It's been fairly evident for a number of weeks that the Cy Young race in the American League will be handed to either Felix Hernandez or Corey Kluber. Chris Sale doesn't have enough innings, Jon Lester had a fantastic year but is a small cut below, and Detroit's playoff status isn't enough to make up for the gaps in run prevention for David Price or Max Scherzer.
For a while, Felix had a massive grip on the fWAR lead in the AL, but Kluber's late-season surge -- 1.12 ERA, 54 strikeouts, 5 walks, and zero home runs in his final five starts -- rocketed his FIP-fueled fWAR to a whopping 7.3, where he holds a decent advantage over Felix, second at 6.2.
But Cy Young voters haven't exactly shown a propensity for voting based on something like FIP, and run prevention is still the name of the game -- along with other intangibles in which Kluber and Felix should probably wash each other out. Kluber has all the late season hype, but Felix has the star power. Both players almost aided their teams to the playoffs, but fell short.
So where's the distinction? The scoring change that gave Felix the AL ERA crown will surely aid his case tremendously, and using RA9-WAR -- based on run prevention instead of FIP -- Felix leads Kluber, 7.5 to 7.0. Though there's much up for debate, including how much a team's ballpark and defense aid a pitcher's run prevention, voters have historically leaned far more towards the results that actually happened, even when those stats in question are misguided ones - though Felix's first Cy Young award with a 13-12 record may have finally put the win stat to pasture. It is worth noting that Cleveland had one of the league's worst defenses -- a UZR of -72.4 was second worst only to the Astros. The Mariners sat just about average, at +8.4, and clearly have a more pitcher-friendly park. It's a factor, and should be.
On the other hand, it's fairly easy to argue that 2014 was the best year of Felix's career. Would voters really deny him the Cy Young in a year in which he posted his lowest ERA, WHIP, FIP, xFIP, best K/BB ratio, and second highest RA9-WAR and fWAR? As the arguments continue to be made, people will points out the historical significance of Felix's traditional stats this year, especially the milestone-friendly ones.
The Mariners have already made their case, sending out a list of Felix's credentials, and some of them are pretty noteworthy. Here are some of the highlights:
· ERA Title - Claimed his second AL ERA title with a 2.14 mark ahead of Chris Sale (2.17).
· Low ERA - ERA of 2.14 was the lowest by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez recorded a 1.74 mark in 2000.
· WHIP Leader - Had the lowest WHIP in the AL at 0.915, the lowest by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000 (0.737).
· The Felix Quality Start - Set a Major League record with 16 consecutive starts allowing 2 or fewer runs in at least 7.0 innings May 18-August 11...old record was 13 straight starts by Tom Seaver in 1971.
· 200 Strikeouts - Is the only pitcher to record 200 strikeouts in each of the last 6 seasons (since 2009)...recorded his 6th consecutive season exceeding 200 strikeouts and 200.0 innings pitched; tied for 3rd-longest streak in MLB history behind Tom Seaver (9, 1968-76), Roger Clemens (7, 19867-92) and Walter Johnson (7, 1910-16),
· Opponent Batting Average - Led the AL with a .200 opponent batting average.
· Opponent On-Base Pct - Recorded the lowest opponent on-base percentage in the AL at .243, the 3rd-lowest by an AL pitcher during the designated hitter era (since 1973), trailing only Pedro Martinez (.213 in 2000) and Justin Verlander (.242 in 2011).
· You'll Get 7.0 - Pitched at least 7.0 innings in 24 of 34 starts, 2nd-best in AL (Price, 26).
· 2 of Fewer Runs Allowed - Allowed 2 or fewer runs in AL leading 25 starts (Kluber 2nd with 23).
· No-Decision - Recorded a 1.88 ERA in 13 no-decisions (2.09 run support average in no-decisions).
· Sabermetrics - Ranked 6th in the AL in overall WAR (2nd amongst pitchers) at 6.2.
The stats about ERA/WHIP compared to Pedro Martinez will be the buzz stats that get passed around the most, and that alone might be enough to earn him the award. The ultra-quality start streak will also get some play.
It's unfortunate that Kluber's case was harmed so evidently by a scoring change on an error that Felix committed himself, but his season shouldn't be discounted, either. There are arguments for Kluber to win the Cy Young as well -- more strikeouts, lower FIP -- but when it comes down to it, using the bread and butter stats will likely still reign supreme when it comes to voting, and those that want to go a bit deeper probably won't find a big enough gap between Felix and Kluber to reconcile the difference.
Removing all emotions from the equation, it's a tight race. It's my opinion that Felix had the best year of his career, but he was undeniably aided by an easier ballpark and better defense. He also earned his ERA title on a technicality, and if removed, the gap (and the historical significance) doesn't look quite as impressive.
Felix will probably win the Cy Young, but should he? Vote and weigh in below.