Lately, the 2010 Cy Young debate has started to fire up, and the big conversation thus far appears to be between C.C. Sabathia, owner of an impressive won-lost record pitching for the Yankees, and 'King' Felix Hernandez, owner of a dismal won-loss record pitching for the dismal Mariners, but with impressive secondary numbers -- which some folks are arguing are even better than Sabathia's.
Joe Posnanski put together an informal comparison of Sabathia's and Hernandez's individual starts, and while he warns that this study is 'just for fun' and doesn't claim to make any definitive statement about Sabathia v Hernandez in the Cy race, he does use the results to justify the Hernandez love that many who follow the newfangled xFIP and similar stats have for Hernandez in this argument.
Then, in the comments, somebody had to mention Francisco Liriano...A lot of Twins fans seem to want to promote Liriano for the Cy, because of his "dominance" or because they miss rooting for a left-handed starter who seemed to be in the Cy race every year (*ahem*). My gut feeling is that Liriano just doesn't belong in the same conversation, but I decided to go through the exercise of comparing Liriano's starts to Sabathia's and Hernandez's, if only to clarify my own thinking, just as answering the Keltner List questions can clarify your thinking on a player's Hall of Fame credentials without necessarily answering the question 'should this guy be in the Hall?'
Right off the bat, we have a problem with those who want to include Liriano in the Cy conversation -- both Sabathia and Hernandez have made 30 starts thus far in 2010, while Liriano has only made 27. This immediately shows a deficiency in Liriano's value; if two pitchers have similar value, but one has more starts and innings pitched, then the one who's pitched more at the same value level is pretty clearly the better pitcher. And while three starts might not seem like much to you, it does represent 10% of the starts Hernandez and Sabathia have made in 2010 -- if Liriano had a 10% higher ERA or allowed 10% more home runs, that would seem to be a significant mark against him.
From a more practical standpoint, Liriano's missing 3 starts meant that I had to decide which of Sabathia's and Hernandez's starts to skip as part of this comparison. I decided to skip the first start -- Liriano's first start of the season was on April 9, while both Hernandez's and Sabathia's second were on April 10. This would at least get them on similar calendars. For symmetry's sake, I also decided to skip Hernandez's and Sabathia's most recent starts, since 'first and last' seems like a reasonable, relatively unbiased method of choosing which games not to count. The third game I decided to skip was the only game where Posnanski himself couldn't come up with a winner in the head-to-head comparison.
I tried to follow Posnanski's method for the remaining 27 games, comparing Liriano's performance to that of Sabathia and then to that of Hernandez. If Liriano's was better, mainly defined as giving the Twins a better chance of winning, but also including other 'intangibles', I gave Liriano a win for that matchup. If Liriano's wasn't better, I have him a loss. Here's how the games broke down, and I'll tell you right up front that I was surprised by the time I got to the end:
Sabathia (v Boston) - 5.1, 5 ER, ND
Hernandez (v Oakland) - 6.2, 3 ER ND
A poor game for Sabathia and decent but unspectacular game for Hernandez skipped. We'll keep track of this to see if the games skipped seem balanced.
Sabathia (v TB) - 7.2, 0 ER, W (1-0)
Hernandez (v Tex) - 7, 3 R, 2 ER, ND
Liriano (v CHW) - 6, 3 ER, W
Liriano had a decent opener against the White Sox, coming up with a quality start that led to a Twins win. Both Sabathia and Hernandez went deeper in their games and allowed fewer earned runs, though, so I gave them the edge.
v Sab = 0-1
v Hern = 0-1
Sabathia (v Tex) - 6, 1 ER, W
Hernandez (v Det) - 6.2, 2 ER, W
Liriano (v Bos) - 7, 0 ER, W
In this matchup, though, Liriano had more innings and fewer earned runs than either of his competitors -- he'd have won a head-to-head against either of them, most likely.
v Sab = 1-1
v Hern = 1-1
Sabathia (v Oak) - 8, 4 R, 3 ER, L
Hernandez (v Balt) - 9, 1 R, 0 ER, W
Liriano (v Cle) - 8, 0 ER, W
Eight shutout innings against Cleveland tops Sabathia's line against Oakland pretty easily, but Hernandez allowed just one unearned run in a complete game, so I give King Felix the edge over Cisco here. (Note: this is going to become an odd trend, if only because the Twins have not allowed an unearned run in any of Liriano's starts in 2010.)
