A moment after learning he had won the American League’s Cy Young Award, Felix Hernandez told an interviewer on Thursday: “I did it.”
As soon as he shared those candid words with 710 ESPN Seattle, Hernandez’s team-spirit impulse kicked in, and he changed the subject from first-person singular to first-person plural. “We did it,” he said.
Actually, Felix, the original version was correct: You did it.
By demonstrating pitching superiority on a team whose inability to score runs was found to be historic, you turned what had been expected to be a race into the sort of runaway victory political pundits might call a mandate.
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So comprehensive was Hernandez’s landslide victory – he collected 21 of 28 first-place votes and was one of only two candidates named on every ballot – that two conclusions can be drawn.
Conclusion No. 1: Seattle is not an obscure market detached from the baseball heartland. It turns out the writers who vote for the Cy Young Award not only were familiar with Hernandez’s masterful work in 2010, they were familiar with the futility of the Mariners’ offense.
Hernandez was awarded two first-place votes from Boston, and one each from writers based in Baltimore, New York, Tampa Bay and Toronto. Of a possible 10 first-place votes from the A.L. East, Hernandez got six.
So much for East Coast Bias.
Conclusion No. 2: Baseball’s new math, made up of advanced statistics that regard once hallowed numbers as marginal components – a pitcher’s win total, for instance – is here to stay. Hernandez’s 13 victories set a Cy Young record for fewest by a starting pitcher. The previous record was held by San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum, who won the N.L.’s version of the award last year with 15 victories.
The great debate, pitting traditionalist curmudgeons on one side and sabermetric numbers crunchers on the other, turned out to be a mismatch.
Just because curmudgeons are by definition grumpy doesn’t mean they’re incapable of digesting statistics as glaring as Felix’s 2-10 record (with a 2.84 ERA) during games in which the Mariners scored no more than two runs.
For Mariners fans, the announcement of Hernandez’s achievement was a rare opportunity to rally around something positive. A painful year that began with legitimate expectations and way-too-giddy dreams included the awkward retirement of the franchise’s most accomplished player and the unexpected death of its most beloved icon.
And while I applaud the voters who recognized Hernandez, and Felix himself, I hope the honor he received Thursday is the last of its kind. I don’t mean to say the Cy Young Award should be his last – he’s 24, and if he stays healthy, there’s no reason to believe his home won’t be cluttered by several more statues emblematic of his pitching dominance – I just mean that advocating his candidacy has been an exhausting and ultimately dispiriting process.
It was as if every mention of Hernandez’s credentials required a briefing on the Mariners’ hitting struggles. The viability of rewarding a starter who essentially was a .500 pitcher – he finished 13-12 – gained traction when the ineptitude of his teammates became a sort of inside-baseball joke.
Meanwhile, Hernandez’s fabulous season became a referendum on Cy Young voters’ methodology. Even the insight of a two-time Cy Young recipient was mocked the other day when Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay told reporters that “Felix’s numbers are very, very impressive ... but ultimately you look at how guys are able to win games. Sometimes the run support isn’t there, but you find ways to win games. Guys who are winning deserve a strong look no matter what the pitcher’s numbers are.”
Those supporting Felix’s candidacy listened to Halladay and heard the sound of fingernails clawing down a chalkboard. I heard the reasoned opinion of somebody specifically qualified to offer one.
When it comes to evaluating pitchers, OK, winning isn’t everything. But shouldn’t it count as something?
Hernandez won the award Thursday for his succession of stellar performances on behalf of a team that stumbled through 2010 in a collective slump we might not see again in our lifetime.
But now that he has achieved Cy Young fame, after finishing second in the vote last season, I want the rest of his career embellished with wins: complete-game wins, cheap wins, any kind of wins.
I want him to know the thrill of winning 20 games in a season, and I want him to experience that thrill over and over, to the point he joins the conversation of potential 300-game winners.
I’m not certain how all that winning will affect Hernandez’s chances of becoming a multiple Cy Young recipient. What I do know is that the more he wins, the more the Mariners win, and the more the Mariners win, the closer they’ll get to the playoffs, and the World Series.
Thursday was a happy day for an organization that was overdue for some cheerful news. An even happier day will be when Felix Hernandez is tracked down for a postseason interview and pronounces three magic words on the first take.
“We did it.”
HERNANDEZ’s 2010 SEASON
bases on balls
ERA American League 2010 Cy Young Voting
Total points on a 7-4-3-2-1 basis
Felix Hernandez, Seattle212311167
David Price, Tampa Bay41571–111
CC Sabathia, New York3101221102
Jon Lester, Boston––191233
Jered Weaver, Los Angeles–126224
Clay Buchholz, Boston––25420
Cliff Lee, Seattle/Texas––1116
Rafael Soriano, Tampa Bay–––135
Trevor Cahill, Oakland–––124
Joakim Soria, Kansas City–––1–2
Francisco Liriano, Minnesota––––11
Justin Verlander, Detroit––––11