A Cy Young Reliever Should Be Almost Impossible

I love Zach Britton. I loved him even when he was a failure. I love his numbers, and I love his approach. I love trying to find other pitchers who might have some prayer of becoming the next version of Britton himself. It’s because of Zach Britton that I’m so interested in Blake Treinen! Britton has turned into something amazing, and this has been a particularly phenomenal season. I have a note written right here to compare Zach Britton and Mariano Rivera, and I’ve held off on pursuing that because it feels insane, even while at the same time it doesn’t. One pitch, here it comes. You’re a hitter, and you’re screwed.

Britton is as good as a closer gets, and he’s a huge, huge reason why the Orioles are where they are, even despite spending most of the year without a starting rotation. Britton might be the most valuable Oriole. He might be the most valuable…more than that. I just want to make absolutely sure that you understand how big a fan I am. It doesn’t get much better than watching Zach Britton pitch. He’s overwhelming in a different way from how, say, Aroldis Chapman is overwhelming. Much credit to him. I can’t support him as a Cy Young Award candidate.

This conversation has taken off lately, fueled in part by Britton, fueled in part by a relatively lackluster American League pitching class, and fueled in part by the post-deadline writer blues. As is always the case, because we’re talking about an award, this isn’t really all that important. And my own perspective is even less important, since I’m not a voter. I just feel like I should weigh in, since I might be the biggest Britton fan we have on staff. Britton is a lockdown closer. The way I see it, that doesn’t make him a strong Cy Young contender. A reliever being a strong Cy Young contender might be almost impossible.

To make the case for Britton, or any reliever, you have to talk about how important every inning is. It’s actually the whole argument, in a way — everything comes down to the context of the job. Britton has a gigantic WPA right now, because he pitches almost exclusively in high-leverage situations. Sure, he doesn’t have a starter’s workload, but when you fold leverage in, the gap narrows considerably. Britton has thrown 50 innings. Corey Kluber, say, has thrown 157. But Britton has an average plate-appearance leverage of 1.83, while Kluber comes in at 0.82. You could interpret that to mean Britton has thrown 91.5 “effective” innings, while Kluber’s at 128.7. Not so far now!

I don’t have a problem with the general thinking. I don’t have a problem with the math. I just disagree about what this is addressing. When you talk about situational context, you’re really talking about value. And you know how complicated that word can be, thanks to that other, even higher-profile award. There’s disagreement about the MVP every single season because there’s disagreement over how to define that critical middle word. If the Most Valuable Player Award were instead the Best Player Award, the conversations would be simpler. Importantly, to bring this back to the Cy Young — the word “value” doesn’t show up anywhere, in any form.

When you run an Internet search, you find that the Cy Young is supposed to go to the best pitcher. I asked Dave, since he was an NL Cy Young voter last season. He told me he was given zero criteria. He was just supposed to fill in some blanks. Perhaps we can get some guidance from the award itself? Here’s one from 2014:


That reads “The Outstanding American League Pitcher.” That’s “outstanding,” not “most valuable.” I couldn’t find a good picture of a 2015 award, but as blurry as this is, I make out the same words:


Again, presumably, “The Outstanding American League Pitcher.” What is interesting is that the award didn’t always read this way. Let’s go back a while:


“Most Valuable Pitcher.” But times have changed. The award itself has changed. I don’t know exactly why or exactly when, but I can’t imagine this was an accident. The physical award has gotten rid of the word “valuable,” and if that can serve as our guidance, then it should follow that for relievers, the bar is almost impossibly high.

“Outstanding” can be taken as a synonym of “best,” and while you could go with one literal interpretation to justify giving the NL award to someone like Alfredo Simon, we know that’s not how it’s meant. Now, absolutely, an effective reliever can be a league’s most outstanding per-inning pitcher. Zach Britton is probably the AL’s best per-inning pitcher. But when you talk about “best,” you strip away the context, the context that makes most of Britton’s whole case. What you’re left with are results and innings totals, and an understanding that in almost every single case, a relief pitcher is a failed starting pitcher.

It’s not that relievers are officially ineligible. But the award goes to the most outstanding pitcher, even though the category of “pitcher” has two subgroups. There are starters and there are relievers, and they have almost completely different roles. Starters throw five or six or seven innings. They pace themselves. They throw three or four pitches. They face guys multiple times. Relievers go at 100% for three hitters a game. Sometimes they’ll go up against five or six. You know all the differences. This isn’t a new conversation. You know that, statistically, just about every converted starter has more success in relief. Relieving is both super hard, and way, way easier.

On the position-player side, designated hitters get docked with a big penalty in the WAR formula, because it’s been determined they can’t help anywhere else. They don’t do a center fielder’s job. They don’t do a first baseman’s job. They’re assigned to do less. Relievers are a little like a pitching version of a DH, only instead of not doing a small fraction of the job of a starter, they don’t do the bulk of it. The Cy Young Award asks us to get starters and relievers on the same level. In theory we’d have to translate some numbers, either turning all starters into hypothetical relievers, or all relievers into hypothetical starters. Now this is just a thought exercise but if you were to imagine an excellent reliever as a starter, I doubt you’d have a No. 1. Because somewhere along the line the reliever was put in the bullpen in the first place.

I wouldn’t want to rule relievers out entirely. I’m open to other arguments. This particular argument actually just crystallized for me over the weekend, so it’s new to my brain. But I can’t get past two points. One, the Cy Young Award doesn’t say anything about “value.” And two, pretty much every single good reliever is a failed starter. Given those two statements, I don’t know how I could vote for Britton, even in a somewhat underwhelming AL candidate field. He’s as good as it gets in the ninth. The best pitchers get to hand the ball off, not receive it.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Pretty Tonymember
5 years ago

1. Can’t we just make a new award for relievers? Keep the Cy Young and then create the Mo Rivera or some shit. These guys deserve to be recognized (and paid in arb).

2. Wouldn’t Sale or Syndergaard or Fernandez each be incredibly dominant relievers if they were asked to pitch one inning a game? The idea that the vast, vast majority of relievers are failed starters should be a major factor, as you said.

3. Looking at Rivera’s numbers, he only had K/9 >10 once (his first year as a reliever) and only had a gb rate higher than 60% once. Meanwhile, Britton is at 10.62 K/9 and 80% (!!!) gb rate this year (next highest in MLB is ya boy Blake Treinen at 65%).

5 years ago
Reply to  Pretty Tony

There is an award for a relievers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have quite the same history of the Cy Young. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_League_Baseball_Reliever_of_the_Year_Award

5 years ago
Reply to  Daniel

To expand on Treggey’s point, naming it after Mariano Rivera may help give the award a bit more hype than it currently has.

5 years ago
Reply to  Ghostofmeek

The AL reliever award is named after Rivera. NL is named after Hoffman.

London Yank
5 years ago
Reply to  Pretty Tony

Mariano Rivera pitched in a much different offensive environment. A straight comparison of rates is misleading.