v Sab = 2-1
v Hern = 1-2
Sabathia (v Balt) - 7.2, 3 ER, W
Hernandez (v KC) - 7, 3 R, 2 ER, L
Liriano (v Det) - 8, 0 ER, W
Another eight-inning shutout, but this one tops both Sabathia's and Hernandez's lines.
v Sab = 3-1
v Hern = 2-2
Sabathia (v Balt) - 8, 1 ER, W
Hernandez (v Tex) - 4.1, 5 ER, L
Liriano (v Cle) - 7, 3 ER, W
Lirian's quality start tops Hernandez's poor outing, but not Sabathia's strong outing -- Texas is a tougher opponent than either Cleveland or Baltimore, but I couldn't stretch 'degree of difficulty' that much to overcome the difference in performance here.
v Sab = 3-2
v Hern = 3-2
Sabathia (v Bos) - 4.2, 3 ER, ND
Hernandez (v LAA) - 3.1, 8 R, 7 ER, L
Liriano (v Bal) - 6, 5 ER, L
This was a tough one. On one hand, nobody had an especially good outing, and among the bad ones, Sabathia's is perhaps least bad, simply because it gave the Yankees a better chance to rally. On the other hand, not burning the bullpen helps improve the chance of winning down the road, so going six innings instead of less than five (or less than four) is valuable in itself. Liriano's opponent was clearly the weakest of the three, by some margin, but again I decided not to stretch 'degree of difficulty' that far and gave Cisco the benefit of the doubt here.
v Sab = 4-2
v Hern = 4-2
Sabathia (v Det) - 6, 6 ER, L
Hernandez (v Balt) - 7, 1 ER, ND
Liriano (v NYY) - 6, 3 ER, L
Liriano's quality start easily tops Sabathia's outing, but Hernandez's seven-inning, one-run outing clearly beats both.
v Sab = 5-2
v Hern = 4-3
Sabathia (v Bos) - 7, 1 ER, ND
Hernandez (v Oak) - 6, 3 ER, ND
Liriano (v Bos) - 4.2, 5 ER, L
Liriano's outing is clearly the poorest of the three, and 'degree of difficulty' can't even help, since Sabathia faced the same Red Sox.
v Sab = 5-3
v Hern = 4-4
Sabathia (v NYM) - 5, 5 ER, L
Hernandez (v SD) - 7, 3 R, 2 ER, L
Liriano (v NYY) - 7, 2 ER, ND
Again, Liriano's outing clearly tops Sabathia's, while the choice between Hernandez and Liriano is a lot closer. I didn't want to penalize Hernandez for his defense, but in this case, I was willing to bend the decision Liriano's way on 'degree of difficulty'; the same basic outing is more impressive against the Yankees than against the Padres.
v Sab = 6-3
v Hern = 5-4
Sabathia (v Cle) - 6, 5 ER, ND
Hernandez (v LAA) - 8, 1 ER, ND
Liriano (v Sea) - 6, 3 ER, W
Another one where Liriano's quality start beats Sabathia's non-quality start, but Hernandez's deeper, better game tops Cisco's.
v Sab = 7-3
v Hern = 5-5
Sabathia (v Balt) - 7, 3 ER, W
Hernandez (v Minn) - 8, 1 ER, ND
Liriano (v Oak) - 7, 1 ER, ND
Same innings but two fewer runs gives Liriano the edge over Sabathia again, despite Sabathia's W and Liriano's no-decision; the extra inning against tougher competition (the Twins were clearly hotter than the A's at this point in the season) gives Hernandez the edge over Liriano both on 'degree of difficulty' and for the extra inning of work.
v Sab = 8-3
v Hern = 5-6
Sabathia (v Balt) - 7, 2 ER, W
Hernandez (v Tex) - 6, 7 ER, L
Liriano (v Atl) - 8, 1 ER, W
Liriano's outing versus the Braves easily tops Hernandez's disappointing one, and the longer and more successful outing tops Sabathia's, not even taking competition into account. Liriano is looking really good against Sabathia right now, and he's at least in the conversation with Hernandez. Am I convinced yet? Well, we're just halfway through the season...
