Last August I wrote that Orioles closer Zach Britton was the favorite for the American League Cy Young award. There's a lot of people that believe a reliever should never win the Cy, since they don't accrue nearly the amount of innings a starter does. But in that blog from August I identified two criteria I believe need to be in place for a reliever/closer to even be considered: they have to be having a borderline historic season, and there has to be no starters that jump out as having a "this guy needs to win the Cy" type season. I thought this was the case for Britton last year. He put up a 0.54 ERA, which was the lowest of all time, in a hitter's park. He allowed four earned runs all season with a 0.84 WHIP and 9.9 strikeouts per nine. He had an ERA+ of 827 (!!!). For comparison Andrew Miller had an ERA+ of 310 last year. Rick Porcello had a very good 2016, but it wasn't a dominant season by any means.
So if Britton couldn't win despite allowing four earned runs all year, does any closer have a chance? In the history of the award nine different relievers have won, the last of which was Eric Gagne in 2003 (so long ago that PEDs had still yet to be banned by MLB). That year Gagne was a perfect 55/55 in save opportunities. In 82 1/3 innings he struck out 137 and had a 1.20 ERA. Pretty dominant IMO. I believe that narratives should be a part of awards voting, and this '03 season was in the middle of a stretch for Gagne where he converted 84 straight save opportunities, which earned him the nickname "Game Over". Gagne was so good during this era that in MVP Baseball 2005 (the GOAT of baseball video games) his curveball is actually unhittable. Looking back at the voting that year it's clear Gagne fit my two pieces of criteria:
First of all, the fact that "Russ Ortiz" finished fourth tells you everything you need to know about National League pitching back in 2003. Jason Schmidt (LOL) and Mark Prior had solid years, but not the type of seasons that really jump out at you. Gagne had a historic season in 2003, and there were no starters that stood out. He deserved to win the Cy.
Alright enough about the past, let's talk about 2017. You've probably heard this stat by now, but it's worth repeating. It's now the middle of June. Kenley Jansen has faced 107 batters this season. He has struck out 50. And he has walked zero. That's ridiculous. The previous record of strikeouts to begin a season without issuing a walk was 35, set by Adam Wainwright in 2013. Jansen is blowing past that number right now. Not bad for a former catcher (people forget Jansen was the catcher for the 2009 Netherlands WBC team). Jansen is in such a groove right now that Joey Votto, one of the smartest hitters in baseball, felt he had to choke up a ridiculous amount when facing him Friday night. Check it out:
I had always viewed the Dodgers' closer as simply "one of the best" closers in baseball, but so far this year he has been the best reliever in baseball. Anytime you're not allowing free passes in close games you're going to be in that conversation. Add in his 0.91 ERA and it's tough to make a case against him.
Then there's Craig Kimbrel. Yes, he's walked a few guys this year unlike Jansen, but he's currently working on a historic stat of his own. So far this season Kimbrel has struck out 53.2% of the batters he has faced, which blows Jansen's 46.7% out of the water. That's a significant gap between the #1 and #2 players on the leaderboard. Kimbrel is coming off a mediocre 2016 season where he walked an alarming 5.1 batters per nine. But 2016 feels like an eternity ago right now. Through 31 2/3 innings this year Kimbrel has a crazy 59/5 K/BB ratio to go along with a 0.85 ERA and a 0.44 WHIP. He has been scored on in just three out of his 30 appearances, and is continuing the evolution of the modern relief pitcher by routinely entering games in the eight inning for four (and sometimes five) out saves.
So we've established that both Jansen and Kimbrel are having borderline historic seasons, at least thus far. The problem with their mid-June Cy Young candidacies is that, unlike the NL in 2003 and AL in 2016, there are actually starters having Cy-worthy years. Jansen's refusal to walk batters will get more media attention than Kimbrel's K%, but there's almost zero chance Jansen wins in a league that has both Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer in it. So Kimbrel has the better chance, but he still has to deal with Chris Sale and Dallas Keuchel, both of whom are having great years. It's funny, over the past year and a half we have seen historic relief seasons from three different relievers, yet it's unlikely we come out of this stretch with any winning a Cy Young award. That doesn't mean it won't ever happen again, after all Britton deserved to win last year, but Gagne will probably be the last to win one for a while.