Once again, the Cy Young voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America are being handed a test.
Contrary to the conviction of the more dogmatic observers, there is no definitive answer. This is more Rorschach than SAT. Yet the result will speak volumes about how the BBWAA membership--typecast until recently as a staid and backward bunch--has embraced the new methodology of evaluating performance.
Certainly, last year's Cy Young voting showed that the BBWAA is becoming more progressive. Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum won in their respective leagues despite ranking seventh and fourth, respectively, in victories.
But this year's American League ballot will provide an even starker dichotomy. On the one hand is Felix Hernandez, whose statistical resume is pre-eminent in virtually every category except wins, doing his brilliant work on a team buried in last place. And on the other extreme is CC Sabathia, who has reached the magic number of 20 victories with a team battling for the best record in baseball.
In between are pitchers such as David Price, Clay Buchholz, Jered Weaver, Trevor Cahill, Francisco Liriano, Cliff Lee and Jon Lester, who can make Cy Young cases of varying strength.
With Friday's victory over Texas, King Felix moved to 12-11; he would have to win his final three starts (provided the Mariners even decide to let him go out three more times, which is problematic) just to match Lincecum's 2009 total of 15. Lincecum had the fewest wins ever by a Cy Young starting pitcher in a full season.
The AL vote is being painted (again) as a referendum on the enlightenment of old-school baseball writers. As a card-carrying member of that fraternity (Card No. 120, actually) and a Cy Young voter this year, I have keen interest in the outcome.
Considerable time has already been spent speculating on whether voters are ready to eschew the timeworn notion that a pitcher with so few victories as Hernandez has is not Cy Young caliber.
I decided to go right to the source by polling the 27 other Cy voters (two from each American League city) to get their viewpoints on voting philosophy. Everyone else can pontificate, but we're the ones who have the actual ballots.
In the e-mail to the 26 men and one woman, I didn't ask who they were voting for, because the BBWAA frowns upon surveys that pre-empt the organization's announcement of the winner. What I wanted to learn about was methodology--what factors they were considering in their vote.
I heard back from just over half, so I can't come to a definitive conclusion. But the responses I received should give encouragement to Hernandez and his supporters that he will receive a fair shake despite his relative paucity of victories. I also am now convinced that pitching for a team more than 25 games out of first place will not be a deal-breaker for Hernandez, though pitchers like Sabathia and Price could get some juice from being on playoff-bound teams.
Eric Boland of Newsday wrote: "It sounds simplistic but I look at who was the best pitcher in the league for a given year. Period. Regardless of how his team finishes. And I don't find wins to be a particularly good measure for which pitcher had the best year. I think performance in big games has meaning and should get some weight, but I also think it's in some ways more difficult to pitch well outing after outing for a struggling team. My bottom line is I'll measure plenty of factors in deciding which way to vote--and I'm not leaning any direction right now--but wins won't be very high on the list."
That sentiment is echoed by Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star: "Pitcher wins are among baseball's most misleading and in a lot of ways outdated stats, so they mean very little for my vote. I'm an innings and ERA guy, because I figure the guy who pitches the most while allowing the fewest runs is a pretty good place to start when looking for the best pitcher.
"Pennant races are important, but I think for my purposes, I look at this more as a Most Outstanding Pitcher sort of thing. I'm a believer in sabermetrics, absolutely, and pay a lot of attention to WAR and xFIP, though not necessarily to the exclusion of K/9, walks, that kind of thing. I also think that even more than Zack winning last year's award, this year's Felix vs CC thing is a referendum on how much progress we've made."
Said Ray Ratto, who recently moved from the San Francisco Chronicle to CSNBayArea.com: "I don't consider wins a primary stat, and the Lincecum Cy Youngs pretty much show that not many others do, either. I do believe that good performances in a pennant race matters slightly more than a Tuesday night against the Royals, but since the Cy Young is about the best pitcher, not the most valuable one, I wouldn't downgrade Hernandez on that either."
Such opinions were echoed by many voters, but there are unquestionably some who will penalize Hernandez for his win total. One, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote: "I think sabermetric stats are becoming more and more popular. On the other hand, I cannot ignore winning. This is the Cy Young Award, named after the all-time winningest pitcher."
And wrote Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune in his e-mail response: "ERA is an awfully telling stat to me. But obviously it's more complex than that. I do think wins are a big factor, and that's probably very un-sabermetric of me. It would be hard to bypass Sabathia, for instance, for somebody with 5 or more fewer wins, although I'm not sure what the magic number is. I do think pitching for a team in a race is tougher, so I'd look at that too."
Jorge Ortiz of USA Today wrote back: "I do take the new metrics into consideration, but win-loss record will be a factor in my vote as well. To quote Herman Edwards, 'You play to win the game.' That being said, you can't ignore the fact Felix has the second-lowest run support in the league at less than four runs a game and CC Sabathia, one of his main competitors for the award, is getting more than seven runs a game."
For the record, I fall in the camp recognizing that a pitcher's win-loss record is, to a great extent, beyond his control. I can point to seven or more potential victories that Felix has had snatched from him by virtue of a malfunctioning bullpen or nonexistent run support. I will look at his entire body of work, sabermetrically and otherwise, and at the moment, that bodes well for him.
I don't know who's going to win, but I agree with the assessment of Cy Young voter Mel Antonen of USA Today: "It might be the most fascinating vote of all time."