- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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I love baseball. As a writer, I've always loved the Bill James creation story too: Kansas City night watchman self-publishes his deep-thinking observations in something he called "The Baseball Abstract," gets discovered the way starlets used to at soda fountain counters and goes on to a blockbuster career as a best-selling author, prophet/heretic, and, now, a senior advisor for the Boston Red Sox.
But as a fan, I never paid much attention to the skirmishes between the sabermetrics movement that James boosted 30 years ago and the traditionalists who complain the numerologists are flogging the heartbeat out of the game. Knock yourselves out arguing, I always figured. I'm allergic to math. Until this week, if you'd rattled off some advanced sabermetrics terms such as WAR, VORP, RISP, WHIP, I might have said, "Love ya, miss ya, see ya, pal" and run the other away.
But that was B.F. -- or before Felix -- and before I called Bill James, The Man himself, because I've been following the noisy, blasphemous sounding, still snowballing debate about whether Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez should win the Cy Young Award this year, even if he finishes eight or nine victories behind current 19-game winner CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees.
Some devoted number crunchers are championing King Felix's case and, against all odds, I feel like I've finally drank the Kool-Aid. I'm right there with them.
Sabathia would be a perfectly fine choice to win the Cy Young.
But he wouldn't be the best choice. Hernandez would.
Even if Hernandez's record with the lousy Mariners is now 11-10.
This seems crazy, I know. Just to make sure I'm not nuts, I called James Wednesday. And sure enough, James does have an opinion about Hernandez's candidacy.
James is used to explaining these things to stat-geek skeptics or late-coming converts like me, who get in his presence and start pre-emptively confessing how we never felt a burning need to know that Miguel Tejada's diminished defensive range can be measured based on a sophisticated formula that takes into account 64 zones on the field.
Who comes up with this stuff? Why should it be believed?
When told I've always had this mental image that there are hundreds of Bill James acolytes caught up in some secret arms race amongst themselves, all of them working feverishly late into the night to invent some exotic signature stat that would be their immortal contribution to the game, James laughed and said, "Well-l-l-l, they're not 'my' acolytes. But the rest of [sabermetrical analysis] is kind of like that.
"Did you ever read the book about the building of Dreadnought?" James said. "It was the biggest, most powerful warship in the years before World War I. We're all kind of like that. We're all trying to build the world's biggest, most powerful stat that will explain everything. It's re-inventing the wheel. I do it myself. We're all re-inventing ways to look at the same old stuff."
Yes, but the conclusions sabermatricians make are often far different -- sometimes head-spinningly so. Even James agrees some metrical analysis is just plain tedious. But what James was too modest to say Wednesday is some metrics are so illuminating and demonstrably true they've changed the way everyone from players to fans to executives thinks about the game. Some numbers de-code patterns or unlock truths we didn't know were there.
Of course, the obvious joke is after reading too much analyses, you're ready for psychoanalysis.
The counter-intuitive case for Hernandez's Cy Young candidacy is like that.
The argument for Hernandez challenges the long-held baseball belief that starting pitchers should be judged on wins and losses, much like quarterbacks are in football.
No one has ever won the Cy Young Award in the National or American League with less than 15 wins.
But when San Francisco's Tim Lincecum (15) and Kansas City's Zack Greinke (16) both won the awards last season even though there were other pitchers with more wins, it was seen as more proof of the increased foothold that sabermetricians have carved out in the game. Their argument that wins are an "overvalued" measure of a pitcher seemed to have gained some traction. On his post-victory conference call, Greinke actually talked about FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). Lincecum said what he cares most about is his WHIP.
Still, if the sabermetrics wing can pull this off and finally get Hernandez his first Cy Young by waving around more sophisticated numbers and analyses, it would be its greatest coup yet.
Because what King Felix's advocates have to persuade voters to do is ignore wins more than ever and value things like this: After Sunday's win, Hernandez ranked first in the AL in innings pitched (219.1), strikeouts (209) and quality starts (27) and he was tied for first in number of starts (30). He was second in ERA (2.30) and third in opponents' batting average (.219). Still not impressed? The more advanced argument is Hernandez either leads or sits at the top among AL starters in every meaningful sabermetric pitching stat too: first in WAR for pitchers (5.7), first in +WPA (16.67), first in Adjusted Pitching Wins (4.3), first in opponent OPS (.597), second in Adjusted ERA+ (176), third in FIP (2.96), third in xFIP (3.25), third in WHIP (1.09).
The Mariners, by far the worst offensive team in the league, are averaging 3.32 runs per game for Hernandez, the second-worst support any AL starter has gotten. In his 10 losses, they've scored just 10 runs. Sabathia, on the other hand, has had 24 starts in which the Yankees scored four or more runs, and 18 of his 19 wins came in those games, plus one loss and five no decisions.
But there's also this: The 24-year-old Hernandez wins many people's very unscientific eyeball test too. After watching Hernandez shut down the Yankees last September, Sabathia himself said he turned to Yankees teammate Andy Pettitte and said, "If I had a vote, I would vote for Hernandez. That's the best pitcher in the league to me."
This year, Hernandez was 3-0 against the Yankees with a 0.35 ERA.
James says Hernandez's past two years combined compare favorably to the great 1962-63 seasons Don Drysdale had.
Taken all together, Hernandez has a compelling case. Some of Hernandez's advocates go so far as to argue it would be an injustice if Hernandez were overlooked for the Cy Young for a second straight year.
So where does James fall?
"Well, I'm a huge Greinke fan, and still, I argued a year ago that Hernandez was the best pitcher in league," James says. "This year, I don't think in any way it's a rejection of sabermetrical analysis at all if Sabathia wins this thing. Sabathia is a great pitcher.
"But if I had a vote, I might vote for Hernandez when this is over, just on the theory that when you shake out all the luck as best you can, he may be the best pitcher in the league again. But do I think enough people will vote for him? No."
Still, The Man has spoken. All the numbers don't lie.
Another endorsement for The King.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.
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