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On Jose Fernandez and The 2016 Cy Young

You all know what happened this past Sunday. One of my — and the game’s — favorite players died. Selfishly, I was upset. I never knew the guy, and my team, the Atlanta Braves, had recently thrown at his head. But now he’s gone. He leaves behind a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten — Dave Cameron can’t wait to tell his children about Jose Fernandez, and the Marlins are going to retire his number so that little kids who attend games will forever ask their parents about Number 16 — but I think Max Frankel summed it up perfectly on Sunday: this sucks.

A few days have passed and baseball had its Jose Fernandez wake on Monday, and Dee Gordon hit the most important and magical home run of his life. But I still feel like Jose Fernandez is around. I am not going to try to do any sort of tribute article; I simply would not do a good job if I tried. Someone a year younger than me dying leaves me a bit scatterbrained.

Instead, I’ll try and write a baseball article, which I think will be difficult and awkward, but necessary. The realization crept into my head today that Jose Fernandez is going to appear on Cy Young ballots. The voters list their top three pitchers and Fernandez leads the Majors in fWAR, is second in strikeouts, and while he sits eighth in ERA, he actually leads the league in the two primary ERA predictors, FIP and xFIP. He was among the top handful of starting pitchers in the game in his first real season back from Tommy John.

Now, human voters, likely struggling through the same feelings I am, are going to be forced to wrestle with Fernandez’s place on the ballot.

If he were markedly better than his comrades, it would be an easy decision to honor him posthumously as the National League’s best pitcher. But it’s a great class again, and tragedy aside, it would still be a nail-biter of a vote.

So the voters are faced with an uncomfortable question: does symbolism have a place in Cy Young voting? If a writer felt that Fernandez had the second-best 2016, does he get a nod to the top in deference to the legacy?

I don’t know. I don’t know what I think. I think I know how I feel.

I feel that Fernandez deserves all the recognition. I’m not sure if it’s possible to separate Fernandez’s story from the Cy Young vote. Everyone’s story plays a role in awards voting — it’s just usually a subtext rather than a centerpiece. Fernandez’s story was already part of what made him so special. Were he alive, that story — his recovery from TJ surgery, and of course the accompanying charisma — would have played a meaningful role in the voting.

But now the “story” is a tragic centerpiece, not the subtext. Writers will have to grapple with that as they consider Fernandez’s candidacy alongside Max Scherzer’s dominance, and Clayton Kershaw’s perseverance.

In some way, Fernandez’s 2016 season deserves to be celebrated. It’s a situation that is sure to make for a somber and uncomfortable awards dinner. There will be someone missing no matter how the voting plays out.

One idea that keeps floating to the fore is a “Jose Fernandez Award.” It seems to make all the sense in the world and could help voters decouple their desire to honor the man from the sanctity of the Cy Young. But maybe the Cy Young isn’t some sacred award to be bestowed only upon the very best pitcher by given concrete metrics. No. The nuances and reasoning behind voting for a given player are subjective. Baseball, and particularly baseball voting, have a way of reflecting the circumstances of a particular year. Jose Fernandez’s story is now linked to this particular year.

So let’s give him the Cy Young. Let’s make an award in his honor, too. Who is really going to complain about that?