It's been a big year for sabermetrics. After years of being mocked by much of the baseball media, the word appears in the dictionary, it means statistical analysis for baseball for those still in the dark, which is a pretty good sign that it has gained traction in the mainstream. And now Zach Greinke of the Kansas City Royals has won the American League Cy Young Award even though he had fewer wins (GASP!) than Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners.
That vote is being hailed as a giant leap for the way baseball is digested by the group that spent so much time making fun of advanced metrics. Joe Posnanski's take is not the only one, but the excellent Sports Illustrated baseball writer does a good job of setting Greinke's win against a backdrop of past votes that credited the wrong things when analyzing pitcher performance. The idea has also gotten a boost by Greinke's own admission that he follows stats like FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching, i.e. things a pitcher can control outside of his defenders) more than the more traditional ERA.
There's no doubt that Greinke's win represents some kind of step forward. He and Hernandez had superficially similar numbers in the well-known statistical categories, but in the deeper analysis it was clear that Greinke was the best pitcher in the AL. Seeing these numbers used by a wider audience is both gratifying after hearing so many dumb taunts thrown in the direction of those of us who find that they make baseball a more interesting game.
Crediting only that for Greinke's win is definitely a feather in a sabermatrician's cap, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Greinke and Hernandez had similar numbers in the "traditional" stats, but Greinke was better in all of them except for wins. You didn't need a microscope to see he was a better pitcher in 2009, although one helped to see just how much of a better pitcher he was while pitching for a dreadful team.
Still, if Hernandez had pitched for a team in a pennant race or a team that ran away with a playoff spot, it's pretty likely that those wins would have played a bigger role in the final reckoning. We'll never know for sure, obviously, but that wasn't the only intangible Greinke had in his favor.
Greinke missed almost the entire 2006 season while undergoing treatment for an anxiety disorder, something which gives him an interesting backstory. Posnanski doesn't mention this in his post about Greinke's win, which is a bit odd since it was a big part of the story he wrote that landed on SI's cover in May. It's a heartwarming story that's worth a lot more than an edge of three wins, and that cover story was part of a barrage of exposure for Greinke early in the baseball season. He wasn't flying under any kind of radar or some undiscovered gem because you'd have to be under a rock to not know how well he was pitching.
Perhaps it's overly cynical to think that the same writers who have lampooned a more analytical approach to baseball performance would suddenly come around. There's something funny about people who would have complained about focusing only on wins celebrating by focusing only on wins, though. Greinke had a lot going for him beyond sabermetrics.
The voters made the right choice, whatever the reason for their votes, and that's something worthy of celebration for all baseball fans. It may still be soon to say that there's a new flag flying over baseball, however.