Hisashi Iwakuma And The AL Cy Young

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Updated: September 22, 2013

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The Seattle Mariners have found themselves another All-World starting pitcher who will receive inadequate support for the Cy Young awards.  Hisashi Iwakuma has quietly put together a Cy Young caliber season while pitching in the great northwest.  We’ll delve into how the 32-year old Japanese import has turned in a 2.76 ERA across 211 innings, but first a bit on the pitcher-win and evaluating Cy Young candidates.

Max Scherzer has generated the most buzz for Cy Young by winning 19 of his first 20 decisions, and as sparkly as his 20th win looks now that he’s 20-3, the pitcher-win really doesn’t belong in the conversation.  I’m going to assume our readers have at least heard this argument in the past and I’ll spare the novella on situations where a pitcher can get a win while either doing his job poorly or without even throwing a pitch (remember pick-offs are still a thing).  While Scherzer’s 20 wins draw the ire of bloggers and the sabermetrics community, he cannot be dismissed from the conversation simply because he’s excelled in a stat that we don’t like.

Similarly, Hasashi Iwakuma cannot be dismissed simply because many of us have never watched him pitch or heard his name mentioned among the best.  The fact is that he has been among the game’s best this season and will finish somewhere in the top 5 in Cy Young voting, regardless of voters’ preferred statistic.

A few years ago I did this post asking if stats could predict the MVP which essentially offered my little research on what stats voters prefer when casting their MVP ballot. Unfortunately, I never did a follow up with regards to the Cy Young voters (and I’m not going to do it now either).  I’ll simply offer this list of the AL Cy Young winners respective win totals over the past 9 years: 20, 24, 13, 16, 20, 22, 19, 19, 21.  (Fun note on this: the last number represents Bartolo Colon’s 21 win/Cy Young campaign of 2005.)  So at least peripherally, it appears that Cy Young winners have, even in recent history, fared well with the pitcher-win statistic.  Whether that is a product of a voting populous conscientious of the win tally or of the best pitchers collecting the most wins, it’s unclear.

Looking at the two season’s where the Cy Young winner tallied fewer than 19 wins, we find King Felix’s dominant 2010 and Zack Grienkie’s 2.16 ERA 2009.  While I expected that these lower win totals were rewarded with the Cy Young thanks to down numbers across the board, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

In 2009, Grienkie held a 4.37 WAR advantage over the second best pitcher (Felix Hernandez), but it’s not as if that second-best season was slightly above average.  Hernandez’s 2009 included a 2.49 ERA, 19 wins, and 217 strikeouts across over 230 innings– certainly Cy Young worthy in most years.

In 2010, Felix’s 2.3 WAR advantage over Justin Verlander was substantial if not quite Grienkie’s +4.4 and the voting was somewhat closer.  Verlander held good marks in all the traditional statistics (2.77 ERA, 19 wins, 200+ IP), but again Felix’s dominance was rewarded with the Cy Young.

Perhaps looking at voting where a pitcher with a higher win total was given the advantage over someone with potentially better numbers in other statistics could help.  This happened last year. In both leagues, the second place finisher accumulated a slightly higher bWAR with fewer wins than the first-place finisher.  Why? Well, luckily this was recently enough that we remember the mystique of R.A. Dickey’s hard-knuckleball and we were all so disappointed that Justin Verlander didn’t throw a no-hitter every time out that we gave it to the other guy.

I’m not really sure where this was all going other than to point out that historically Cy Young winners have amassed higher win totals.

Back to 2013 and Hisashi Iwakuma…

The AL Cy Young award favorite is the aforementioned Max Scherzer, but his hold on the lead is predicated on his dominating win total.  There are a number of pitchers with similar stat lines this year and the voting should be interesting.

PLAYER A: 2.91 ERA, 209 IP, .223 avg, 221 K’s
PLAYER B: 2.81, 199, .192, 260

PLAYER C: 3.00, 207, .199, 230
PLAYER D: 3.01, 194, .243, 200
PLAYER E: 2.76, 212, .220, 176

It seems like they’ve all got very similar numbers outside of strikouts (260 for PLAYER B, 176 for PLAYER E), but the ERA’s are so close that the guy with the highest ERA (Player D) and the guy with the lowest (Player E) have actually given up the same number of earned runs this year.  The difference in ERA is thanks to Player E’s 18 more innings pitched.

In order,  the guys listed above are Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, and Hisashi Iwakuma. Each has a real argument that they belong in the Cy Young conversation and each are in that conversation at least in part thanks to this article.

Speaking strictly philosophically, the goal of the pitcher is to prevent runs from scoring (however possible). ERA falls short in accounting for unearned runs, but these runs that score by no apparent fault of the pitcher still count on the scoreboard and therefore in my mind.  Letting a pitcher off the hook for an error committed by one of his fielders seems backwards when we do not similarly damn him following a good fielding play.  With that thinking in mind: here’s each of the previous pitchers runs allowed/9IP totals: Chris Sale 3.32, Felix Hernandez 3.24, Max Scherzer 3.17, Hisashi Iwakuma 2.93, Yu Darvish 2.90.

By this definition, Yu Darvish should be the Cy Young followed by Iwakuma and Scherzer.

Iwakuma has done it with an average fastball velocity of 89.5 and lots of gusto.  He’s under contract for just $13.5 Million over the next two seasons with a $7 Million team option available for 2016.  His success, coupled with that of Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, suggests a changing of Moneyball from penny-ing undervalued domestic free agents to pursuing international players.

I root for the Mariners in part because they’ve been bad for awhile, but also because I always liked Ichiro and because I feel bad for the sports city after the departure of the Sonics.  I’ll continue to root for the Mariners now that they’ve got another undervalued spectacular starting pitcher.

My Personal Ballot if the Season Ended Right Now (Which it Doesn’t… Thankfully):

  1. Yu Darvish
  2. Max Scherzer
  3. Hisashi Iwakuma
  4. Chris Sale
  5. Felix Hernandez

-Sean Morash

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