Despite all the talk about how the most dominant relievers this year deserved to be in the discussion for the Cy Young Award, there is basically no chance that any reliever actually wins it. Everyone will vote for starters. Only some will vote for relievers. There is a large contingent who will not even consider relievers because they pitched less than half the innings that Cy Young quality starters did. Plus, historical trends for Cy Young voting show a strong aversion to voting for relievers. Since Dennis Eckersley won the award in 1992, only Eric Gagne has won the award and only 5 relievers even receive 1st place votes. As a result of these trends, along with increasing specialization and less innings for relievers, the Cy Young Award is developing into an award that is meant for starters and the role that starters play in contributing to team wins.
And it’s a shame that, even with historically great seasons, players like Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Fernando Rodney, will receive almost no lasting recognition for their achievements. Kimbrel and Chapman had some of the most dominant seasons ever with their ridiculous K%, and Rodney had a record-setting 0.60 ERA. Nevertheless, none of them will receive any bit of hardware to go down in the record-books. What’s worse is that each of the players could do it again and again for years to come, and still, they would never be a serious part of any award discussion. Mariano Rivera had 15 years of greatness and never won the CYA, and only even gotten a first place vote twice. And if he couldn’t do it in NY and as perhaps the greatest reliever, it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it.
It’s not like the Cy Young Award is an objective measurement of how valuable a pitcher is to his team. It could be, and a lot of times it is. But the importance of the award lies in subjective memory that it creates around a player’s name. His award history tells a story about a player, how good he was, and what the fans and media thought about him. Beyond that, award voting creates heated argument about players that are both very fun to have and help us remember how good they were in particular years. Ultimately, it helps in evaluating a player’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame.
It seems sort of absurd to exclude such an important role from awards voting. The best hitters get the MVP, Hank Aaron, Silver Slugger, etc. The best starters get the Cy Young. The best fielders get the Gold Glove. Currently, relievers are the ONLY role in baseball for which the BBWAA doesn’t vote for an award. Greatness in any role should be rewarded – I don’t see a reason why relievers shouldbe left out. The award that exists now, the Rolaids Relief Man Award, is seriously flawed. For one, no one pays attention to it. There isvery little publicity behind the award, and the results not only fly under the radar, but are buried underground. Moreover, the Rolaids Award calculates a winner from a mathematical formula, functionally removing all discussion and argument from the process and making the award as boring as it can possibly be. There was no point talking about Kimbrel vs. Chapman for the award because the winner was already determined. Lastly, the stats used are extremely flawed. Rolaids places a heavy weight on the number of saves that a closer gets. Saves are a horrible evaluative tool for relievers, which is an argument I’m sure you’ve read about somewhere. Save totals are capped at the amount at the amount of save opportunities that your team has. That means teams that win regularly in blowouts or lose a lot will give their closers less of an opportunity to accumulate saves. Moreover, saves sometimes aren’t high enough of a standard. A closer that comes in with a 3 run lead in the 9th inning has a win expectancy of over 95%. Despite that, he could give up 3 walks and 2 runs, still get the save, and help him win the award. The emphasis on saves also brackets out all non-closers from the discussion. The best reliever in the league doesn’t have to be the guy who comes out in the 9th inning – the guy who led the league in Shutdowns in 2011 was Jonny Venters.
If there was a reliever of the year award, the NL discussion would certainly center around Kimbrel and Chapman. But Kimbrel would win, because his numbers were better across the board