The internets have been raging with debate the past couple of weeks, as people desperately try to find another topic that could drive a wedge between the mainstream/old-school media and the basement-dwelling/not-printed-on-real-paper blogosphere. This time, the narrative chosen is "CC Sabathia vs Felix Hernandez."

The basic premise is that on the one hand, you've got a good pitcher having a good season for a great team and racking up Wins by the handful, and on the other you have a good pitcher having a better season for a horseshit team and tossing back peripheral stats -- but not Wins -- like they're Pabst Blue Ribbon. It's made for a good fight, with plenty of entertaining back-and-forth and name-calling. My Twitter timeline is filled with "anyone who thinks CC Sabathia deserves the Cy Young is a moron," and my RSS feeds are filled with "anyone who doesn't think CC Sabathia deserves the Cy Young is a moron." So yeah, it's fun. Joe Posnanski even weighed in, with an interesting start-by-start comparison of the two heavyweight contenders. He found that King Felix had the edge.

But my question is this: why has the field already been culled to two? If we as a collective blogosphere are going to throw our support behind a pitcher who deserves consideration for a Cy Young award despite a lackluster win-loss record, why is it Felix Hernandez?

There's another pitcher having a tremendous season this year, and since this is a Twins blog you may have guessed that I'm going to say his name is Francisco Liriano. You'd be right. So, without further ado, I'm going to follow in Posnanski's eminent footsteps and try to do a start-by-start comparison of King Felix and Franchise Liriano, and see which of them ought to be wearing the crown.

1st start

  • Hernandez vs OAK: 6.2 IP, 3 ER, 4 K, 6 BB, ND
  • Liriano vs CHW: 6 IP, 3 ER, 3 K, 5 BB, ND

Comment: Quality starts for both pitchers, Felix had 1 more K and 1 more BB. I'm giving this one to Felix because of a substantial advantage in RE24.

Advantage: Hernandez (1-0)

2nd start

  • Hernandez vs TEX: 7 IP, 2 ER (3 R), 5 K, 2 BB, ND
  • Liriano vs BOS: 7 IP, 0 ER, 8 K, 2 BB, W

Comment: Pretty clear victory for Liriano, with no runs and more strikeouts.

Advantage: Liriano (1-1)

3rd start

  • Hernandez vs DET: 6.2 IP, 2 ER, 9 K, 2 BB, W
  • Liriano vs CLE: 8 IP, 0 ER, 6 K, 2 BB, W

Comment: Another obvious victory for Liriano; more innings, 0 runs.

Advantage: Liriano (2-1)

4th start

  • Hernandez vs BAL: 9 IP, 0 ER (1 R), 6 K, 0 BB, W
  • Liriano vs DET: 8 IP, 0 ER, 10 K, 1 BB, W

Comment: Oh boy, this one was quite the duel! Felix has more innings but gave up an unearned run. You'll notice that Felix's ERA is helped considerably by all the unearned runs surrendered by his supposedly-excellent defense; Liriano does not get that advantage. Also, Liriano had a bunch more strikeouts. Liriano had the RE24 advantage and I'm using that to break ties. Feel free to score at home.

Advantage: Liriano (3-1)

5th start

  • Hernandez vs KCR: 7 IP, 2 ER (3 R), 7 K, 3 BB, L
  • Liriano vs CLE: 7 IP, 3 ER, 9 K, 3 BB, W

Comment: Another close one. Felix's ERA gets the benefit of another unearned run, but both guys left the game after 7 innings with 3 runs on the board. Liriano has a 2 K advantage.

Advantage: Liriano (4-1)

6th start

  • Hernandez vs TEX: 4.1 IP, 5 ER, 5 K, 4 BB, L
  • Liriano vs BAL: 6 IP, 5 ER, 3 K, 1 BB, L

Comment: Their good outings have been aligning, and their clunkers are aligning too. That's kind of annoying. They both gave up 5 runs, but Liriano pitched deeper into the game. Felix has 2 more strikeouts, Liriano has 3 fewer walks. Again, Liriano has the RE24 advantage.

