Felix Hernandez deserved to win the Cy Young Award for the second time Wednesday, and it’s a surprise he didn’t.
Through the first five-and-a-half months of the six-month season, the Seattle Mariners’ ace was regarded as league’s best pitcher. He put together what amounted to a career year, which is saying something.
If you’re a Mariners fan who watched Hernandez at the top of his game, there’s a temptation to be outraged at the results: 17 first-place votes for Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, 13 first-place votes for King Felix.
To borrow the words John McEnroe used to bellow after unfavorable judgments on the tennis court: You cannot be serious.
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Turns out 17 voters were very serious about Kluber, whose statistics — both traditional and advanced — essentially matched those of Hernandez. The Indians’ ace is the real deal. Giving him the Cy Young trophy was not as farcical as, say, the five Grammy Awards won by Christopher Cross in 1981, or the 1980 Oscar that went to “Ordinary People,” an ordinary movie, instead of “Raging Bull,” an extraordinary movie.
Full disclosure: I had the privilege of participating in the Cy Young Award election and was among the 13 baseball writers who cast a first-place vote for Hernandez. I put Kluber at No. 2, but while evaluating his numbers, I figured it would be a photo finish.
A few things worked against Hernandez.
• Remember that 2010 Cy Young Award he won after finishing 13-12? For the first time, voters looked beyond a pitcher’s won-loss record, delving into specifics unrelated to his offensively challenged teammates. It was regarded as a breakthrough for advanced stats, but not without backlash.
I haven’t talked with any other voters about this, but I suspect some of them filled out their ballot believing that Felix got the benefit of the doubt four years ago, and in 2014, it was time to give somebody else the benefit of the doubt.
• Cleveland’s shabby defense — the Tribe led the league in errors — actually helped Kluber in the Cy Young race. The narrative went like this: Kluber was victimized by clods at every position, clowns to the left of him, jokers to the right.
Hernandez, on the other hand, was seen as the beneficiary of a superior supporting cast.
• The second half of the season, and more to the point, its home stretch. Kluber went 11-3 in his final 16 starts, and was dominant in his last five. On Sept. 16, he struck out 14 Astros batters. On Sept. 21, he struck out 14 Twins batters. On Sept. 26, he struck out 11 Rays batters.
All those strikeouts contributed into victories — he ended up with 18, leading the league — while the dependably durable Hernandez was dealing with an empty tank.
The Cy Young race abruptly turned in Toronto on Sept. 23, when Hernandez took a 2-1 lead into the fifth inning and gave up a leadoff home run to Dalton Pompey. Anthony Gose followed with a double, and when Josh Thole put down a sacrifice bunt in front of home plate, the wheels came off. Hernandez’s hurried throw to first base sailed on him, and the Blue Jays ended up batting around and scoring seven runs.
A few days later, Thole’s bunt, originally scored as a hit, was changed to an error, thanks to some persuasion by the Mariners. The scorebook clarification improved Hernandez’s ERA from 2.34 to 2.18, but it also invited voters to be cynical about the statistical adjustment.
Crazy, isn’t it? Starting pitchers report to spring training in February, and work every fifth day until October. Over the course of that marathon, Felix Hernandez failed to survive through the fifth inning only once, when he butchered a play on a sacrifice bunt at Toronto.
If Hernandez picks up the ball and throws it on target to first base, if the Mariners stop the bleeding then and there, he’s the 2014 Cy Young Award winner.
But he didn’t, and he isn’t, and the refrain is both sad and beautiful.
Wait till next year.