This column is adapted from my “Digging In" essay on MLB Network’s “MLB Now” Wednesday afternoon.
Mariano Rivera never won a Cy Young Award; he finished second once, third three times. Rivera also never won an MVP, never even finished higher than ninth.
Relievers, on occasion, do win a Cy Young, an MVP, or even both. Eric Gagne captured the Cy in 2003, Dennis Eckersley the Cy and MVP in 1992, Willie Hernandez both in 1984. So, if you want to tell me that Orioles closer Zach Britton is a candidate for both honors this season, I won’t complain. But the argument for Britton is more an argument of convenience than an argument that actually is convincing. And as the discussion builds, both the sabermetric camp and the traditional Baseball Writers Association of America camp are guilty of overreaching.
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Now don’t get me wrong – Britton is brilliant, not to mention unique, a left-handed closer who throws 95-mph bowling-ball sinkers. He entered Wednesday 38-for-38 in save chances. His ERA is 0.69. He had not allowed an earned run in 43 straight appearances before the Nationals ended his streak on Wednesday night. No less an authority than Orioles center fielder Adam Jones made the case to me this week that Britton indeed might be the most valuable Oriole, and the most valuable player in the league.
Here is my problem: Britton is on pace to throw fewer than 67 innings this season – 67! Eckersley holds the record for fewest by a Cy Young winner in a non-strike season – 80. And I’m sorry, it’s difficult to justify a 67-inning pitcher as a Cy Young over a high-quality 200-inning starter – and yes, such pitchers exist this season. It’s even more difficult to justify a 67-inning pitcher as MVP over a star position player who appears in say, 145 games. Those players actually exist, too.
Yet, some in the sabermetric community trumpet Britton as an awards candidate, citing his league-leading Win Probability Added. The BBWAA frequently gets accused of creating a narrative for our own purposes. Well, look who’s creating a narrative now.
Win Probability Added is an interesting stat, measuring a player’s contribution to a victory by calculating the importance of each specific play on a game’s outcome. But like RBIs – a statistic scorned by many sabermetricians – it is dependent on opportunity.
Of course Britton has a high WPA – he constantly pitches in high-leverage situations. The past four win probability leaders among AL pitchers were Wade Davis, Dellin Betances, Greg Holland and Jim Johnson. None was a serious Cy Young contender.
It’s funny – for years MLB Network’s Brian Kenny and other sabermetricians have told us that any good pitcher can succeed in the ninth inning. Now, suddenly, we’re placing greater value on closers, and retrofitting a stat for that purpose? If the BBWAA pulled such a stunt, Kenny would blast us for an entire chapter in his next book – and heaven knows he ripped us enough in his current screed, “Ahead of the Curve.”
Not that the BBWAA is innocent in all this. Our narratives get tiresome, with the annual anyone-but-Mike Trout-for-MVP movement the most cringe-worthy. Well, here we go with Britton. As this particular narrative goes, no starting pitcher in the AL this season is Cy-worthy, so let’s give it to a reliever who – admittedly – is performing at a historic level.
Slow down! It’s Aug. 24; the season is far from over. And, while the names might not be as sexy as usual, you’re going to tell me that Cole Hamels isn’t worthy of the Cy Young? Aaron Sanchez? Even Danny Duffy, who hasn’t thrown quite as many innings? Corey Kluber, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana also are legitimate candidates.
Again: I’m not trying to demean Britton. And frankly, relievers deserve their own award, as my friend Jayson Stark of ESPN has proposed. But generally speaking, the Cy Young should be for starting pitchers, the MVP for everyday players. Zach Britton is the best at what he does. But he isn’t a Cy or MVP.