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Felix, Greinke, And Some Reflecting

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May 19th, they say, was the turning point. Following a rough start against the Angels in which he gave up a bunch of hits and a bunch of stolen bases, Felix was called out by Don Wakamatsu for a lack of focus and determination, and from then on it was like night and day. Beginning the next weekend with eight innings against San Francisco, Felix ripped off a four-month streak the likes of which few have ever seen. Over his final 25 games, Felix would allow just 40 earned runs while turning in 24 quality starts, and Wakamatsu was praised by many as the manager that finally got through to our ace of frustration. Felix, it seemed, had arrived, and either because of Wakamatsu or by sheer coincidence, the sentiment has been that something clicked that night in May, turning Felix into the guy we'd been waiting for him to become.

And, sure enough, that guy is amazing. We've all heard of lucky ERAs, but it's hard to fluke your way to a 1.98 over 182 innings. From May 24th through the end of the season, Felix was both a shutdown righty and a workhorse, keeping the opponent off the board while not once throwing fewer than 101 pitches. It was like the best of both worlds, as Felix partnered Rich Harden's effectiveness with Roy Halladay-level durability, and it was a performance many feel would've won Felix the Cy Young had he been able to sustain it all year. It was that first month and a half, they say, that wound up holding him back.

They're probably right, in that had Felix run a 1.98 ERA over a full season, voters would've had a hell of a time placing him second. But while Felix's streak was extraordinary, it may actually serve to make the strongest case in Greinke's favor. Just look at the following comparison:

Stat Felix, post-5/19 Greinke, year
ERA 1.98 2.16
RA 2.67 2.51
FIP 3.01 2.33
IP/start 7.2 6.9
Pit/start 109.6 105.4
BB% 7.2% 5.6%
K% 21.9% 26.4%
HR% 1.4% 1.2%

From May 24th through the end of the season, Felix pitched as well as we've seen him in four years. He proved himself to his coaches, he proved himself to opponents, and he proved himself to a fanbase that'd been waiting to see him take his game to the next level. Felix's turnaround is seen as his ascent. His ascent to the top, his ascent into the upper echelon of pitchers in the world. His ascent to the throne.

And Greinke was still better.

Greinke's ERA, Greinke's FIP, Greinke's tRA...not only was Greinke better than Felix in 2009, he was better than Felix at his best in 2009, and he was better than the 12 starts we got out of Felix in 2005. The hot streak that was supposed to legitimize Felix's candidacy instead works for Greinke, because Greinke was better than that hot streak, and he was better over a full season.

You could, of course, argue that Greinke kind of got lucky with his home run rate, that 11 in 33 starts for a flyball pitcher isn't a sustainable level of performance. And you'd probably be right. Greinke will almost certainly allow a higher rate of home runs going forward. But while projections and regressions look forward, statistics look backward, and the fact of the matter is that, along with all of his other achievements, Greinke only threw 11 pitches that got hit out of the park last year. Only 11 of his pitches had the necessary characteristics such that the opposing batter was able to hit a home run, and though that likely isn't repeatable, it's what happened, and it's one of the reasons why this will go down as one of the least-debated Cy Youngs of all time.

Felix's May 19th light switch was his strongest argument for the award. And when a player's strongest argument turns out to support his competition, that leaves absolutely no doubt as to who deserves to win. Would I take Greinke as the better starting pitcher going forward? I'm not sure. That one would require more thought. But an assertion that requires no further thought at all is that, in 2009, Zack Greinke was the best pitcher in the world. Congratulations to one eccentric son of a bitch.