the wins column seems to be out of style in choosing the top spot. That’s a great stride forward for the BBWAA.”
Tyler Kepner stated in his post over at Bats that you didn’t need advanced metrics to make the case for Hernandez.
You don’t have to look up the meaning of Base-Out Runs Saved or Win Probability Added or anything like that. The stats that on the backs of baseball cards for decades make the case quite well.
And he’s right. Hernandez led the major leagues in ERA, led the AL in innings pitched, batting average against, and was second in strikeouts. He was last in the league in run support. Even Price agreed with the voting.
“I feel like they got it right,” he said on a conference call. “I feel Felix deserved it.”
Price said he considers ERA the most important stat, and had no issue with Hernandez, who led the majors with a 2.27 mark, winning the award despite a 13-12 record.
Indeed, the pattern is similar to last year, when Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum claimed the AL and NL prizes. Greinke led the majors in ERA, led the AL in WHIP, was second in the AL in strikeouts, and had the benefit of Hernandez and Sabathia splitting the vote. In the NL, Tim Lincecum was a 15-game winner but he led the NL in strikeouts and led the majors in K/9, and had the benefit of St. Louis Cardinal teammates Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright splitting the vote.
In fact, one can argue that Hernandez’s 2009 season was better than 2010. He was tied for the AL lead in wins with Sabathia (19), led the league in hits per nine innings and win-loss percentage, was second in ERA, third in WHIP, and fourth in strikeouts. Last year, his teammate helped him enough offensively to boost his win-loss record.
More from Kepner …
Over the course of a career, won-lost record is important, because luck generally evens out over time. But in the framework of a season, 34 starts or so, it’s not always revealing. Too many variables beyond a pitcher’s control can mess it up. Hernandez had 12 starts in which he allowed two earned runs or fewer and did not win. Price had five starts like that. Sabathia had three. Hernandez pitched in front of the worst A.L. offense of the designated-hitter era. That’s not his fault. That’s bad luck.
Speaking of luck, Chass recounted Steve Carlton’s Triple Crown season in 1972, when Lefty won 27 games for a Phillie team that won just 59. Luck wasn’t involved. Carlton was that good. Chass was trying to illustrate the premise that “great pitchers find ways to win games.” He also referenced Roy Halladay’s subscription to that philosophy. Kepner and others quoted Halladay similarly. But in Carlton’s case, he made 41 starts that year, pitched on a four-man rotation, completed 30 games, pitched more than 300 innings — it’s silly to even bring that season, as magnificent as it was, into the discussion. You can’t compare the two.
Later in the column, Chass criticized his former colleague, Kepner, and his former employer, for delving into highbrow intellect to add further context to the Paper of Record’s baseball coverage. Kepner committed an egregious act — using the Total Zone Total Fielding metric — to argue why Derek Jeter should not have won the Gold Glove, despite his making the fewest errors of any shortstop in baseball. This incited the elder’s ire.
The Times has increasingly used statistically-based columns, often at the expense, I believe, of the kind of baseball coverage it used to emphasize. But Kepner’s use of “Total Zone Total Fielding” was the clincher, demonstrating that the Times has gone over to the dark side.
Kepner, the Times’ national baseball writer, used the statistic in reporting that metric men were critical of the selection of Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop, as the Gold Glove shortstop. The Total Zone formula, Kepner wrote, rates Jeter 59th, or last, among major league shortstops.
“‘Within an hour of Tuesday’s announcement of the American League Gold Glove awards,’” he wrote as he planted both feet firmly on the dark side, “editors at Baseball-Reference.com summed up the general reaction to Derek Jeter’s latest victory at shortstop: ‘We can’t believe it either,’ a notation briefly on the site said.”
The game is more specialized. It’s data driven. Statistics don’t tell the entire story, but they help to put the story into perspective. This movement, which has evolved off the field since Bill James ascended to prominence and has gained more traction over the last 15 years, is not going away. On the field, managers like Earl Weaver and Tony LaRussa were pioneers in how the game is managed today, helping feed the depth of analysis that exists.
There is a place for some of Chass’s arguments. To say “great pitchers find a way to win games” is callous. But highlighting Carlton’s season the way he did allows us to cross-check Baseball Reference, Retrosheet, Baseball Almanac et al and use the stats to compare pitchers from the different eras. What the stats tell us, and the sabermetricians will agree, is that the truly great players, even with the advanced metrics, would have been great no matter when they played.
The fact that writers like Kepner, and Jayson Stark and Peter Gammons before him continue credit those sites and help bring them to the fore is a good thing for baseball fans. If reporters are supposed to be our eyes and ears — and they still can be — what better way to prove it than to show us that they visit the same websites we do to get information? Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus has a BBWAA card, after years of fighting for it. That group, a group with I was proud to call colleagues for two of the annuals, was part of the “basement bloggers” that Murray Chass-tised a few years back. Now they’re mainstream and didn’t have to sell out to get there. And by the way, Mr. Chass should note that the CEO of that enterprise is the same brain behind 538.com, which changed the way elections were covered two years ago. It’s now a leading political blog under the New York Times umbrella. Numbers feed words.
This progression is healthy. Tradition can still be strong. But it should be put in context with the modernization of the game. Even Tevye, the protagonist in “Fiddler on the Roof,” came to accept that the traditions he held dear were changing and he needed to adapt.
With that post, Chass showed he’s rooted in “tradition” and is past the point of adapting.