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11/17/10 9:00 PM EST

AL Cy Young a choice between wins, stats

CC led league in victories; unlucky Felix had stellar numbers

The strengths and weaknesses of CC Sabathia's season or Felix Hernandez's year can set up a long argument, and not just in New York and Seattle. Add in the values of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who kept the Red Sox in contention longer than expected, and it's a discussion that could run until the American League Cy Young Award winner is announced on Nov. 18.

But the debate over this year's AL Cy Young Award pretty much comes down to this: How much do wins matter?

It was a similar debate a year ago, when Zack Greinke's dominance won out over his win totals. Greinke was awarded the Cy Young despite ranking seventh in the league in wins with 16. That was, though, only three fewer than the league leaders.

A year later, only the names are different, and the chasm in the debate much deeper. Playing the role of Greinke is Hernandez, the Mariners ace who held down opposing offenses for much of the season, but unfortunately received little run support as his own hitters were often stifled just as much as the opposition.

The result for Hernandez was a record of 13-12, the wins ranking 18th in the league and eight fewer than that of the leader, Sabathia.

But Hernandez not only led the American League with a 2.27 ERA and 249 2/3 innings, he came within a strikeout of taking two-thirds of the pitching Triple Crown.

The argument for Hernandez might well lie in more modern statistics. If you believe in the value of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) -- how many more wins a particular player is worth instead of a Triple-A or "4-A" player in his place -- then Hernandez might be your guy. Depending on how WAR is calculated, and there are a few different interpretations for pitchers, Hernandez either leads all AL pitchers or is in the top three. Buchholz is up there as well, as is Cliff Lee.

If you believe in wins -- not compared to replacement players or anyone, just pure, unadulterated wins -- then Sabathia, the AL's only 20-game winner, fits the category with 21 victories. If pitching for a playoff team matters, he's arguably the best pitcher fitting that category as well. He was New York's unquestioned ace and by far its most consistent starting pitcher, helping stabilize a rotation beset with injuries and poor performances by veterans.

How much does WAR reflect a pitcher's chances at the Cy Young Award? If you go by the formula used by baseball-reference.com, the last four Cy Young winners from both leagues all led their circuits in pitching WAR that year. But except for Greinke last year, all the AL winners also won at least 19 games.

It's an interesting debate, not just Hernandez vs. Sabathia, but among all the candidates.

Clay Buchholz, RHP, Red Sox (17-7, 2.33 ERA, 173 2/3 IP, 120 Ks)

The case for: The young righty had the third-lowest ERA in the Majors, 17 wins in 28 starts and just nine home runs allowed over 173 2/3 innings.
The case against: A stay on the disabled list cost him nearly a month and a possible chance at 20 wins, among other statistical feats.

* * *

Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (13-12, 2.27 ERA, 249 2/3 IP, 219 Ks)

The case for: Led the Majors in quality starts and ERA, second in innings pitched and strikeouts.
The case against: Went 13-12 and threw 14 wild pitches.

* * *

Cliff Lee, LHP, Rangers (12-9, 3.18 ERA, 212 1/3 IP, 185 Ks)

The case for: The lefty issued just 18 walks over 212 1/3 innings, went 8-3 for Seattle despite the miserable Mariners' offense before being dealt to Texas. He was 7-6 against teams with winning records.
The case against: He struggled in August en route to a 4-4 record and 3.98 ERA for the Rangers. Lee earned half his wins when his team scored six or more runs and tossed just 18 quality starts.

* * *

Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox (19-9, 3.25 ERA, 208 IP, 225 Ks)

The case for: The lefty tied for second in the AL in wins and was third in strikeouts. He went 5-1 in September to help keep the Red Sox in the race and went 6-1 against the Yankees and Rays.
The case against: Went 8-6 with a 3.89 ERA after the All-Star break and walked 83 batters over 208 innings.

* * *

David Price, LHP, Rays (19-6, 2.72 ERA, 208 2/3 IP, 188 Ks)

The case for: Price delivered the best pitching season in Rays history in just his second full big league campaign. He had a league-best .760 winning percentage, a 12-5 record against teams over .500 and a 4-0 record and 1.64 ERA in the final-month playoff drive.
The case against: Walked 79 batters over 208 2/3 innings, posted a 3.64 ERA and barely averaged six innings per start away from Tropicana Field.

* * *

CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees (21-7, 3.18 ERA, 237 2/3 IP, 197 Ks)

The case for: The big lefty led the AL in wins, was second in innings pitched and proved critical to the Yankees' chances in reaching the postseason in a tight AL East race.
The case against: Didn't really challenge for the league title in most other statistical categories and had an abundance of offensive support.

So what should mean more in a Cy Young Award argument? Are wins the most important category, or should voters look at the secondary stats and the more modern analysis -- factors that don't depend as much on a team's success? Debate away.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.