By Glen Sparks
Does a 13-12 won-loss record merit the Cy Young Award? It did, deservedly, for Felix Hernandez in 2010.
Ignore the pedestrian won-loss record. King Felix didn’t do anything pedestrian that season. He just didn’t get any run support. Hernandez beat out David Price (19-6), C.C. Sabathia (21-7) and Jon Lester (19-9) for the Cy Young. Baseball writers got this one right.
Hernandez, the Seattle Mariners’ dart-throwing right-hander, led the American League in ERA (2.27), innings pitched (249) and fewest hits per nine innings (7.0), but also in advanced stats such as WAR for pitchers (7.1) and WPA (4.8). He finished second in ERA+ (174) and strikeouts (232).
Devotees of advanced stats congratulated each another after Hernandez won. They considered it a victory over old-fogey sportswriters. Indeed, before 2000 or so, King Felix probably doesn’t win. He could not have overcome that won-loss mark. (Who is the only pitcher to win the Cy Young Award with a losing record? The answer is at the end of the article.) Look at it this way: The Cy Young Award has been given out since 1956. Among starting pitchers who have won it, Hernandez has the lowest winning percentage (.520). The next four lowest, pre-Felix: Gaylord Perry in 1972 (.600), Randy jones in 1976 (.611), Jim Palmer, also in 1976 (.629), and Mike Scott in 1986 (.643).
Now, let’s look at 1967, a time before the advanced stats craze. First off, the Cy Young Award was there for the taking. Sandy Koufax had retired after the ’66 season. He had won the award three of the previous four years. Could Don Drysdale get his second Cy Young? Could Bob Gibson or Juan Marichal get his first? It didn’t work out that way.
Drysdale finished 13-16 with a 2.74 ERA (112 ERA+). Gibson posted a better record than Drysdale (13-7), but a slightly worse ERA, 2.98 (110 ERA+). Gibby also only pitched 175 innings. Marichal, who had three 25-win seasons in his career but who never won a Cy Young, went 14-10 with a 2.76 ERA (121 ERA+).
Enter Mike McCormick, a fairly pedestrian pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. He went into 1967 with an 84-91 career record and a 3.75 E.R.A. (98 ERA+). Then, he had his career year. McCormick led the National League with 22 wins in and had a 2.85 E.R.A. (118 ERA+) in ‘67. He threw 262 innings and 14 complete games. He also had a 4.4 WAR, a stat not in vogue at the time.
Now, a 4.4 WAR is solid. In 2014, for instance, the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke has a 4.3 WAR going into the final 10 days of the season, good for seventh in the N.L. But, McCormick’s 4.4 mark didn’t crack the top 10 in 1967.
Jim Bunning, a durable right-hander for the Philadelphia Phillies and future U.S. Senator, led pitchers in WAR (7.8), followed by Gary Nolan (6.3), Ted Abernathy (6.2) Chris Short (6.2) and Tom Seaver (6.0). He finished first in strikeouts (253), games started (40), innings pitched (302) and shutouts (six) and second to Phil Niekro in ERA (2.29 to 1.87). But Bunning only won 17 games, five fewer than McCormick. Voters back then liked wins more than they liked ERA. Koufax, for instance, topped the National League in ERA five times. He won the Cy Young in the three seasons that he also led the league in wins.
McCormick wasn’t the National League’s best pitcher in 1967. He had a good year and finished first in the category that voters considered the most important. If you could take the vote again, Bunning wins.
*Dodgers’ reliever Eric Gagne won the 2003 Cy Young Award with a 2-3 won-loss record.