Nine years ago to the day, Félix Hernández was voted the AL Cy Young Award winner. He was the right pick, leading the AL in innings pitched (249.2) and bWAR (7.2), and pacing all of MLB’s starters in ERA (2.27) and WARP (7.64) while coming just one strikeout shy of Jared Weaver’s league-leading 233. In just three of his 34 starts did he fail to complete at least 7.0 innings. The 24 year old King was the rightful Cy Young to nearly all who frequented this site, but as the season wound down his crowning was far from assured. Jon Morosi penned an indictment for Fox Sports of Hernández’s case that reflected the sentiment that had carried the sport for most of its history:
[David] Price and [C.C.] Sabathia are delivering when it counts, where it counts. Hernandez isn’t ... To be the best, one must do what Sabathia and Price have all season — compete against the best lineups, in postseason-type atmospheres, before crazed crowds at hitter-friendly ballparks. And win.
And where was Cy Young candidate Felix Hernandez during all of this? In Seattle, with his last-place team, about as far away from meaningful baseball as a pitcher can get.
This article drew the ire of more sabermetrically-inclined writers, and also Jon Bois, as did a similar case from ESPN’s Rob Parker. The crux of the issue was simple: Félix’s win-loss record was no good, and his team was terrible. Though Sabathia averaged nearly three runs per game more of run support, while Price merely averaged a little over two runs more per start, the longstanding credence of pitcher wins seemed liable to keep the King from his first coronation. Thankfully, Félix would ultimately claim 21 of the 28 first place votes, making him the first starting pitcher with a winning percentage under .600 (or particularly close) to take home a Cy Young in either league. With deference to Cliff Lee, it was the right choice, kicking off a decade where the right choices - or at least savvier choices - have become more common from fans and voters when award season rolled around.
Things have not been flawless, of course. Rick Porcello robbed Justin Verlander in 2016 on the back of a division winner that pushed him to a 22-4 record. Verlander could have a case for another theft in 2012 at the hands of a narrow vote in favor of David Price, and win-loss record no doubt played a role in R.A. Dickey’s defeat of Clayton Kershaw in the same season. But by the end of the decade we saw Jacob deGrom take home consecutive Cy Young Awards on the back of 10-9 and 11-8 records, despite acing on behalf of the fourth and third place Mets. And while we saw Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson win multiple MVP awards in seasons where they likely were not their league’s best player, Mike Trout concluded the 2010s with his third MVP, on a third place team, something scarcely seen before in the American League.
While the Cy Young has ostensibly been merely a measure of the most “outstanding pitcher” in each league, leaving less wiggle room to measure their team’s relative quality, the Most Valuable Player award has often been attached to an expectation of contention. Though the National League has been surprisingly forgiving of stars on poor teams (specifically bad Cubs teams), entering the 2010s, only twice had the AL MVP been awarded to a player on a sub-.500 team. Neither time came without controversy. A-Rod narrowly beat out Carlos Delgado of the Blue Jays and Jorge Posada of the Yankees, though at least by any metric of WAR he was clearly the AL’s best player. Delgado was miffed all the same, noting his belief that if a non-playoff team would produce an MVP it would’ve at least been his effort for the 86-76 Blue Jays. Posada went further, griping a decade later that, following Rodriguez’s PED suspension, A-Rod’s MVP from the season should’ve been his.
The other instance was 1991, when Orioles superstar Cal Ripken Jr. squeaked past Tigers first baseman Cecil Fielder despite Baltimore’s wretched 67-95 season. That .414 winning percentage remains the worst of any MVP winner’s team, and was likely only possible due to Ripken’s immense stature. Having already won an MVP and a World Series, while in the midst of his Iron Man stretch, if we are to trust WAR as a barometer, Ripken posted not only the league’s best performance, but the second-greatest single season by a position player since 1927, with 11.5 bWAR that trailed only Carl Yastrzemski’s 1967, as well as the pre-integration lines of Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Lou Gehrig. Fielder was irate about the perceived snub, and for those who stand by the importance of team record in the MVP equation, this remains the ultimate insult.
And yet, no small part due to his unparalleled ability to dig out King Félix’s changeup, Mike Trout became the first MVP in AL history to take home the crown twice on clubs with losing records. Though he couldn’t overcome Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown in 2012 or Cabrera’s Playing For The Tigers(?) in 2013, 2014 at last yielded a breakthrough. Still, there was nothing unique about the league’s best player winning MVP for a 98-win club. The 2015 Angels slipped out of the playoffs (though above .500) and Trout was beaten out by a slightly-inferior (though exceptional enough to be deserving) Josh Donaldson. 2016, however, Trout put together his best season yet, and despite exceptional numbers from Mookie Betts and a 74-88 Anaheim club, Trout took the title for the second time. In every season since, the award has gone to a player clearly deserving, irrespective of their team’s record, with this year’s plaque tying a bow neatly on the decade.
Neither player has faced another opponent even close to as often, with Trout winning the majority of the battles, particularly as the King’s innings caught up with him. But Trout gave a little back, too, striking out twice as many times to Félix than any pitcher save for Hisashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish. Their matchups were must-watch events, and they will both be remembered for their roles in transforming how we measure greatness, in spite of their surroundings.