Over the weekend, Felix Hernandez’s record setting streak of 16 consecutive games pitching at least 7 innings and allowing 2 or fewer runs came to an end when he was taken out after 5 innings in a loss to the Detroit Tigers. The 2 runs he allowed in 5 innings raised his ERA for the season to 1.99. Yes, that’s right. I said RAISED his ERA to 1.99.
The last AL starting pitcher to finish a season with a sub 2.0 ERA was Pedro Martinez for the 2000 Boston Red Sox. That season, Martinez went 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA and struck out 284 batters in 213.1 innings, on his way to the Cy Young award.
Many baseball experts and fans alike seem to think it’s a foregone conclusion that Hernandez will win his second Cy Young award this season. Upon closer inspection of the numbers, there’s also a compelling argument to be made that Felix should be the AL MVP as well. But first, let’s look at his Cy Young credentials.
The Argument for the Cy Young
While Hernandez has the best ERA in the AL, it’s not by as wide of a margin as you might think. Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox has a 2.01 ERA, just 0.02 behind Felix. The case against Sale is that he started the season on the DL and has only logged 130 innings so far this season, a full 55.1 innings behind Hernandez.
David Price leads the AL in strike outs with 212, followed by Felix and Cleveland Indian surprise ace Corey Kluber with 197 each, and Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers with 196. Price’s K/9 at 9.87 is only slightly better than Hernandez’s 9.57, and his lead in K is largely a product of having pitched 8 more innings so far. The really impressive K/9 numbers reside in Texas, Detroit, and Chicago, with Yu Darvish’s 11.35, Max Scherzer’s 10.44, and Chris Sale’s 10.38.
Max Scherzer leads the AL in wins with 14, but is trailed by eight other pitchers, including Felix, with 13.
So, the conventional statistics – ERA, K, and W – all support Felix Hernandez for Cy Young, as he is first or second in each category. But it’s the advanced numbers that really seal the deal.
Hernandez’s fielding independent pitching (FIP) is a league best 2.15. His closest competitor is Chris Sale at 2.27. Felix’s xFIP is also league best at 2.42 with Yankees injured ace Masahiro Tanaka second at 2.56. And finally, the King’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is an outstanding .261, just trailing Garrett Richards of the Los Angeles Angels at .258. League average is around .300.
Given the slowly growing awareness of advanced metrics by the voters for the awards (except for gold gloves), that was largely fueled by Felix’s first Cy Young when he won only 13 games, statistics like FIP, xFIP, and BABIP are being taken into account as they are truer measurements of things the pitcher can actually control (BABIP less so than FIP or xFIP). What will be interesting is to see how far the voters are willing to venture in looking at wins against replacement (WAR) when deciding the AL MVP.
The Argument for MVP
The past two seasons, Mike Trout has been deprived of the MVP by voters unwilling to look beyond “triple crown” counting numbers and take into account statistics like WAR that measure the players’ total contribution to his team. For every day players that includes defense and base running, as well as hitting. The irony may be that Trout will win this year if the voters ignore WAR once again and don’t vote for Felix Hernandez for MVP.
Currently, Trout is second among AL hitters in WAR with 5.6, behind Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals at 5.7.
Gordon’s conventional stat line is .284/.360/.445 with 13 HR, 65 R, 55 RBI, and 8 SB, not the kind of numbers likely to garner many MVP votes. His 5.7 WAR is largely a product of his outstanding defense in left field. His UZR/150, which measures runs above average per 150 games, is off the charts at 34.2.
Trout, who has been a plus defender his first two seasons, is actually below average to bad this season with a UZR/150 of -11.7, a component of his game that is greatly weighing down his WAR. At the plate, Trout is having another stellar year hitting .289/.378/.559 with 27 HR, 81 R, and 86 RBI. However, he’s not running nearly as much as in the past, with only 12 SB. Subtract the D and the SB and you get an all-star rather than an all-time-star.
For those who love counting numbers, Nelson Cruz of the Baltimore Orioles and Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox lead the AL in HR with 31 apiece. David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox leads the league in RBI with 91. Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros leads the league in SB with 46. Brian Dozier of the Minnesota Twins leads the AL in R with 84 (Trout is second). And, Jose Altuve is ahead of Robinson Cano .339 to .332 in BA. A wide open MVP race, at least among offensive players.
With a league leading 6.2 WAR, the case can be made that Felix Hernandez is the most valuable player in the American League.
Normally, I wouldn’t consider a pitcher for MVP simply because pitchers only play in about 35 games where an everyday player is, well, every day. When Justin Verlander won both the Cy Young and the MVP in 2011, he was fifth in WAR with 6.9. Jacoby Ellsbury, then with the Red Sox, led the AL with 9.1 and came in second in the MVP.
But, in a year with no clear offensive player for the award and considering that Felix is a huge reason the Mariners are in the wild card hunt, I might be persuaded to vote pitcher for MVP. Let’s see what the rest of August and September hold in store.