Will the AL Cy Young Voting Reflect That the Race is Dead Even?

The winner of the 2014 American League Cy Young Award is going to be either Felix Hernandez or Corey Kluber. Yes, indeed, there are other worthwhile candidates, and yes, you can argue whether Chris Sale should be penalized that heavily for his injury early on, but it’s a virtual lock that this is coming down to one of the two guys. So let’s just accept that assumption, and move forward. Which of the pitchers is going to win? And just how big will the winning margin be?

When we talk about awards, I don’t think we really care about the awards. I think it’s about the fun of trying to solve a problem, and about seeing how other people try to solve the same problem. It’s basically mental exercise, and in many cases there’s no obviously clear deserving winner and you can get as detailed as you like. For example, let’s take Felix vs. Kluber. You know one way to get really detailed? What’s Felix’s benefit of having pitched to Mike Zunino, against Kluber’s benefit of having pitched to Yan Gomes? That’s a question worth asking. This is really the fun of it every year, but for purposes of this post, let’s not try to figure out our own preferred winner. Rather, let’s consider the actual voters’ processes. What will the results tell us about how the BBWAA feels about splits?

Part of a conversation with Jonah Keri earlier in the day:


It wasn’t that long ago that Felix winning the Cy Young felt like a sure thing. It wasn’t that long ago there was talk about whether Felix could and should win the AL MVP. For the longest time, Felix’s season was something out of a dream, or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. The highlight was a 16-start stretch between May 18 and August 11, where Felix didn’t once throw fewer than seven innings, and where Felix didn’t once allow more than two runs. That set a new baseball record, and though it wasn’t a record anyone talked about before, it’s something that’ll forever be a part of Felix’s 2014. The performance earned Felix widespread attention, and since then the Cy Young has almost felt automatic.

It’s just, holy cow, Corey Kluber. To illustrate the gap between him and Felix at the All-Star break:

1st Half WAR RA9-WAR 50/50 WAR
Hernandez 5.0 4.7 4.9
Kluber 3.3 2.7 3.0

Not a close race! At the break, Kluber wasn’t Felix’s competition. But, since then:

2nd Half WAR RA9-WAR 50/50 WAR
Hernandez 1.2 3.2 2.2
Kluber 3.7 3.9 3.8

Not a close race! In the opposite direction. Felix started allowing home runs, and Kluber stopped allowing home runs, and now, this is where the numbers lie over the full year:

Hernandez 6.1 7.9 7.0 871 22% 1.7% 0.259
Kluber 7.0 6.4 6.7 921 23% 1.5% 0.316

Kluber has more wins, and more losses. Since the break, while Felix has gone 3-3, Kluber has gone 8-3. For voters who care about ERA, Felix still has the advantage, but he’s pitched in front of a far superior defense, and in more pitcher-friendly environments. Kluber’s been supported by perhaps the worst team defense in baseball. For voters who look beyond ERA and wins and losses, Kluber’s not only even with Felix — he might be a hair ahead.

Here’s a simple rule, to apply to baseball and to life: if there’s a really really difficult decision, where both options seem equally good and equally bad, then it’s not worth stressing out about too much, because it doesn’t matter which you pick. You either get the upside and downside of one choice, or the equivalent upside and downside of the other choice. Picking between Felix and Kluber right now is almost impossible. Where that seems like it ought to cause anxiety to the voter, in reality it’s liberating; either choice is perfectly defensible. They’re even. They’re practically dead even.

So the question is, is the voting going to reflect that? Given how close Felix and Kluber are, you’d think they’d just about split the votes, with the victor winning by a narrow margin. Neither deserves to win by a lot, so it’ll be interesting to see if someone does win by a lot, so we can infer something about timing and priorities. On one hand, relatively inattentive voters might’ve settled on Felix a month or two ago. On the other hand, Kluber allows for some recency bias, and it’s not like his team has been that far out of the race. He doesn’t have Felix’s name value, but his strikeout numbers are starting to get ridiculous.

There’s no such thing as a perfect precedent, but we might be able to learn something from the NL voting in 2012, where R.A. Dickey beat Clayton Kershaw (and others) by a landslide. Some simple comparisons:

1st Half WAR RA9-WAR 50/50 WAR
Dickey 2.9 3.9 3.4
Kershaw 2.5 2.7 2.6

2nd Half WAR RA9-WAR 50/50 WAR
Dickey 1.5 2.3 1.9
Kershaw 2.9 4.2 3.6

Season WAR RA9-WAR 50/50 WAR
Dickey 4.4 6.1 5.3
Kershaw 5.4 6.8 6.1

Dickey finished with 27 first-place votes, while Kershaw finished with two. They were even in starts and innings. Dickey peaked with back-to-back one-hitters in June, while Kershaw was terrific down the stretch. Wins and losses complicate everything, since Dickey finished 20-6 while Kershaw finished 14-9, but between the two, Kershaw had the considerably better second half, and still he came up well short in the voting. Even though Kershaw’s full-season numbers were a little better, Dickey won the Cy Young easily, in large part because he established such favor in May and June and July.

Dickey, then, was a good candidate, but he wasn’t a better candidate than Kershaw, really, yet he won in a blowout. If that’s to hold up as a precedent, then we’d expect Felix to win the 2014 Cy Young in something of a blowout, even though Kluber’s been better for a couple months. The idea would be that Felix established too much of a lead in the race when he was ripping off his record stretch. The voting pool this time, though, will be different. It’s also a different year, and neither Felix nor Kluber will reach 20 wins. Kluber’s actually guaranteed the higher win total, albeit also the higher loss total.

Picking between Felix and Kluber, you can’t go wrong. To say it’s going to come down to the final start is to say it’s a total coin flip, because one start can’t decisively determine the Cy Young race. For that reason, it’s going to be fascinating to check out the voting results, because while Felix and Kluber have wound up in similar places, they’ve gotten there along two different paths. There’s no question that Felix got out to a big early lead. So how much attention have voters been paying to more recent events? And how are those events going to be weighted? If 2012 is any indication, this thing has been Felix’s to lose for a long long time. Yet I don’t know what outcome to expect.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

Of course not. Felix is going to win by a landslide.

9 years ago
Reply to  Marco

I agree. I think its a close race with a clear-cut winner. And that has nothing to do with momentum/inertia.

Scott Marcus
9 years ago
Reply to  Marco

Agree — not that I believe that is fair. I agree with Jeff, and think it should be close. But in both name recognition and voters choosing early, my bet is that Felix gets well over 70% of the first place votes.

9 years ago
Reply to  Marco

So, what’s your opinion now?