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The once and future King

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 28, 2010 12:11 PM

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finnfelix928.jpgFelix Hernandez leads the American League in ERA (2.31), starts (33), quality starts (29), innings pitched (241.2), and batters faced (971).

The breathtakingly talented 24-year-old Seattle ace is second in WHIP (1.06) and strikeouts (227), third in xFIP (3.26, 0.01 behind Jon Lester), third in batting-average against (.217), and third in the Fangraphs version of WAR (6.3).

Arms race

A glance at the AL pitching leaders in several key categories entering Tuesday's games:

ERA
1. Hernandez, Sea. 2.31
2. Buchholz, Bos. 2.33
3. Price, TB 2.84
4. Lester, Bos. 2.96
Innings pitched
1. Hernandez, Sea. 241.2
2. Sabathia, NY 229.1
3T. Verlander, Det. 217.1
Weaver, LA, 217.1
Strikeouts
1. Weaver, LA 229
2. Hernandez, Sea 227
3. Lester, Bos. 220
4. Verlander, Det. 209
WHIP
1. Lee, Tex. 1.02
2. Hernandez, Sea. 1.06
3. Weaver, LA 1.08
4. Cahilli, Oak. 1.11
Wins
1. Sabathia, NY 20
2. Lester, Bos. 19
3T. Price, TB 18
Verlander, Det. 18
WAR*
1. Lee, Tex. 6.6
2. Liriano, Minn. 6.4
3. Hernandez, Sea. 6.1
4. Weaver, LA 6.0
*Fangraphs version

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Review the contenders' credentials

The numbers confirm what your eyes tell you, and vice versa: Felix Hernandez is the premier pitcher in the AL. You might have heard about this, but the AL Cy Young Award is given annually to the premier pitcher in the AL. Ergo (hence, thus, in conclusion, and therefore, too), Felix Hernandez should win the AL Cy Young Award.

Yes sir, with 12 wins. Maybe 13, should he win his start tonight against the Texas Rangers. Given how his season has gone, though, the most appropriate outcome might be for him to pitch brilliantly only to have the Mariners' historically inept "offense" to support him with exactly no runs, as they have done in seven of his last 13 starts.

His team's misery doesn't detract from his individual accomplishment, and I realize Hernandez's supremacy is hardly a revelation; Joe Posnanski, shockingly, wrote the definitive take on King Felix's Cy case, and even respected but solidly mainstream baseball writers such as Ken Rosenthal and Buster Olney have come to recognize that wins are rather inconsequential in judging how well a pitcher does his job. Both have endorsed Hernandez over, among others, Yankees 20-game-winner CC Sabathia, whose case is largely built on his won-lost record.

Ironically, Lester, who could win 20 games -- appeasing the old-school voters and rightfully stealing the remaining morsels of support from the Sabathia -- might have had a better shot if he hadn't lost four straight starts -- while allowing no more than four runs in any of them -- from July 18-Aug. 4, when the Red Sox' playoff hopes took a major thumping. It will be held against him even if it shouldn't -- he leads the league in strikeouts per nine innings and is third in WAR -- but he would make a perfectly worthy runner-up. As for that other Red Sox candidate, Clay Buchholz: He pitched brilliantly, but with 173.2 innings, he didn't pitch enough.

(Relevant digression: Can you imagine if the blockbuster deal Theo Epstein reportedly proposed to the Mariners at the trade deadline last year had been consummated? Getting Hernandez would have felt like a spectacular heist -- but considering the Sox offered five players from a list of eight that included Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Felix Doubront, not to mention two of the three pitchers sent to Cleveland for Victor Martinez, it's probably for the best that it didn't happen. Which is a remarkable thing to say about the chance at acquiring arguably the most appealing young pitcher in baseball.)

I'm convinced Hernandez's final victory of the season will come when the Cy Young winner is announced, and comes a year after last year's honorees, Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum combined for 31 wins. Greinke, the Royals ace, owned the fewest number of victories (16) for any full-season AL winner (excluding relief pitchers) ever. Such progress in performance analysis is almost enough to put a tear in a sabermetrician's eye. You know, if we stat geeks had actual human emotions and stuff. Someone needs to come up with an app for that.

* * *

87ryanfinnjpg.jpg The debate -- actually, I suppose now it's more of a consensus among the open-minded -- about Hernandez's candidacy reminded me of another brilliant pitching season that was obscured by a misleading won-lost record. And it's an even more drastic and fascinating example than what has happened with Hernandez this season.

In 1987, Nolan Ryan had a spectacular season for the Houston Astros, even by his legendary standards. At age 40, he led the National League in ERA (2.76), strikeouts (270), adjusted ERA (142), H/9 (6.5), K/9 (11.5), and K/BB ratio (3.10). The only season in his legendary 27-year career in which he had a superior ERA+ was the strike-shortened 1981 season. It was arguably his finest season.

He won eight games. He lost 16.

Maybe you recall that I've written about this insane, mesmerizing season before, more than once. If it's redundant, I apologize and tell you I'm sorry. It's just that I was still playing Strat-O-Matic in those days with my old man, and having the dominant Ryan on my side that year delivered a baseball lesson that you couldn't get from the back of a baseball card.

Backed by an offense in our 12-team All-Star league that provided more offensive punch than the likes of Craig Reynolds and Denny Walling provided him in real life (the Astros scored two or fewer runs in 15 of his starts) he went 24-5.

That was the first time it dawned on me how little a pitcher's win total revealed about how well he actually pitched. It's a lesson that probably wasn't so apparent yet to those who voted for the NL Cy Young Award in '87. Ryan finished tied for fifth with Mets shooting star Dwight Gooden.

Phillies closer Steve Bedrosian, who had 40 saves and a 2.83 ERA for a fourth-place team, won the award, which looks pretty ridiculous in retrospect. Rick Sutcliffe, Rick Reuschel (really), and Orel Hershiser finished ahead of Ryan.

Hershiser, who went 16-16 with a 3.04 ERA in 264.2 innings, might have had an even better case than Ryan to win the award -- he had a WAR of 6.7 by baseball-reference's measure, tops in the NL. Ryan was fifth (5.5).

Curiously, a second Dodgers righthander might have been more deserving than Ryan. Bob Welch, who went 15-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 251.2 innings, ranked right behind Hershiser in value with a WAR of 6.6. He finished a distant eighth in the Cy Young voting, but he'd get his makeup call three years later, breezing to the 1990 AL Cy Young award after going 27-6 for the Oakland A's. His WAR of 2.5 didn't crack the top 10 among pitchers.

It was unjust, and it bugged my bitter 20-year-old self then that Roger Clemens, clearly the superior pitcher that season in all but the win column, didn't collect what would have been his third Cy Young Award. He was 21-6 with a 1.93 ERA, had the best adjusted ERA of his Red Sox career, and finished second to Rickey Henderson among all players in WAR.

Nowadays, the memories of actually rooting for Clemens are a bit hazy, and I like to think he's still ornery about losing out to Welch. Dave Stewart wasn't the only Oakland pitcher from that era to win things Clemens wanted.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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