Advantage: Liriano (5-1)

7th start

  • Hernandez vs LAA: 3.1 IP, 7 ER (8 R), 3 K, 4 BB, L
  • Liriano vs NYY: 6 IP, 3 ER, 7 K, 0 BB, L

Comment: A bad start for Hernandez, and a quality start for Liriano.

Advantage: Liriano (6-1)

8th start

  • Hernandez vs BAL: 7 IP, 1 ER, 7 K, 2 BB, ND
  • Liriano vs BOS: 4.2 IP, 5 ER, 6 K, 3 BB, L

Comment: Liriano got clobbered in this one.

Advantage: Hernandez (2-6)

9th start

  • Hernandez vs OAK: 6 IP, 3 ER, 6 K, 2 BB, ND
  • Liriano vs NYY: 7 IP, 2 ER, 7 K, 2 BB, ND

Comment: More innings, fewer runs, more strikeouts.

Advantage: Liriano (7-2)

10th start

  • Hernandez vs SDP: 7 IP, 2 ER (3 R), 6 K, 1 BB, L
  • Liriano vs SEA: 6 IP, 3 ER, 7 K, 0 BB, W

Comment: This is a close one. Liriano has the K and BB advantage, and they'd have given up the same number of runs but for Hernandez's secret unearned-run weapon. I don't want to penalize him for that, but I also don't think it's reasonable to reward him for it. Felix has the RE24 advantage.

Advantage: Hernandez (3-7)

11th start

  • Hernandez vs LAA: 8 IP, 1 ER, 7 K, 3 BB, ND
  • Liriano vs OAK: 7 IP, 1 ER, 10 K, 2 BB, ND

Comment: Good outings for both pitchers. Felix went deeper, Liriano had more strikeouts and fewer walks. Felix had a better RE24, Francisco had a better WPA. Tough call.

Advantage: Hernandez (4-7)

12th start

  • Hernandez vs MIN: 8 IP, 1 ER, 9 K, 1 BB, W
  • Liriano vs ATL: 8 IP, 1 ER, 11 K, 0 BB, W

Comment: Another strong outing for both of them. Same distance, same runs ... Liriano had double-digit strikeouts, and I like that.

Advantage: Liriano (8-4)

13th start

  • Hernandez vs TEX: 6 IP, 7 ER, 5 K, 3 BB, L
  • Liriano vs COL: 7 IP, 3 ER, 6 K, 3 BB, L

Comment: Felix turns in another bad performance.

Advantage: Liriano (9-4)

14th start

  • Hernandez vs SDP: 8.2 IP, 2 ER, 9 K, 1 BB, W
  • Liriano vs MIL: 5 IP, 3 ER, 7 K, 1 BB, L

Comment: Clear victory for Felix.

Advantage: Hernandez (5-9)

15th start

  • Hernandez vs CIN: 9 IP, 1 ER, 9 K, 1 BB, W
  • Liriano vs DET: 6 IP, 6 ER, 6 K, 2 BB, L

Comment: Liriano gets his doors blown off and Hernandez is lights out. Another easy one.

Advantage: Hernandez (6-9)

16th start

  • Hernandez vs CHC: 9 IP, 2 ER, 8 K, 1 BB, ND
  • Liriano vs TBR: 7 IP, 1 ER, 10 K, 1 BB, ND

Comment: Felix goes all the way, but Liriano gives up fewer runs and strikes out more batters. This seems to happen pretty frequently. Liriano has a narrow RE24 advantage.

Advantage: Liriano (10-6)

17th start

  • Hernandez vs NYY: 9 IP, 0 ER, 11 K, 3 BB, W
  • Liriano vs DET: 1.2 IP, 7 ER, 1 K, 2 BB, L

Comment: Bam. Liriano was pitching injured in this one; Hernandez, clearly, was not.

Advantage: Hernandez (7-10)

18th start

  • Hernandez vs KCR: 7 IP, 2 ER, 6 K, 2 BB, ND
  • Liriano vs CHW: 7.2 IP, 2 ER, 8 K, 2 BB, W

Comment: Got more outs, gave up the same runs, struck out more batters, walked the same number. I think this one is clear.

