Are Chapman and Kimbrel Cy Young Contenders?

Last night, on the Sunday Night Baseball telecast of the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets, announcer Dan Shulman facilitated a discussion surrounding relievers and the Cy Young Award.

Quite simply, should Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel be considered legitimate candidates for the NL Cy Young Award this season?

Relievers possess a difficult time making noise in the Cy Young Award voting because they do not throw nearly as many innings as starting pitchers. Fewer innings equal fewer opportunities to make an impact and provide value to one’s baseball team. This sentiment was largely echoed by Orel Hershiser and Buster Olney on the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast.

The topic of relievers and the Cy Young Award seems to surface annually. This season, however, the conversation has become more earnest because Chapman and Kimbrel are compiling video game numbers on the mound. Just look at how dominant both have been for their respective teams, prior to Sunday’s games:

Pitcher IP ERA FIP FIP- K/9 BB/9
Aroldis Chapman 56.0 1.29 1.00 26 16.88 2.25
Craig Kimbrel 43.0 1.26 0.97 26 15.70 2.30

Chapman is currently on pace to set a single-season record for most strikeouts per nine innings (min. 50 IP), while Kimbrel owns a FIP under 1.00. To put that in perspective, the lowest FIP last season (again, min. 50 IP) was 1.52 — which also belonged to Kimbrel.

The two relievers are enjoying extraordinary seasons on the mound. However, the issue that relievers pitch too few innings to warrant being the most valuable player throughout an entire season does not suddenly become moot due to the fact that Chapman and Kimbrel are redefining the term “dominance” for a relief pitcher.

If we look at WPA, though, the notion that relievers do not pitch enough innings to have a greater overall impact than starting pitchers becomes more muddled. Prior to Sunday’s games, four of the top five WPAs amongst pitchers are relievers — two of which are Chapman and Kimbrel.

Pitcher WPA
Kyle Lohse 2.99
Huston Street 2.61
Craig Kimbrel 2.56
Joel Hanrahan 2.39
Aroldis Chapman 2.36
Johnny Cueto 2.25
Steve Cishek 2.17
Ryan Vogelsong 2.01
Jordan Zimmermann 1.89
Mike Fiers 1.82

As Tangotiger mentions four years ago, WPA captures “the quantification of your feelings as the game unfolds, assigned to the players involved.” Thus, it feels as if Chapman and Kimbrel have contributed more toward their respective team’s wins than Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez, and various other starting pitchers who are currently thought to lead the National League Cy Young Award race.

WPA can be misleading, though. Since Chapman and Kimbrel (along with the other relievers listed above) largely pitch the final inning, their performances are naturally going to impact win expectancy more heavily than starting pitchers, who work in earlier innings, when individual outs do not carry as much weight.

Perhaps we should then look at something more accurately connected with talent evaluation. How do Chapman and Kimbrel rank in comparison to starting pitchers in terms of wins above replacement?

Pitcher WAR
R.A. Dickey 4.1
Gio Gonzalez 4.1
Clayton Kershaw 3.9
Johnny Cueto 3.9
Stephen Strasburg 3.8
Zack Greinke 3.8
Josh Johnson 3.5
Adam Wainwright 3.4
Wade Miley 3.3
Aroldis Chapman 3.1

Chapman sneaks in the Top 10, while Kimbrel checks in at #23 with +2.3 WAR through his 43.0 innings of work.

This WAR list more accurately reflects what has been said for years. Starters are simply more valuable than relievers due to the fact that they see more innings, face more batters, and need to have a more diverse skill set to remain effective for multiple innings.

Still, the fact that Aroldis Chapman even appears in the Top 10 WAR list is noteworthy. Last season, Kimbrel posted the highest WAR amongst relievers. He was worth +3.2 wins in 2011. Aroldis Chapman has already compiled +3.1 WAR with a month and a half remaining in the season. Only nine starters in the National League have been more valuable than Chapman, and the left-hander has only thrown 56.0 innings this season. That’s ridiculous.

Legitimate arguments can be made for Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel to be legitimately included in the NL Cy Young Award race this season. They have contributed more toward their respective team’s win expectancy than every single starter not named Kyle Lohse, and Chapman’s name sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the pitching WAR leaders in the National League.

The question then becomes what one believes the Cy Young Award to truly represent. Does it represent the pitcher with the best statistics, or does it represent the most talented pitcher in terms of physical tools and dominance on the mound?

If it’s the former, Chapman and Kimbrel should absolutely be included in the Cy Young discussion. Their numbers are simply extraordinary, and few arguments can be made against that assertion.

If it’s the latter, however, the question becomes much more subjective. ESPN’s Orel Hershiser opined on Sunday evening that two or three starting pitchers on every starting staff could be closers. Would the numbers Chapman and Kimbrel are posting this season appear so utterly dominant and awe-inspiring if Clayton Kershaw transitioned to the closer’s role? How about Stephen Strasburg? How about someone more under-the-radar, such as James McDonald?

The season John Smoltz put together in 2003 is a solid example of what a top-of-the-rotation starter can do in the bullpen as a closer. He compiled a 1.12 ERA and 1.54 FIP in 64.1 innings. In the three years he served solely as the Braves’ closer, he never posted a FIP above 2.72, and his 10.21 K/9 strikeout rate in 2003 was far above his 7.99 K/9 career average. As one would imagine, during a single inning late in the game, his stuff played up in the bullpen.

Comparing starters to relievers on a one-to-one basis in a single season and simply asking which is more talented as a pitcher is difficult because the roles are vastly different. Starters cannot give max effort every single inning. They also pay more attention to pitch sequencing and how to set up hitters for later at-bats in the same game. Relievers, on the other hand, max out their stuff in one inning. They do not need three pitches. Their approach on the mound is not as nuanced in terms of sequencing and setting up opposing batters for later at-bats.

Once again, if the Cy Young Award will simply be based upon the statistics compiled throughout the season, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel should be in the discussion. Statistics may not make up every piece of the Cy Young puzzle, though, and if that’s the case, Chapman and Kimbrel will have much more ground to make up on the starting pitchers in the National League.

J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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10 years ago

I’m not sure what you mean when you say “the pitcher with the best statistics”. You seem to mean the pitcher with the best “rate statistics”. I would consider IP to be a statistic, but it’s definitely not one that supports the case for closers being considered for the Cy Young award.

I disagree with saying dominance and physical tools support the case for only starters winning the Cy Young. I think if you look at physical tools, Chapman would be among the most gifted along with maybe Strasburg and Kershaw for example. But Kershaw and Strasburg need to harness more than just physical tools, but also sequencing and learning more pitches.

10 years ago
Reply to  drewcorb

I agree. It’s hard to argue that anybody that gets 200 outs a year and doesn’t face most hitters more than 3 or 4 times a year is “better” than everybody who gets 600 outs a year and has to face each hitter 3 or 4 times a game.

10 years ago
Reply to  drewcorb

I agree, author’s distinct between “stats” and “talent” is confusing. His distinct between between value and dominance is the better one. That’s the real question for Cy Young voters (or at least it should be) in deciding whether or not a reliever is worthy.