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Who deserves the AL Cy Young? Execs give nod to Felix Hernandez


The hottest postseason debate is just starting to heat up: In an survey of baseball executives that may surprise some, a clear majority interviewed suggested they would ignore Seattle wunderkind FelixHernandez's historically low win total for a top Cy Young candidate and still make him the winner of the top pitching award.

Six out of nine top baseball execs sided with Hernandez over anyone else, including CC Sabathia and David Price, who have far more wins than Hernandez while pitching for better teams in a pennant race but possess other stats that, while very good, don't stack up to those of King Felix. Eight of the execs contacted were from the American League; six of those voted for King Felix, while Sabathia and Price got one vote apiece. The National League exec went with Sabathia.

The tally doesn't suggest Hernandez will definitely win the award (beyond this being a small sample, writers actually do the voting) but provides more evidence that a victory total is seen as increasingly less important in judging starting pitchers. Last year's Cy Young winners had record-low win totals of 15 (Tim Lincecum) and 16 (Zack Greinke) for starting pitchers. But Hernandez, who was only 11-11 at the time of the nine interviews/contacts (some execs responded by text) on Friday but notched his 12th win later that night against the first-place Rangers, provides the most extreme example to date of a low victory total with excellent other numbers.

"I would hope voters have gotten to the point where wins -- while a factor -- are only a very small part of the calculus given how dependent an individual's total is upon his team's run scoring, defense and bullpen performances,'' said one American League executive. "Based upon what the individuals have done, my ballot would be Felix, CC (and Jered) Weaver.'' (The often omitted Weaver's stats are pretty close to Hernandez, except in the notable case of ERA).

Even the execs who favored Sabathia or Price for the award suggested wins aren't necessarily decisive. A couple who favored Sabathia or Price said they were factoring in Hernandez's so-so early record (he was 2-4 with a 3.50 ERA through May, before the woeful Mariners were completely out of contention) or his favorable home park for a pitcher (he has a 2.06 ERA at Safeco and 2.65 ERA away from home). They mentioned the big roles played in the pennant race by Sabathia and/or Sabathia's hitter-friendly home park. The NL exec who favored Sabathia referred to new Yankee Stadium as a "bandbox.''

The AL Cy Young debate is already controversial, pitting those who believe wins are a major factor for starting pitchers vs. those who don't, the stat guys (who seem to completely disregard win totals) vs. the non-stat guys and, to some extent, the younger guys vs. the older guys.

No doubt, Hernandez has a strong case despite the low win total. Some execs mentioned how much stress he had to pitch with considering Seattle's almost nonexistent offense. But other execs weighed more heavily the stress of pitching in a pennant race.

Here's one AL exec's well-reasoned explanation why he would favor Price or Sabathia slightly: "I think wins should factor in. I'm not a big proponent of wins counting for a lot, but it is a factor. I'm not into the extreme that wins are totally circumstantial. But I don't totally discount wins.

"Clearly, a bunch of guys are having superlative seasons. But it comes down to three guys -- Sabathia, Price and Felix, with (Clay) Buchholz, (Trevor) Cahill and Weaver in the next tier. I would probably go with Price. The peripheral numbers have been extremely impressive. Felix has the best peripheral numbers. ... But when the team needed him to win, I'm not sure how much winning he did at that point. If you're going to give it to a guy on a last-place team, the guy has to perform when he is needed most.''

That was one of the best cases I heard against Hernandez. I agree that wins shouldn't be totally disregarded, as enough great and very good pitchers have talked about how they pitch "to the scoreboard.'' I also believe there's more stress pitching in a pennant race than pitching for a loser and more often fall in line with the veteran baseball people (a nice way to say older).

But in this one case, I tend to favor Hernandez slightly. For now (it is that close).

Perhaps I was influenced by the execs' vote. Or maybe King Felix is just that good.

Hernandez leads the American League with 233 innings, 222 strikeouts and a 2.35 ERA and is third behind Cliff Lee (1.00) and Weaver (1.05) with a 1.08 WHIP. Sabathia is a stellar 20-6 but his 1.18 WHIP and 3.06 ERA aren't quite as exceptional, while Price is 17-6 with a 1.19 WHIP and 2.79 ERA. Cahill (16-7, 1.08 WHIP and 2.84 ERA), Buchholz (16-7, 1.23, 2.48) and Weaver (12-11, 1.05, 2.96 ERA) also merit consideration. Lee has seemingly had two seasons -- a great one for Seattle and a not-at-all-great one for Texas -- so he probably shouldn't be up with the others, despite his league-leading WHIP.

Sabathia isn't far behind Hernandez with 224 innings and has 183 strikeouts. But Price has fewer innings than both (193 2/3) and 173 strikeouts. A couple execs referred to the statistics other than wins as "peripheral numbers'' but despite that moniker, it's clear they weighed them as heavily as the victory total, or even heavier in many cases.

"I don't think wins should have anything to do with it,'' an AL exec said. "When you think Cy Young, you think about the most dominant pitcher. You don't let the opposition score runs -- that's the definition of pitching.''

"While wins are a consideration, ultimately an award like that should be predicated on what a pitcher can control,'' another AL exec said. "Wins are not something a pitcher can completely control. I'd consider wins but not as an overriding factor. Any stat viewed in isolation can be deceptive. If a pitcher is dominant, he starts to make a strong case.''