v Sab = 9-3
v Hern = 6-6
Sabathia (v Phil) - 7, 3 ER, W
Hernandez (v SD) - 8.2, 2 ER, W
Liriano (v Col) - 7, 3 ER, L
I've been giving Liriano a lot of 'benefit of the doubt' calls thus far, so this one, given that Philadelphia is a stronger club than the Rockies (and that Sabathia actually got the W while Liriano took the L) convinced me to bend Sabathia's way on this one. Neither matches Hernandez's outing, thogh admittedly against a weaker Padres club.
v Sab = 9-4
v Hern = 6-7
Sabathia (v NYM) - 8, 0 ER, W
Hernandez (v Cin) - 9, 1 ER, W
Liriano (v Mil) - 5, 3 ER, L
Liriano not even getting past five innings doesn't even compare with either Sabathia's or Hernandez's outings here.
v Sab = 9-5
v Hern = 6-8
Sabathia (v LAD) - 8, 1 ER, W
Hernandez (v CHC) - 9, 2 ER, ND
Liriano (v Det) - 4, 6 ER, L
Again, a very poor outing for Liriano that doesn't compare to either of the others.
v Sab = 9-6
v Hern = 6-9
Sabathia (v Sea) - 8, 2 R, 1 ER, W
Hernandez (v NYY) - 9, 0 ER, W
Liriano (v TB) - 7, 1 ER, ND
A good outing for Liriano against the Rays, but Sabathia went an extra inning and handled the unearned run, while Hernandez's shutout speaks for itself.
v Sab = 9-7
v Hern = 6-10
Sabathia (v Oak) - 7.2, 1 ER, W
Hernandez (v KC) - 7, 2 ER, ND
Liriano (v Det) - 1.2, 7 ER, L
There's no way to argue this outing as anything but a Liriano loss.
v Sab = 9-8
v Hern = 6-11
Sabathia (v Sea) - 7, 1 ER, W
Hernandez (v NYY) - 9, 1 ER, W
Liriano (v CHW) - 7.2, 2 ER, W
Impressive outings for all three; since I'd given Sabathia the benefit of the doubt in the last close matchup, I gave this one to Liriano, despite the extra run, for working the extra 2/3 of an inning. Again, neither of those compares to Hernadez's complete game.
v Sab = 10-8
v Hern = 6-12
Sabathia (v TB) - 7, 4 R, 3 ER, ND
Hernandez (v LAA) - 8, 3 ER, L
Liriano (v Cle) - 7, 0 ER, W
Excellent outing for Liriano that tops both the other men.
v Sab = 11-8
v Hern = 7-12
Sabathia (v KC) - 6.1, 4 R, 3 ER, W
Hernandez (v CHW) - 8, 0 ER, ND
Liriano (vs KC) - 7, 0 ER, W
Second straight outstanding outing for Liriano, which is again good enough to top Sabathia, but Hernandez's extra inning at the higher degree of difficulty (the Sox are clearly a stronger opponent than the Royals) wins out in that comparison.
v Sab = 12-8
v Hern = 7-13
Sabathia (v Cle) - 7, 4 R, 2 ER, L
Hernandez (v CHW) - 7, 4 R, 2 ER, L
The 'tie' from Posnanski's comparison -- skipped. Both men had solid outings with problematic defense.
Sabathia (v TB) - 6.2, 3 ER, L
Hernandez (v Minn) - 7, 3 ER, L
Liriano (v Sea) - 7, 0 ER, W
Liriano's seven shutout innings clearly gets the call here over both other outings.
v Sab = 13-8
v Hern = 8-13
Sabathia (v Bos) - 8, 2 ER, W
Hernandez (v Tex) - 6.2, 3 ER, L
Liriano (v Cle) - 4.2, 4 ER, L
Here's another trend -- notice how many more times I've had to say 'Liriano's poor outing' than I've had to say 'Sabathia's poor outing'; and that I've almost never had to say 'Hernandez's poor outing'.
As an entirely hypothetical (and at least partly rhetorical) example, say you were visited by an angel and told that one of your starters for the upcoming season was going to finish with a 4.5 ERA, but that you could choose between two ways of getting there:
a) The guy could go six innings in every start, allowing three earned runs in each, or
b) The guy would pitch shutouts in half his starts, and allow six earned runs in three innings in the other half.
Which would you take? Pitcher b would likely be praised as "dominant" in his shutout starts, but would finish with just a bit better than a .500 record, as would his team in those starts, because it's hard to imagine scoring enough runs consistently to overcome that six run hole in the other half of the starter's outings. On the other hand, with a consistently above-average defense, both pitcher a and his team could be close to perfect in his starts.
