As the 2012 regular season winds down, aside from who will qualify for the post-season, attention turns to post-season awards. Our discussion today will not so much focus on the WHO of the awards, i.e., which players will obtain top consideration, but rather the HOW and WHY of the awards, i.e., which criteria will be used in determining who wins.
This is a critical question for the voters, who are members of the Baseball Writers of America Association, two from each major league cities. Typically the voters are newspaper people, but some organizations do not allow their employees to participate, feeling that conflicts of interest arise. Still, we have sixty votes to parse and how those voters form their opinions and evaluations continues to evolve as the statistical analysis of the game deepens and adds nuance. Now you might think that “baseball” and “nuance” do not belong in the same sentence, but of course you would be wrong. No game is as nuanced as baseball!
One primary dichotomy and source of confusion is the purpose and meaning of the two top player awards, the Most Valuable Player (MVP) and the Cy Young Award (CYA). The Cy Young Award is specific to pitchers, and does not discriminate between starters and relievers. In past years, a pitcher who won the pitching “Triple Crown” of most wins, most strikeouts and lowest Earned Run Average (ERA) would be a virtual lock to win. Recently however the criteria used by voters to determine the best pitcher in each league have begun to change. In 2010, for example, “King” Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners won the American League CYA based primarily on “secondary” or “peripheral” statistics. With a mediocre won-loss record of 13-12, voters turned to other means: his ERA was an MLB-best 2.27; he led the AL with 249.2 innings pitched; he faced more batters than anyone, 1001; and he led the AL in fewest hits per nine innings with 7.0. With similarly strong results in strikeouts per nine innings, walks per nine innings, and the K/BB per 9 metric Felix was indeed adjudged to be the “King” of American League pitchers.
Contrast that with 2011 when Justin Verlander won the AL Cy Young with a very traditional line of 24-5, 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts, which also manifested in MLB-leading results in ERA+ (Earned Run Average better than league average), WHIP (Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched), and the best hits per nine innings. Verlander won both the traditional way and the more modern analytical way.
Not only did Verlander win the Cy Young, he became the first pitcher to also win the Most Valuable Player award since reliever extraordinaire Rollie Fingers, he of the handlebar mustache, won both in 1981. Next time we will discuss the MVP and how it might be determined in detail.