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It’s AL Cy Young day: Let’s get ready to rumble

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A lot of us went nutso with our Felix Hernandez vs. CC Sabathia vs. David Price Cy Young arguments back in September. Then the playoffs happened and we got distracted for a while. But today, at 2PM Eastern, the Baseball Writers Association of America is going to name the winner of the AL Cy Young Award, and the argument will be reinvigorated.

Viva chaos!

For those of you who are sane and didn’t obsess on all of this a couple of months ago, here’s the tale of the tape:

  • Felix Hernandez:  He led the league in ERA and innings pitched, held opponents to a league-low batting average, finished second with 232 strikeouts and third with six shutouts. Many more sophisticated pitching metrics also favor Hernandez over all other American League starters. Because the Mariners had the worst offense since the advent of the Designated Hitter, however, Hernandez had the worst run support in the American League and ended up winning only 13 games.
  • CC Sabathia: Finished behind Hernandez in every significant pitching category except one — wins — in which he led the league with 21. In contrast to Hernandez, Sabathia enjoyed more run support than nearly every other pitcher in the American League.
  • David Price: Like Sabathia, Price was inferior to Hernandez in every important statistical category other than wins. Price also had fewer innings and wins than Sabathia, but had a better ERA and a slightly better strikeout rate. He allowed virtually the same number of baserunners per inning as Sabathia. He too enjoyed far better run support than did Hernandez.

While the debate about which of these gentlemen should win the award has been protayed as a battle between stat geeks and traditionalists with all of the usual name-calling that entails, there haven’t been many people making complex statistical arguments in Hernandez’s favor.  That is, unless you consider ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched and run support to be complex statistics.  Which would be ridiculous, frankly, because those are statistics even the most crusty of old school writers are quite capable of understanding and using, and they do so often.

But not here. In this case, those who don’t support Felix Hernandez have abandoned even those measures they typically use to judge a pitcher’s merits, and have focused on a single metric: wins.  As in, CC Sabathia and David Price have more, ergo they’re the better pitchers. As in, even if we all agree that Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher this year, he only had 13 wins, and you can’t win a Cy Young with 13 wins, can you?  Such arguments, while highly annoying to me on the level of analysis, are quite amusing to me on another level: it’s usually the traditionalists who deride the sabermetric guys for focusing on a single statistic and claiming that it settles all arguments. Here they’re the ones doing it. How delicious.

But for all of the vitriol that has been exchanged in the run-up to this award — and will continue to be exchanged after the winner is announced — I have this gut feeling that the actual voting results won’t be terribly close or controversial.  The loudest and most idiotic voices in this debate are not actually voting on it.  And among those in the know, there is a sense that the real voters actually favor Hernandez.  I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he wins it relatively comfortably.

But no matter who wins, I predict a 99.3% likelihood of partisans on both sides of the debate saying ridiculous things afterward, and that will totally make it worth it.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.