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THE HOT CORNER: The new knowledge debate

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THE HOT CORNER: The new knowledge debate

by Jim Allen (Nov 25, 2010)

Sometimes, a postseason award becomes a lightning rod, attracting an enormous amount of energy from advocates of one view or another. That happened last week when the American League's Cy Young Award went to Seattle right-hander "King" Felix Hernandez despite his pedestrian 13-12 record.

Apart from that win-loss record, Hernandez had a breathtaking season for the decrepit Mariners.

The case for Hernandez's Cy Young is that he more than held up his side of the bargain: leading the league in innings, strikeouts and ERA. His teammates, one could argue, hurt his cause by scoring fewer runs for him than for any AL starter and by blowing games after he was done.

Voters apparently believed Hernandez did more to help his own team win than 21-game winner CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees, a result famed sportswriter Murray Chass ( predicted but is unhappy with.

While acknowledging that King Felix is the best pitcher in his league, Chass said he shouldn't win the award this year, "not with 13 wins, whatever his other statistics, whatever his run support."

It is ironic that Chass bristles at what he calls the "metric takeover of baseball coverage." After all, he rejects Hernandez's qualification on account of a metric: pitcher's wins. His complaint is a cry of frustration that his favored statistic is now lost in an expanding universe of metrics.

Wins, of course, are significant, but that is only true for wins by teams or over the course of a pitcher's career.

Today's starting pitchers work infrequently and are typically relieved after seven innings. This means today's win totals cannot easily be compared to the norms of other eras.

A starting pitcher's performance is still the largest single factor in deciding who wins and loses any one game, but it is not the only factor. Games are also influenced by how well a team bats and fields, and how the ball bounces.

There is no way a pitcher deserves 100 percent of the credit for a win unless he strikes out 27 batters and homers to drive in the game's only run, and even then he has to have someone behind the plate who can catch swinging third strikes.

What we know more of now, and what Chass would have us speak less of, is that wins are created by lots of little contributions--many of which can be usefully discussed through careful analysis of available data, what Chass dismisses as "new-fangled statistics."

Proliferation of objective knowledge is a threat if one is a sportswriter accustomed to supporting arguments with cliches and decorating articles with whatever stats are at hand, meaningful or not.

For example, a colleague this summer dismissed the idea that Hideo Nomo's first few years in the majors were superior to Daisuke Matsuzaka's.

"How many World Series champions did Nomo play for?" he asked, knowing the answer is zero to Matsuzaka's one.

By that criteria, Matsuzaka would always be a better pitcher than Nomo because he gets extra credit for his teammates' accomplishments. Taking that argument to its extreme, one might claim Tsuyoshi Shinjo, So Taguchi and Tadahito Iguchi all had more successful major league careers than Ichiro Suzuki, by virtue of their having played for league champions.

Of course, anyone familiar with award voting in Japan knows this logical pitfall is the norm here. The exception is when players who did the most to deserve an award during the regular season actually win.

In that sense, this year's Central League's award winners proved exceptional. One can objectively argue that every winner, from MVP Kazuhiro Wada, to Rookie of the Year Hisayoshi Chono to every one of the CL's Best IX winners, was the best possible choice.

The Pacific League MVP award, however, was typical. SoftBank southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada (17-8 with a 3.14 ERA for the league champs) an MVP? Yu Darvish, who went 12-8 but threw 37 more innings with a 1.78 ERA, was vastly more deserving. Actually, Marines shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka would have been the best choice.

Give players some credit for playing on a winning team, but not to the extent that one ends up voting for second-rate candidates.

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