This gets to what I think is the biggest problem I have with peoples' evaluations of Liriano as a pitcher, which I think is exactly the opposite problem that people had in evaluating Kyle Lohse -- in Lohse's case, fans were so focused on his disappointing outings that they failed to notice how many times Lohse pitches well if unspectacularly and kept the Twins in the game. (In Lohse's Twins career, the Twins won nearly 70% of Lohse's no-decisions; when added to his above-.500 record in his starts, the Twins did very well with Lohse on the mound.) In Liriano's case, people are so focused on the "dominant" outings that they don't seem to register that Liriano's poor outings are very poor, and more frequent than you'd like an 'ace' pitcher's poor outings to be.
Regardless, Liriano's poor outing here gives him the loss against both other pitchers.
v Sab = 13-9
v Hern = 8-14
Sabathia (v KC) - 8.2, 3 ER, W
Hernandez (v Oak) - 8, 0 ER, W
Liriano (v CHW) - 5.2, 1 ER, W
Not a bad outing by Liriano at all, but it doesn't at all compare to Hernandez's. Sabathia allowed three earned runs against weaker competition, but the extra three innings of work in what is still a quality start convinces me to give this decision to Captain Cheeseburger.
v Sab = 13-10
v Hern = 8-15
Sabathia (v Det) - 7, 2 ER, W
Hernandez (v Cle) - 6.2, 6 R, 0 ER, L
Liriano (v CHW) - 5, 5 ER, ND
Another poor Liriano outing gives him the loss vs Sabathia.
Hernandez's outing is odd here -- he'd pitched 6 and two-thirds shutout innings, then had the third out booted by his infield. He then utterly melted down, allowing four hits including a homer, plus an intentional walk, before finally being pulled. You could say that's worse than Liriano's five inning, five run outing (and I did), but the odd thing is that you can't really say whether or not that means Liriano is a better pitcher. After all, as noted above, the Twins haven't allowed an unearned run in Liriano's starts all season, so we really don't know if Liriano would be capable of a similar meltdown. Again, my gut feeling is that any pitcher is capable of this kind of performance in the wrong moment.
v Sab = 13-11
v Hern = 9-15
Sabathia (v Sea) - 6, 0 ER, W
Hernandez (v NYY) - 8, 0 ER, W
Liriano (v Tex) - 7, 2 ER, W
Good outing for Liriano, but again not comparable to Hernandez's. I give the edge to Sabathia for the six-inning shutout, despite the difference in 'degree of difficulty'.
v Sab = 13-12
v Hern = 9-16
Sabathia (v CHW) - 7, 5 ER, W
Hernandez (v Bos) - 7.1, 2 R, 1 ER, W
Liriano (v Det) - 7, 0 ER, ND
Liriano clearly tops Sabathia here. Tough call between Hernandez and Liriano, though. I gave the edge to Hernandez based on degree of difficulty, but you could probably go either way.
v Sab = 14-12
v Hern = 9-17
Sabathia (v Oak) - 8, 0 ER, W
Hernandez (v LAA) - 7, 0 ER, ND
Liriano (vs KC) - 7, 2 ER, W
Another solid outing for Liriano, but not comparable to either Sabathia's or Hernandez's, especially given the degree of difficulty.
v Sab = 14-13
v Hern = 9-18
Sabathia (v Balt) - 6.1, 6 R, 5 ER, L
Hernandez (v Cle) - 8, 0 ER, W
Skipping an outstanding Hernandez outing and a poor Sabathia outing.
So in the end, if you think Sabathia is the front-runner for Cy Young, i can understand why you'd think Liriano should be in the conversation -- sure, Cisco's won-loss isn't as impressive, but he's had at least as many if not more good outings as Sabathia (heck, the Twins are 17-10 in Liriano's starts, the Yankees 21-9 in Sabathia's, which doesn't look nearly as big as the individual won-loss difference).
But if you think Hernandez is the clear front-runner for the Cy, I can't imagine why you believe Liriano should be in the conversation. By my count, King Felix has had twice as many winning outings as Liriano, and while you could quibble with a few of those comparisons, that doesn't even account for Hernandez having three quality starts that we haven't even compared to Liriano, because Liriano doesn't have those three starts at all.
Unless something changes drastically over the next three weeks, I'll be rooting for Felix Hernandez to win the Cy Young, since he's clearly the most deserving candidate.