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On Felix and the Cy Young

Felix Hernandez has been a part of our consciousness as Mariner fans for so long now that it is always jarring to me to remember that he's just 24-years-old. I have been following him since 2004, which makes it seven years now that he has occupied at least some part of my attention. To put that in perspective for myself, Randy Johnson spent nine and a half years in the Seattle organization. It boggles me that Felix's tenure is approaching that of the greatest Mariner pitcher ever.

Yet, that is not all the two share. Both arrived as raw products and eventually transformed into beasts on the mound; two men able to draw attention and crowds with their ability. I've mentioned many times how I feel Felix differs from a pitcher like Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay. With Lee or Halladay, they put on clinics. After one of their signature starts, they leave you with an appreciation of how professional they are when compared to others.

Felix, and Randy before him, does not put on a clinic. They put on performances. A signature Felix start is a spectacle to behold. A dominating outing that doesn't just beat the opposing hitters, but humiliates them. Whether it be through ridiculous swings and misses at sliders in the dirt or a complete inability to even get the ball out of the infield, Felix can produce starts like very few others.

The diverging reactions highlights the difference between a pitcher that succeeds through control and one that succeeds through stuff. Watching Cliff Lee is like watching an expert swordsman dismantle a clumsy challenger in a gentlemanly fashion. Watching Felix Hernandez is like watching an Abrams tank plow through an I-5 traffic jam.

It's a funny thing, context. Often it makes all the difference in the world and yet it just hangs out back, existing the entire time but receiving little acknowledgement. We judge everything we encounter according to something that we have encountered before. Cliff Lee's first three playoff starts were amazing because over time we had built up a context of many other starts by many other pitchers. Cliff Lee's first World Series recent start was disappointing because by then we had built up a context of Cliff Lee playoff starts. 

This is the second straight season in which Felix Hernandez finds himself in the Cy Young discussion. On the surface, 2010 Felix was much the same pitcher as 2009 Felix. He threw 11 more innings this season, raised his strikeouts a little, reduced his walks a little and saw his home runs go up a fraction. Felix's fielding-independent components fell by just four to five hundredths of a run this year. In a vacuum, Felix was a better pitcher this season, albeit not by a significant margin.

People too often treat context as static. Felix does not pitch in vacuum and the body of data against which he is compared, other pitchers, pitched better in 2010 as well. They improved as a group and by a bigger gap than Felix improved. The league average FIP fell by 0.24 of a run compared to Felix's 0.04. The average American League starting pitcher saw his tRA drop from 4.94 to 4.45 this season. Felix might have been better in 2010, but his peers were more better and so Felix was relatively worse.

It is up to each person to determine what criteria to use when judging the best pitcher in baseball. If you have confidence in defensive-independent measures though you should note that Felix did not have the AL's best FIP. Nor did he have the AL's best xFIP, tRA or WAR. Nor did he lead in any of those categories in 2009 either. By the methods that I chose to put credence in, Felix Hernandez does not deserve the 2010 Cy Young.

Is Felix more justifiable than CC Sabathia or David Price? I believe so. However, if that is how the voters should go then I find it impossible to feel spurned on Felix's behalf. Instead, I feel bad for Cliff Lee whose unlucky home runs and BABIP in Texas masked his historically wonderful season. I feel bad for Justin Verlander who hasn't gotten enough acclaims either for his magnificent 2009 and 2010 seasons. Felix has pitched two consecutive seasons at a Cy Young level, but in each, and over the span, Felix was outpitched. 

I originally toyed with the idea of writing two posts in advance of the Cy Young announcement. One celebrated Felix if he won and the other countered the expected anger of Sabathia or Price winning by making the points that I did above to show that it was not Felix who the baseball writers slighted.

Those two posts are not mutually exclusive however. Ultimately, the Cy Young is just an award chosen by what I believe we all know at this point to be a flawed process. It's improving, but there's no doubt that biases and misconceptions still abound. The outcome of that process should have no bearing on our appreciation of Felix.

Pitchers are volatile creatures and pitching prospects are perhaps even more so. The Mariners have had their fair share come and go, mostly go. And so Felix stands for more than just himself. He's the rare Mariner prospect that has panned out. Felix has not just meant realistic expectations, but instead has lived up to our most feverish of hopes. When all else fails, as it so often does, Felix is there; a needed reminder that try as forces might, they cannot deny us entirely of good things.

It's been some kind of ride, Felix, and I've never been happier to have been along for it. Your nickname never needed the approval of the BBWAA and if they crown you the king of the American League in 2010, that does not confer legitimacy on it by fiat. Just so you know, you've been my King for quite some time now. Here's to many more years.