Zach Britton’s historically dominant season makes the thought of a reliever winning the American League Cy Young Award not as ridiculous as it sounds.
Back in 2003, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne put together one of the best seasons in the history of relief pitching.
Despite being in just his second year as the full-time closer, Gagne looked like a natural as the ninth-inning guy. He was a perfect 55 of 55 in save opportunities while pitching to a minute 1.20 ERA. He also boasted an astonishing 15.0 strikeouts per nine innings and a sensational 0.69 WHIP in a rather impressive 82.1 innings of work.
“Game Over,” as they called him, was certainly rewarded for his efforts. He was the recipient of the National League Rolaids Relief Man Award and, to the surprise of some, the NL Cy Young Award.
While it was obvious that the Dodgers’ shut down righty was deserving of the award, people still questioned how a dominant relief pitcher like Gagne, who pitched just over 80 innings, could win the award over elite starting pitchers like San Francisco Giants’ top dog Jason Schmidt or Chicago Cubs’ ace Mark Prior.
Fast-forward nearly 13 years, and the baseball writers face a similar scenario in the American League.
Over the last couple of years, the amount of quality starting pitching in the AL has been in a drastic decline. Masahiro Tanaka is the only starter in the AL with a sub-3.00 ERA (2.97). In 2014, there were seven.
Now, it’s not like the American League has always been blessed with electric pitching staffs. The AL has consistently been known for their powerful bats and strong bullpens.
This year, however, has been unprecedented. The question that constantly arises regarding most AL teams — with the exception being the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays — is whether they have enough starting pitching.
The lack of a preeminent ace in the AL (unless you’re ready to call Tanaka and Detroit Tigers’ rookie Michael Fulmer dominant) has caused the question of whether a reliever could win the highly touted prize to resurface. While the thought of that sounds ludicrous, it really isn’t. There simply has not been a starting pitcher in the AL where the saying, “Oh, that guy is absolutely your Cy Young Winner” would apply to.
However, you could make an argument that this statement makes sense for a guy that comes out of the bullpen.
That guy is Baltimore Orioles’ closer Zach Britton.
Britton has put together arguably the best season we have ever seen from a reliever. Led by a dynamite sinker and an occasional curveball to throw off the balance of hitters, Britton is on pace to have the lowest ERA for a reliever in Major League history, breaking Fernando Rodney’s 0.60 earned run average back in 2012.
The lefty has executed all 45 of his save opportunities this year and has allowed only a single earned run since April 30. He also sports a 0.85 WHIP and has 67 punch-outs over 61.1 IP.
Britton has put together a more than appealing case for the Cy Young award, but people continue to write him off due to his minuscule sample size. However, we must remember that the American League Cy Young Award isn’t given to the most durable pitcher in the AL, it’s rewarded to the best pitcher in the AL.
Don’t get me wrong here, durability does play a role in this award, but there isn’t a candidate who has been able to maintain the consistent excellence that Britton has shown this year.
If you take a look at 2003 when Gagne won the award, he actually faced much tougher competition for the award than Britton will. Mark Prior and Jason Schmidt, as mentioned before, both had great campaigns for their respective clubs. Britton, on the other hand, is dealing with guys like Tanaka and Chris Sale. These guys have both been solid, yet haven’t been as dominant as Britton has been.
Another argument for Britton is how valuable he’s been for the O’s. The Birds are right in the thick of the AL East and AL Wild Card races and have needed each and every save that he has provided them. He has been just as valuable to Baltimore as any starting pitcher in baseball, even with his lack of innings pitched.
Starting pitching in the American League this season has been extremely unpredictable to say the least. Despite the Cy Young award usually going to a starting pitcher, 2016 could very well be an exception to the unwritten rule.
Zach Britton’s historic campaign, combined with the lack of a clear-cut candidate, could see the reward return to a reliever for the first time in what seems like an eternity.
Robert Frost once said, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I — I took the road less traveled by.” Let’s hope the BBWAA does the same.