Zach Britton Could Have a Real Cy Young Case

“Does Zach Britton have a shot at the Cy Young this year?”

It’s a question I didn’t take seriously at first. It’s only happened once in the last 20 years, and Eric Gagne’s 2003 season is perhaps the greatest season in the history of the modern closer. It comes complete with major league records — 55 consecutive single-season saves and 63 consecutive saves spanning multiple seasons — that helped justify the voter’s decision. There existed both the utter dominance and the storyline. But the Cy Young Award is now almost universally a starter’s award, and it’s been fair to wonder all this time whether Gagne could be the last reliever to win it, but it also might be time to start wondering whether this is the year it should happen again.

Our own Corinne Landrey just wrote about Britton’s potential for an all-time great season last week. After a trio of scoreless relief appearances since that post, Britton now holds the record for most consecutive scoreless appearances dating back to at least 1913, with 40. He hasn’t allowed a run since April 30. He’s got a shot at the single-season ERA record. He’s got a shot at the RA9 record. He still hasn’t blown a save, so he even has an outside shot at Gagne’s single-season record of perfect saves, though the Orioles would have to do a whole lot of close winning for Britton to save 19 of Baltimore’s final 45 games. At the same time, at this point in Gagne’s 2003 season, he had 40 saves. Britton currently has 37.

That being said, we can still sort the pitching WAR leaderboards and be reminded of how much more starters can offer their team, on average, than relievers. Even with Britton’s utter dominance, his FIP-based WAR still falls outside the top-30 for American League pitchers, and even his RA9-WAR barely has him cracking the top 20. He’s thrown 50 innings. Chris Sale has thrown 160. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

And yet, we know WAR isn’t the only way to measure a player’s value, and that might be especially true of relievers. While our reliever WAR formula contains a leverage adjustment to help account for the importance of late and close innings, it’s still a specific-context-neutral statistic, and context-based stats like Win Probability Added or RE24 can do as good of a job, if not better, of telling the story of what a reliever’s done. Maybe the story’s not what you’re interested in — WAR and WPA are attempting to do two different things, so it’s really a matter of what question you’re asking — but if the question you’re asking is more context- and results-oriented, Britton’s season becomes something of an outlier:

Pitching Win Probability Added leaders, 2016

  1. Zach Britton, +4.35 WPA
  2. Clayton Kershaw, +3.72
  3. Andrew Miller, +3.07
  4. Aaron Sanchez, +3.04
  5. Roberto Osuna, +2.99

WPA isn’t a perfect statistic either, but it provides an alternate lens through which to view Britton and his relieving peers that’s more sympathetic to the idea that we might not be capturing the full extent value of an elite reliever or bullpen with WAR. As always, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle.

But Britton’s lead over the rest of the AL in WPA makes for an interesting jumping off point, and the lack of a standout starter in the AL only compounds the issue. Sanchez, the leader among AL starters in both WPA and RA9-WAR, might be the favorite, though the question of how many innings he’ll throw is a real one that could stand to hurt his Cy Young chances. Jose Quintana has been dominant, but will voters look past a win-loss record that might be below .500 on a non-playoff team? Corey Kluber’s ERA doesn’t match his peripherals, and Cole Hamels’ peripherals don’t match his ERA. If there were ever a year for a reliever to step up and make a real run at the Cy Young Award, it would be this one, and Britton’s doing it.

His WPA (4.4) rivals the highest WAR figures being posted by starters (Quintana 5.0 RA9, Kluber 4.2 FIP). At the rate he’s going, he seems all but certain to join the exclusive class of 28 relievers to have posted +5.0 WPA in the last 25 years. On a per-game basis, Britton’s year-to-date numbers have him on pace to join 2003 Gagne, 2000 Keith Foulke, and 1996 Troy Percival as the only four relievers to crack +6.0 WPA in a season. While Britton’s season might not be generating the same sort of attention that surrounded Gagne’s, it might wind up being similarly impressive.

The Orioles are, once again, outperforming their run differential and BaseRuns record, and once again, a lot of that has to do with a league-leading bullpen WPA. Britton accounts for more than half of that, and has a higher WPA himself than the entire relief corps of 27 teams.

I’m confident in stating my position that Britton, at the very least, would deserve to be in the mix if voting happened today. To me, that’s already a surprise. A couple years ago, I couldn’t have imagined being sympathetic toward a reliever’s Cy Young case. But “in the mix” is about as far as I can go. I have a hunch that by the time voting rolls around, there will be four or five “right” answers. Britton might be one of them.

Wade Davis received seven top-five votes last year — including a third-place and a fourth-place vote — and Britton’s having an objectively better season. Even Andrew Miller and Shawn Tolleson received a pair down-ballot votes each. The voting pool certainly isn’t against the idea of considering a reliever for the award, but even still, I’d guess Britton would need some help. Without a playoff bid, it’s hard to see it happening. The narrative of Britton relieving the Orioles into the playoffs would be a huge part of his case. I’d guess, too, that some sort of notable record would have to be in play, preferably the ERA record. A playoff bid and an ERA record would go a long way. Britton’s also going to need outside help, in avoiding dominant performances over the final two months by the Kluber’s and Quintana’s and Sanchez’s of the league. Half of the reason why we’re having this discussion is because the starters are letting us. There’s still a lot of baseball left to play.

Britton himself seems skeptical. And for good reason, given the history of the award. He told ESPN, “For a reliever to win it, they’d have to do something pretty much off the charts to get it.” Right now, Britton might be sufficiently off the charts.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

What a trash idea. It’s so disrespectful to full time pitchers. Relievers are the same as DH’s and should be viewed by voters as such.

tysonvt
Member
tysonvt

Here, have a downvote.