Earlier this week, ESPN’s Jayson Stark posted an interesting piece about Baltimore Orioles’ closer Zach Britton‘s chances of winning this year’s Cy Young award. The article was in the form of a debate between fellow ESPN’er Keith Law on the merits of relief pitchers being considered for the Cy Young award at season’s end.
Stark’s case this year has been for Zach Britton, who has arguably been the best closer in baseball this year. Stark’s stance, was that the BBWAA needs to stop overlooking relievers for the award, especially in a year when no starter is running away with the award, and since they don’t have an award of their own. Law was on the opposite end of the debate, citing that relief pitchers are mostly failed starting pitchers who don’t pitch enough innings to be more valuable than, say, a starter with a 4.00 ERA.
At first glance, Law’s views seem to be archaic. On the surface, it’s the type of view that comes from the old school baseball fan who still sees the save as a worthless statistic, and the modern-day closer a specialist a kin to a pinch hitter. One would think that the advanced metrics used to evaluate players nowadays would help the case of the closer, but in fact, it seems the opposite has become true, even as relievers have become more heavily relied upon in today’s game.
Since the Dodgers’ Mike Marshall became the first reliever to win the Cy Young in 1974, eight other relief pitchers have claimed the award. Sparky Lyle became the first American League reliever to win the award in 1977, followed by Bruce Sutter for the Cubs in 1979, Rollie Fingers for the Brewers in 1981, Willie Hernandez for the Tigers in 1984, Steve Bedrosian for the Phillies in 1987, Mark Davis for the Padres in 1989, Dennis Eckersley for the A’s in 1992, and Eric Gagne for the Dodgers in 2003.
Since Marshal in 1974, it wasn’t that uncommon to see a relief pitcher win the Cy Young award. Roughly every 3-5 years from 1974 -1992 saw a closer walk away with the award, with two of those guys, Hernandez in 1984 and Eckersley in 1992, also claiming the league MVP.
Since Eckersley’s remarkable 1992 campaign, however, only one closer, Eric Gange, who saved a record 84-consecutive games, has won the award. That was 13 years ago, and more than decade after Eckersley.
So what happened?
Anyone who watches baseball on a regular basis knows that relief pitching has become more important than ever in today’s game. For all of the talk of the save being a watered down stat, how many teams in recent memory have won without a quality closer? There have been plenty of teams to find success in spite of their hitting, like last years Mets, or their starting pitching, like the 2013 Red Sox, but not without a bullpen that can close out
games. Not in today’s game.
It’s not like there haven’t been plenty of deserving guys, either. Think about it, since Eckersley”s 1992 season, baseball witnessed the entire career of the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera. He never finished better than second for the award, and all he did was make 13 All-Star games, win five championships, and save a record 652 career games. Not to mention, he may have also had the greatest season of any set-up man ever, as an eighth inning guy in 1997. He finished third in the voting that year.
Today’s closers are proving to be just as dominant and deserving, and anyone who doesn’t think so, didn’t see what contending teams were willing to give up for relief pitchers at this year’s trade deadline, or how the Royals over came a suspect rotation by shortening the game with three elite arms on their way to a Championship last year.
So…again, what gives?
Well, believe it or not, sabermetrics may be partially to blame.
One of Law’s arguments against Zach Britton winning the Cy Young this year, was Dellin Betances‘ 2015 season. Last year, the newly anointed Yankees closer had a phenomenal campaign as a set-up man. In 84 innings, Betances pitched to a 1.50 ERA while recording a whopping 131 strikeouts. Those numbers are strikingly similar to Eric Gagne’s Cy Young winning season in 2003, in which the former Dodger’s closer pitched to a 1.20 ERA, striking out 137 batters in 82.1 innings. Law used the WAR stat to defend his argument, as Betances’s wins above replacement, or WAR, in 2015 was 24th amongst all pitchers. The 23 guys ahead of him were all starters, meaning that the most dominant reliever in baseball last year was no more valuable than a number three starter.
Using WAR, a guy like Jaime Garcia was more valuable than Betances, despite having a higher ERA, WHIP, and 34 fewer strikeouts in 45 more innings pitched. Betances was only slightly more valuable than Shelby Miller, who lost a league best 17 games, and Marco Estrada, who struck out the same number of batters as Betances in almost 100 more innings pitched. No disrespect to Estrada and Miller, but if I’m a GM, I’m taking Betances over both of those guys.
So where does that leave Zach Britton? Well, as of August 18, the Orioles closer was leading the American League in saves with 37, while striking out more than a batter per inning (59 whiffs in 50.1 innings pitched). His ERA of 0.54 would be the best of any reliever in history. He’s given up only three earned runs all season, and none since the calendar turned to May. He’s been the most valuable pitcher on the contending Orioles all season, yet his 3.1 WAR is worse than guys like Colby Lewis and Dan Straily.
To be fair, Britton has a better WAR than Jose Fernandez, so the misleading stat can work both ways. I’m not an old curmudgeon trying to bash today’s new aged metrics. I try to balance the right combination of old school stats, new metrics, and common sense. WAR is a great tool to use, but like any other stat it can be misleading. It’s the epitome of paralysis by analysis.
With no AL starter running away with the award, this may be the year a reliever ends the drought and wins it again. If that’s the case, no matter what new age metrics say, or how old school guys view the importance of the closer’s role, Zach Britton should become the first reliever in 13 years to win the Cy Young award.
Honestly, I always felt closers were more deserving of the MVP than the Cy Young, but that’s a debate for a different day.