Thursday, November 04, 2010

Sports Old-Fogeyism Part I: Is It Time to Retire the Cy Young Award?

The timing of this question is lousy given that the recently concluded playoffs and World Series were dominated by outstanding pitching performances, but the idea for this article occurred to me about a month ago as the regular season was winding down, and I am just getting to it now. It was inspired by the circumstance that Felix Hernandez, with a won-lost record of 13-12, was widely being touted as the best candidate for the award in the American League; and this following upon last years' winners, who had 15 and 16 wins respectively. These victories are the union of the triumph of the revolution in statistical analysis and understanding that has developed over the last 25 years with the changing role of pitchers in the context of an individual game, or a season. It is more the latter than the former that leads me to think that the spirit of the Cy Young Award may have been compromised, though both have contributed to a degree.

By almost any system of statistical comparison you care to use--even the antediluvian pitching categories of the 1969-era Baseball Encyclopedia--Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League this year by a pretty comfortable margin. This both surprised and impressed me. He led the league in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched, and was among the leaders in a couple of other basic measurements (complete games, fewest hits and most strikeouts per 9 innings). Despite this, he only managed to be credited with 13 wins. It is well reported that his run support was very poor--indeed his team was the weakest offensive outfit, in terms of runs scored, over a full season since the 1970s (or at least they were on pace for that distinction with a few weeks left in the season; I'm not sure whether they made it or not). He did throw 6 complete games and 249 2/3 innings, which are a lot for anybody in today's game, and especially for a 24-year old--he was given as much of a chance to earn wins as anybody is likely to get in 2010--and even I understand that things like official wins and complete games are not in themselves especially important indicators of current or future value in evaluating pitchers in today's game. So what argument do I have against his selection, especially in the absence of any other standout candidates by either traditional or new age measures?

Major sporting awards and honors, and the manner in which they were won, especially it seems in baseball but also in other sports such as the Heisman Trophy and all-American teams in basketball, and even the winners of major tournaments in golf and tennis, come over time to be emblematic symbols of their particular years, and park of the ensuing mythology which the various games feed on for generations afterwards. There is often a heroic or awesome aspect to the character of the feats honored (in the context of the game) even beyond the de rigueur outstanding statistics. Sandy Koufax won four 1-0 games in one of his Cy Young seasons, and over a three or four year span had a winning record when getting 0, 1, or 2 runs in support(granted, it was something like 14-13, but still). Steve Carlton in 1972, pitching for a terrible team that won 59 games the whole season, went 27-10 with 30 complete games, and won 15 games in a row at one point. Even within my memory Orel Hershiser in 1988 closed out the season with a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, all complete games except the last, in which he pitched 10 shutout innings to break the old record of 58 2/3. Felix Hernandez's season is perhaps emblematic of where the sport is today, and he is undoubtedly an excellent pitcher, but does he merit being honored as the top pitcher in the league for pitching well but only winning 13 games?

Surely part of having a truly great season as a pitcher is outpitching the guy matched up against you to the point of victory in at least half your starts. While complete games were probably overvalued through most of baseball history, I think they are perhaps undervalued now. The game lasts nine innings, longer if tied. The inability of almost all pitchers to regularly pitch a full game even when the score is close and they are by far the best pitcher on their team is a serious flaw in the modern game. When Three Finger Brown and Christy Mathewson, or Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, or Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal took the hill against each other, nobody said, give us seven innings and we'll turn it over to our situational relievers to decide the game. The emotional investment and interest in most games is simply not the same once the ball is handed off to a parade of nonentities.

That said, the top starters still do enough work and have enough direct impact on pennant races by historical standards to merit a major award given in their name at the end of the year. There are very few pitchers of this caliber remaining in the two leagues combined however.

Political Commentary

I find contemporary politics to be another in the long line of subjects that I am finding it difficult to become "well-informed" about, though I certainly try to expose myself to many opinions and even the occasional fact with regard to it. Though I never vote for Republicans primarily because I find that which strikes me as rotten about them to be more troublesome and destructive than the myriad things that are rotten about Democrats, I am not an unshakable true believer in either of the predominant sides and it causes me a great deal of concern to find various positions of both sides of the fence that strike me as at least reasonable to be so imperiously denounced as evil, or stupid, or malicious in their intent to destroy society. One feels yet again that something is seriously wrong with him not to comprehend what is evidently clear to myriad people of sound intelligence and the capacity for logical thought. How has this state come about, and what can one possibly do about it?

A lot of people on the "blue" side were apparently shocked by the election results. I was under the impression that it had been obvious for months that this was going to happen, and was actually surprised that the Dems managed to hold 53 senate seats. One thing that caught me off guard was the wipeout the Democrats suffered in my own state, losing both seats in Congress and having their senatorial candidate get slaughtered by 61%-36%. Official unemployment is only around 5.5% here, the state finances are in pretty good shape compared to just about everywhere else, immigration is essentially a non-issue, the schools are usually rated in the top 3 or 4 states in the country--not that they are on the level of the German gymnasiums circa 1910, or actually good at all, but they are evidently not the apocalypse-summoning disasters that the majority of our state school systems are. People in New Hampshire hate taxes, and apparently were convinced by the arguments that the Democrats have a master plan to tax them, and all productive economic activity, out of prosperity forever, though unless I have missed something I don't believe there have been any significant tax increases enacted under the Obama regime.

I admit I do not trust business interests, once given the free rein which they are increasingly demanding, to pursue ends which are broadly and substantially beneficial to the mass of the people. One thing that was harped on repeatedly in this election cycle was that business must be unshackled--from taxes, regulations, health care costs, pension commitments, and so on (dictating by the way that the government itself cannot pick up the slack in any of these areas either)--and that enacting such policies is the only hope for any kind of broad recovery. The business element, and to a lesser extent various other high-status professional elements, constitute a troublesome entitled class of their own, the entitlement being the right to a certain level of income when there is no source of money in the broader society to support those incomes. Real estate, health care, banking obviously, higher education, all are still grossly overpriced comparative to the overall societal ability to maintain them financially, and the people at or near the top of these pyramids--rather incredibly to my mind--seem not to realize this and to take the lead in adjusting their own compensation downward. The approach right now seems to be in the direction of telling 90% of the population that such are the going rates for these services, such will always be the going rates for these services, and that if they aren't prepared to pay up, they will have to forego access to them. This attitude will be political suicide within 10 years--I can't believe it isn't already--and new models, probably much more blatantly socialistic than the right's worst nightmares today, as an increasingly old population on the one hand, and a younger one that has endured a decade or more of steadily increasing impoverishment and limited opportunities for economic self-sufficiency as it set out to make its way in life demands political action in these areas.

That is my loose perception of what is going to happen. The right wing models have no chance of working for the mass of the people--a people that is in preciptitous decline on many fronts as a strong and civilized polity, not merely financially--as long as they are beholden first and foremost to corporate greed and the maintenance and enhancement of the already privileged. And yes, the establishment Democratic party is beholden to many of these same interests, but to me there is at least some hope of eventual disattachment from this position because blind worship of capitalism at any cost is not an absolute a priori requirement for membership in its ranks.

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