Advantage: Liriano (11-7)

19th start

  • Hernandez vs NYY: 9 IP, 1 ER, 9 K, 2 BB, W
  • Liriano vs CLE: 7 IP, 0 ER, 8 K, 4 BB, W

Comment: More innings, gave up more runs. But this time, Hernandez also strikes out more batters and walks fewer. That 0 on there is nice, though, and Liriano ekes out another RE24 tie-breaker.

Advantage: Liriano (12-7)

20th start

  • Hernandez vs LAA: 8 IP, 3 ER, 3 K, 0 BB, L
  • Liriano vs KCR: 7 IP, 0 ER, 6 K, 0 BB, W

Comment: Another scoreless outing for Liriano, with twice as many strikeouts.

Advantage: Liriano (13-7)

21st start

  • Hernandez vs CHW: 8 IP, 0 ER, 8 K, 0 BB, ND
  • Liriano vs SEA: 7 IP, 0 ER, 11 K, 2 BB, W

Comment: Both pitchers were on in this one. Felix went deeper, but once again I like it that Liriano put up double-digit strikeouts. RE24, however, is going with Hernandez.

Advantage: Hernandez (8-13)

22nd start

  • Hernandez vs CHW: 7 IP, 2 ER (4 R), 3 K, 3 BB, L
  • Liriano vs CLE: 4.2 IP, 4 ER, 6 K, 6 BB, ND

Comment: At first I thought this would be an easy one -- 4.2 innings for Liriano is pretty rough. But they both gave up 4 runs, Liriano struck out twice as many guys ... you know what? I don't care. If you don't complete 5 innings, you can't win this game.

Advantage: Hernandez (9-13)

23rd start

  • Hernandez vs MIN: 7 IP, 3 ER, 4 K, 1 BB, L
  • Liriano vs CHW: 5.2 IP, 1 ER, 4 K, 2 BB, W

Comment: Felix gets 4 more outs, but surrenders 2 more runs. I don't know which way to go on this one. RE24 gives a pretty clear decision in favor of Liriano.

Advantage: Liriano (14-9)

24th start

  • Hernandez vs TEX: 6.2 IP, 3 ER, 3 K, 1 BB, L
  • Liriano vs CHW: 5 IP, 5 ER, 5 K, 4 BB, ND

Comment: At this point, I really like the easy decisions. As many runs as innings means you lose.

Advantage: Hernandez (10-14)

25th start

  • Hernandez vs OAK: 8 IP, 0 ER, 13 K, 1 BB, W
  • Liriano vs TEX: 7 IP, 2 ER, 6 K, 1 BB, W

Comment: More innings, 0 runs, double-digit strikeouts? Easy!

Advantage: Hernandez (11-14)

26th start

  • Hernandez vs CLE: 6.2 IP, 0 ER (6 R), 7 K, 4 BB, L
  • Liriano vs DET: 7 IP, 0 ER, 7 K, 1 BB, ND

Comment: Liriano went deeper, walked fewer, and if I credit Hernandez for "0 earned runs" I have to ignore the fact that you can't give up 6 unearned runs without falling apart after your defense lets you down.

Advantage: Liriano (15-11)

27th start

  • Hernandez vs NYY: 8 IP, 0 ER, 11 K, 3 BB, W
  • Liriano vs KCR: 7 IP, 2 ER, 4 K, 0 BB, W

Comment: More innings, 0 runs, double-digit strikeouts? Easy!

Advantage: Hernandez (12-15)

28th start

  • Hernandez vs BOS: 7.1 IP, 1 ER (2 R), 9 K, 1 BB, W

Comment: At this point, I find myself staring at a conundrum. Hernandez has made four more starts than Liriano has. He's showing himself to be a workhorse, while Liriano has been asking for extra days of rest to keep his arm fresh for the playoffs -- something Felix does not have to worry about. Still, this was a good start.

