Over the coming weeks we will be rolling out the YCPB Awards, given to what were, as voted by you, the most unpredictable players and moments of the 2010 season. Figured this one should come out the day the actual AL Cy Young is announced. Congratulations Felix!
Mariners fans have long known that Felix Hernandez was special. In 2005, he became the first pitcher to throw more than 35 innings as a 19 year old since Dwight Gooden in 1984. He threw at least seven innings in ten of his twelve starts, at least eight innings in five of them, and wound up with a 2.67 ERA. After scuffling a bit in his second season, he steadily improved for a couple of years before putting together a monster 2009 that saw him finish with a 2.49 ERA and 3.06 K/BB in 238.2 innings as a 23 year old. In the past 30 years, only two pitchers pitched more innings to a lower ERA at age 23 or younger: Roger Clemens in 1986, and Gooden in 1985. To go along with his fantastic numbers, Hernandez went 19-5 for a Mariners team that won 85 games.
We at YCPB have often been dismissive of wins and losses for pitchers. They depend so much on the other 24 guys on the team that they don’t really tell you anything informative about how someone pitched on any given day. Even the most traditionally inclined baseball minds out there, who tend to be the staunchest defenders of the importance of pitcher wins and losses, know this—the “hard luck loss” and the “undeserved win” are as old as the game itself*. The central assumption behind assigning any value to wins and losses is that it evens out over time; that when all is said and done, the best pitchers wind up with the most wins. In 2010, Felix Hernandez set out to prove that was not the case, and put together an even better season than he had in 2009. That he wound up just 13-12 was, as voted by you, the most unpredictable pitching season in the American League.
*Don’t believe me? Here is an article from nearly a century ago blaming Walter Johnson’s lack of support from his teammates on why he was losing far more often than he was used to (not sure if that is subscription only. If so, I apologize).
No discussion of Felix Hernandez’s 2010 season can be complete without a digression on Seattle’s offense. The Mariners collectively hit .236/.298/.339/.637 in 2010. That’s the entire team. They were the first team in more than 20 years to have a sub-.300 OBP and they had the same slugging percentage as Jamey Carroll. That’s the same Jamey Carroll who hit precisely zero home runs in his 414 plate appearances for the Dodgers this year.
All that is including Ichiro Suzuki, who led the Majors in hits for the fifth consecutive year. Despite 214 hits and another 45 walks, Ichiro only scored 74 runs. That would have been tied for seventh on the Yankees. Mark Reynolds, who had just 99 hits on the season, the fewest of any NL qualifier*, still scored more runs this year (79) than Ichiro (big hat tip to friend of the blog Jayson Stark for that one).
*To be able to be considered the league leader in rate stats like batting average, OPS, etc., you have to have enough plate appearances to qualify for the titles. A qualifier is anyone who has at least 3.1 plate appearances per team game, or 502 PAs for a regular length season. 151 hitters qualified in 2010.
All told, the Mariners were held to three runs or fewer a staggering 103 times. They were held to one run or fewer an incredible 43 times, and were shut out 15 times. Perhaps even more amazingly, they scored more than four runs just 39 times. They had more games of 0 or 1 runs than they had of 5 or more. Both the Yankees and Red Sox averaged more than 5 runs per game this year.
Back to Felix—at the beginning he didn’t pitch like we all thought he would. He gave up 3 runs in 6.2 innings in his first start of the year, but he also walked six. The Mariners won his first four starts, but then lost seven straight and eight out of nine. In those nine starts, Felix had a very pedestrian 4.61 ERA. That’s a bit skewed on account of his getting lit up a couple of times (after all, it also includes back-to-back 8-inning, 1-run outings), but after getting shelled on June 8th, Felix had a 3.77 ERA and 1.360 WHIP for the season.
His next outing in San Diego he threw 8.2 innings and gave up two runs. Then he threw nine innings in each of his next three starts, capping the run with a 2-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts at Yankee Stadium. All told, from June 13th until the end of the season, a span of 21 starts, Felix threw 163.2 innings (7.8 innings per start) with a 1.48 ERA, 0.898 WHIP, and 153 strikeouts against just 38 walks. Opponents hit .187/.241/.275/.516 off him. He finished the season leading the league in ERA (2.27), and innings pitched (249.2), and was second in strikeouts (just one behind Jered Weaver), and WHIP (Felix actually gave up fewer hits than Cliff Lee despite throwing 37.1 more innings. Lee just didn’t walk anybody all year).
Even during that dominant run, however, the wins just never came. Felix was 10-7 over those 21 starts, and even more importantly, the Mariners were just 12-9. On September 23rd, he suffered the most brutal hard-luck loss in a season full of them, pitching a complete game in Toronto and giving up one run on two hits. From the second inning onward he faced one batter above the minimum. Of course, one of the hits was Jose Bautista’s 50th home run of the season. Shawn Hill and four relievers combined to shut out the Mariners as Toronto won 1-0 and Felix dropped to 12-12. It was Hill’s only win of the year, and he was released after the season.
King Felix made 34 starts in 2010 and gave up three or more earned runs in just nine of them. The Mariners were 1-8 in those nine games, and Hernandez himself was 0-7. In the 25 games where he gave up 2 earned runs or fewer, the Mariners were 16-9 and Hernandez was 13-5. Felix went at least 6.2 innings in all 25 of those starts, and seven or more in 23 of them. The Mariners still managed to lose nine times.
In contrast, let’s look at 21-game winner CC Sabathia. Sabathia also made 34 starts, very conveniently split into 17 starts where he gave up 0-2 earned runs, and 17 where he gave up 3 or more. In the first group, The Yankees went 14-3 and Sabathia went 14-1—not much of a surprise there. In the second group, the Yankees went 9-8 and Sabathia went 7-6. That’s right, CC had more wins in games where he gave up 0-2 runs than Felix, despite throwing eight fewer such games.
The real kicker though?
Pitcher A: 238.2 IP, 2.49 ERA, 172 ERA+, 1.135 WHIP, 71 BB, 217 K, 2.7 BB/9, 8.2 K/9, 3.06 K/BB
Pitcher B: 249.2 IP, 2.27 ERA, 174 ERA+, 1.057 WHIP, 70 BB, 232 K, 2.5 BB/9, 8.4 K/9, 3.31 K/BB
They are pretty similar, but Pitcher B is slightly better across the board, right? If you’ve managed to read this far, you probably figured out that…
Pitcher A is Felix Hernandez, 2009. He was 19-5.
Pitcher B is Felix Hernandez, 2010. He was 13-12.
Congratulations Felix Hernandez, in addition to your more meaningful hardware, you are the 2010 AL YCPB Cy Young Award winner.