"I think Felix has been the best pitcher, and that award is about being the best pitcher,'' said another AL exec. " I think if he has CC's (run support) he'd have a lot more than 11 wins. I know he's the guy we least like to face. He just happens to be on the team scoring far fewer runs than anyone in the league. He has absolutely zero control over that. And it's hard to penalize him for that.''

"I tend to be on the side of rewarding guys on what they can control,'' said another AL exec. "And starting pitchers can't control how many wins they get. Wins are a factor. But Felix leads or is high on almost every other category. David Price certainly has a compelling case. But Felix has pitched (41) more innings (than Price).

"If you ask the hitters on the New York Yankees who the toughest pitcher to hit in the AL is, no doubt the majority of them would say Felix is,'' said yet another AL exec. "Felix is a superstar. Felix is one of a kind.'' (Hernandez is 3-0 with a 0.35 ERA vs. the Yankees, while Sabathia obviously never has to face his own team.)

But there were a few dissenting voices in what should be the most intriguing vote this year.

"I think wins need to count for something when you're talking about the Cy Young. I lean toward Price or Sabathia because their teams are going to make the playoffs,'' one AL exec said. "I might even go with Price, but certainly one of those two guys.'

"The only way somebody without a high percentage of wins should get it is if it's a down year for pitchers,'' the NL exec said. "And we have those two guys (Price and Sabathia) having quality years for contending clubs. Sabathia is the single biggest reason the Yankees are as good as they are. I probably lean toward Sabathia. Price is knocking on the door, but I think CC's in the room already. Hernandez also has the park to help him. It's hard pitching in Yankee Stadium. It's just such a band box. And he wins big games.''

"There are those in the game who don't think wins and RBIs are important stats. That's rubbish,'' one AL exec said. Yet, that exec who counts wins still supported King Felix.

JoeTorre's analysis that this Dodgers team needed a "younger voice'' was dead on. However, that brings up the question of how Torre might fit with the Cubs or Mets, the two teams with managerial openings (the Mets' opening isn't official yet) that could clearly afford his services.

The Cubs didn't click with the slightly younger Lou Piniella the past two years, and one of their positives this year were the young players, especially Starlin Castro and Tyler Colvin. Same with the Mets, whose disappointing year was tempered a bit by the performances of youngsters Jon Niese, Ike Davis, Josh Thole, Ruben Tejada and others.

The Mets are said by one person familiar with their search (it appears to already be under way) to be looking for a "high-energy'' guy. Not that Torre lacks energy, but that phrase was tied to Wally Backman and Bobby Valentine, who appear to be more likely candidates than Torre. The one chance Torre might have with the Mets is if fans cry out for him. However, Mets fans seem happy about ether Backman or Valentine (who's much more qualified than Backman), two men (like Torre) with extensive ties to the team.

The Cubs also seem to be leaning against a "celebrity'' manager, which seems to suggest Torre isn't necessarily a fit there, and Bill Madden of the New York Daily News suggested Sunday that the team might actually be leaning toward keeping interim skipper Mike Quade, who certainly fits as a non-celebrity. If Tony La Russa leaves the Cardinals, St. Louis could be an interesting scenario for Torre. But while Torre indicated he still is interested in managing, and there could be as many as a dozen openings, he may wind up in the broadcast booth at least for 2011.

• Don Mattingly is a gamble, and Dodgers fans clearly wanted Tim Wallach to get the job (a Los Angeles Times poll had a clear majority favoring Wallach, while Mattingly was beaten by "someone else''), but he brings class, integrity and hard work to the job. His name hadn't been heard much lately, leading to speculation (including here) that Wallach might get the job. But the Dodgers honored what turned out to be a contractual commitment to make Mattingly Torre's replacement.

• One lawyer who's gone over the documents in the McCourt case said he believes wife Jamie should win a claim to half the team since their agreement to give the team to Frank and the houses to her was "a clear attempt to shield the properties from creditors.'' (Frank's credit was iffy.) That lawyer says he believes neither party has the wherewithal to keep the team by themselves. MLB would like the McCourts out, though there's little precedent for forcing a sale.

• Joe Girardi will probably stay with the Yankees rather than go to the home state Cubs (he's from Peoria and went to Northwestern). But if he leaves, Bobby Valentine likely would be one candidate to replace him in the Bronx.

• Ken Macha is very likely out in Milwaukee, as his contract expires following two disappointing seasons there. It doesn't appear that Willie Randolph heads the Brewers' list of replacement candidates, a surprise since the owner Mark Attanasio is a Randolph fan from the Bronx. Bob Melvin, as mentioned in this space this week, could be a candidate.

• People around baseball suggest Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik is on shaky ground. But Zduriencik took over a 101-loss team and has had only one bad year following a very good one. There was a mound of bad publicity following the acquisition of convicted pitcher Josh Lueke in the Cliff Lee deal (Zduriencik admitted in a phone interview he should have done a better job checking on Lueke's background), but Zduriencik's close friend Carmen Fusco has been fired for that. Beyond that, Zduriencik has generally traded well, his team has drafted well and the Mariners' minor league teams did superbly well. Eight of nine Mariners affiliates finished with winning records and their overall mark of 490-410 was second only to St. Louis (492-404). More good news on the way: Seattle's four full-season farm teams combined to lead the minors in runs scored. So help is on the way.