Advantage: Hernandez (13-15)

29th start

  • Hernandez vs LAA: 7 IP, 0 ER, 8 K, 3 BB, ND

Comment: Another good start. It seems weird to keep playing this game when only one guy is on the field. But if I didn't, Liriano would get the benefit of Hernandez pitching more often. That's clearly unfair.

Advantage: Hernandez (14-15)

30th start

  • Hernandez vs CLE: 8 IP, 0 ER, 9 K, 1 BB, W

Comment: King Felix dominates again and ties it up!

Advantage: Hernandez (15-15)

31st start

  • Hernandez vs LAA: 6.1 IP, 4 ER (7 R), 5 K, 3 BB, L

Comment: So the question people are going to ask after this one is "Did Liriano win it, or did Hernandez lose?" On the other, probably more important, hand ... I think I'll have to go with the old adage: you can't win if you don't play.

Advantage: Nobody (15-15)

So, we played the start-by-start game and don't seem to be any closer to a decision. When they're both actually on the mound, Liriano seems to be the better pitcher -- through 27 starts, Liriano had a pretty strong 15-12 lead. But Hernandez took advantage of starting more games to tie it up at 15-15. So maybe we should take a look at their overall stats?

Hernandez has a 2.39 ERA, 3.01 FIP, and 3.26 xFIP in 225.2 IP, posting 8.68 K/9, 2.51 BB/9, and 0.60 HR/9, with a 53.2 GB% and .286 BABIP. Those numbers have helped him accumulate an impressive 5.9 WAR.

Liriano has a 3.24 ERA, 2.37 FIP, and 3.04 xFIP in 172.1 IP, posting 9.50 K/9, 2.72 BB/9, 0.21 HR/9, with a 53.9 GB% and .341 BABIP. Those numbers have led to an even more impressive 6.1 WAR.*

Felix leads in ERA, IP, BB/9 (narrowly), and has a significantly lower BABIP.

Liriano leads in FIP, xFIP, K/9, HR/9, GB% (narrowly), and WAR.

* Note that WAR is a cumulative stat, not a rate stat; it takes into account the fact that Liriano has a significant disadvantage in innings pitched.

This just tells us once again that Liriano's candle burns brighter but not as long. While they're both on the mound, Liriano is the better pitcher. Since Hernandez is able to last longer, he's able to nearly close the gap in value.

I don't know how to calculate what a 55-point gap in BABIP does to their numbers, though. Over this many innings, that's a lot of extra baserunners for Liriano that only got there because Liriano's defense doesn't convert outs behind him as well as Hernandez's does. If Liriano didn't have to face all those extra batters, would he have gone deeper into games and accumulated more innings? Or, conversely, would he have had fewer opportunities to strike out the next batter? And if the Mariners defense had allowed baserunners without committing so many "errors," then all those unearned runs would have actually counted against Hernandez's ERA and you may not be quite as impressed.* I don't know, but I don't think you can just ignore that BABIP.

* If Hernandez's 17 unearned runs actually counted against his ERA, it would be 3.07 rather than 2.39 ... and we might not even be having this conversation.

At the end of the day, though, I think this clearly demonstrates that the ongoing debate about the AL Cy Young award is misguided -- it shouldn't be "CC vs Felix," it should be "Felix vs Liriano." And I'm surprised that the entire statistical community has jumped onto the King Felix Bandwagon. Dave Cameron takes a jab at said community:

I would be tempted to chalk this up to the power of the narrative, where people were voting for Sabathia because the media has kept him at the forefront of the discussion, but we see this same rejection of DIPS theory in the vote totals for Hernandez, Liriano, and Lee. Even though you’re spending your Friday afternoon reading FanGraphs, most of you guys still seem to vote along the lines of innings and ERA. To me, that’s interesting.

I don't want to guess at the motivations of the mob -- whenever I try that, I'm always way off. Still, I wonder if the issue is that people saw a good pitcher with an 11-11 record and decided it was more important to reject Wins as a meaningful stat than to actually use more meaningful stats to embrace excellence.

But if you ask me, I think King Felix's crown belongs to Francisco Liriano.



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Published

13 September 2010

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