You probably know that Zach Britton is good at baseball, and that he’s having a great year. He was good enough last year that an article was written titled “How Zach Britton Blew His Saves”, and he’s been even more effective this year. Britton set a record last Wednesday night for consecutive saves by a left-handed relief pitcher to start a season, and has a number of other impressive stats:
The ESPN Cy Young Predictor (CYP) shows Britton to be leading the current AL Cy Young race. He could be the first reliever to earn first-place Cy Young votes since Craig Kimbrel and Fernando Rodney received (single) first place votes in 2012. But is it really plausible to think that he could win?
Relievers and Recent Cy Young Voting
Let’s compare Britton’s stats with the four other relievers to receive first-place Cy Young votes since Eric Gagne’s 2003 victory, the last reliever season to actually win the Cy Young:
A lot of dominant seasons. A few notes:
Why Gagne Won
Gagne’s narrative of dominance that year, including his famous entrance and nickname “game over”, was corroborated by a combination of save records (55 saves and 0 blown saves, in the midst of a still-standing record 84-save-conversion streak), minuscule WHIP (.692), and an eye-popping 137 Ks (15.0 per 9 innings). Britton has the perfect save conversion rate and low WHIP that Gagne had, but faces additional obstacles in winning and constructing the name narrative.
The first is that Britton’s K rate, while great, is much lower. The second is that reliever seasons have become discounted recently, a sort of narrative goalpost shift in the sabermetric era. The perfect save conversion was repeated by Jose Valverde and Brad Lidge in 2011 and 2008, respectively, and I think no longer carries the same impression on voters. Gagne won convincingly even though there was no shortage of excellent starters that year (Mark Prior and Mike Schmidt both had WAR figures much higher than Gagne’s), because he was the story in NL pitching that year. Relievers tend to do worse on metrics like WAR compared to starters, and this makes constructing the same justification for voters to cast high votes to relievers much harder today. WAR was in its infancy in 2003, and I think if the 2003 vote were recast today, the result would be quite different.
This leads us to some sabermetric numbers:
A lot can be said here, but a few things I wanted to mention:
Lastly, let’s look at stranding runners:
All five stranded baserunners at an excellent rate, especially Kimbrel’s astounding 92.8% LOB. They were also extremely effective at preventing inherited runners from scoring, with a combined 55 of 60 inherited runners stranded. This takes us to:
Britton has enjoyed both good and bad luck this year, and I’ll just mention two factors: defense and bequeathed runners. The good luck is in having a good infield defense behind him, which is obviously important for a sinkerball pitcher. Davis, Schoop, Hardy, and Machado are enjoying FanGraphs Fielding ratings of 1.1, 0.4, 1.9, and 4.1, respectively, and for what it’s worth, the Orioles are second in the AL in fielding percentage as well.
The (slight) bad luck is in his two bequeathed runners, both of whom scored. The first was on April 30, where Britton left with a runner on 1st and 2 out and Vance Worley allowed the runner to score, tagging Britton with one of his three ER this year. The other was on June 21, where Britton left with a runner at 2nd and 2 out, and Ordrisamer Despaigne allowed the runner to score. Britton was charged with 3 unearned runs but 0 earned runs, as Flaherty was playing 3rd instead of Machado that day and made an error early in the inning; this is one of only two errors committed behind Britton this year.
The Search for Perfection
If Britton ends up something like 55/55 in save situations (or blows one save) with his current rate stats, I think he’ll get at least a few first-place votes. But I think it is nearly impossible to be a reliever with a typical closer load and actually win the award in the WAR era, and perhaps tools like the Cy Young Predictor might be adjusted to reflect this.
This discussion also raises the question in my mind of whether we will ever see a reliever put up a perfect season of at least 60 innings with 0 runs allowed. It is really hard to throw that many shutout innings. Hershiser and Drysdale had streaks of nearly 60 scoreless innings, but all of the pitchers on the top 10 list of scoreless streaks were primarily starters. Reliever Brad Ziegler began his career with 29 scoreless appearances, but that’s only halfway to 60. Maybe it is like the chance of another .400 hitter.
We will see how Britton’s season turns out, and how the voters evaluate it. In the meantime, we will probably be seeing a lot more of this: