In 2010, the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez won an unprecedented Cy Young Award.
It wasn’t unprecedented in the sense that he didn’t deserve it, but because he had a win-loss record of 13-12. Hernandez was deemed the best pitcher in the American League despite being tied for 18th in the league in wins and tied for 24th among qualifiers in winning percentage.
Pitching for a dreadful team on which the rest of the staff went 48-89, Hernandez was a $100 million yacht floating atop a sea of mediocrity. And the fact that he led the league with a 2.27 ERA gave voters license to violate all previous notions about what constitutes a Cy Young Award winner — namely, a lot of wins.
But here’s the question: Would he have won the award if baseball rightly judged pitchers by runs allowed rather than earned runs? Hernandez that season allowed an inordinate number of unearned runs — 17 runs, equalling 21 percent of his total.
Across the major leagues in 2010, 7.9 percent of runs were judged to be unearned. And if AL pitchers were ranked by all runs allowed, Hernandez would have finished second in the league with 2.88 runs per nine innings, behind the 2.85 by Boston’s Clay Buchholz.
It’s a small difference, but it certainly would have been enough to cost Hernandez the Cy Young Award. And it brings us to the point of this column: Baseball should do away with the notion of “earned” runs.
It’s an antiquated idea, really, one that goes back to the days when teams played on poorly groomed diamonds, baseballs became muddy and misshapen throughout the game, and fielders might as well have been wearing pillows on their hands.
In the 1912 National League, the first league to use ERA as an official statistic, teams averaged nearly two errors a game, and 27 percent of all runs were determined to be unearned.
These days, teams average about 0.6 errors per game, making ERA more deceptive than it is helpful.
Consider the start that Hernandez had in Cleveland on Aug. 15 of that 2010 season. In the seventh inning, he got a flyout and a groundout before a batter reached on an error. It then went single, single, double, intentional walk, grand slam. Hernandez was charged with a loss, but his ERA was absolved of any earned runs. Six runs, and none of them were earned.
The justification for calling those runs unearned is that Hernandez would have been out of the inning if not for the error. That allowed him to face the likes of Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner with no risk to his ERA.
Hernandez obviously isn’t the only pitcher to benefit from the way earned runs are calculated.
Let’s say that a hurler in 2013 is facing the Tigers and Torii Hunter reaches on a two-out error. The pitcher then gets to face Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder without endangering his ERA. Even if both of them hit homers — which should be pinned on the pitcher — those runs will be unearned.
Once upon a time, the notion of unearned runs was a fair and noble idea. In the aforementioned 1912 National League, Jeff Tesreau of the Giants allowed 3.33 runs per nine innings — but led the league with a 1.96 ERA.
Figured retroactively, Cy Young for his career had an UERA (unearned run average) of 1.25 — well over one unearned run per nine innings.
So as we ponder the issue of unearned runs, maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe it shouldn’t be whether Felix Hernandez would have won the Cy Young Award, but rather who would the award have been named after?