Making the case for closers as Cy Young candidates, in 9 easy steps

Kevin C. Cox

The winners of the Cy Young Awards weren't surprising. But in each league, an outstanding closer got exactly one first-place vote. If we try real hard, can we make a good case for either of them?

The Cy Young Award winners weren't exactly shocking. Both David Price and R.A. Dickey were favored. I will admit that I was surprised that a) Price was nearly edged by Justin Verlander, and b) Dickey won in a major landslide. But the bottom-line results: No surprises.

As always, though, the down-ballot results are really interesting. And they're more interesting than ever this year, the first in which we're privy to every single ballot. This is utterly fascinating, and makes me wonder if the BBWAA has preserved all the ballots from past elections. Wouldn't you love to see who voted for Ted Williams and who voted for Joe DiMaggio in 1947? Boy, I sure would.

Anyway, while I don't necessarily agree 100 percent with the Cy Young results, they are utterly conventional. Except that four ballots stand out.

Jered Weaver finished third, as expected. But only two voters listed him second on their ballots. Both voters covered the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This is probably not coincidental. I mean, if there were five or seven or a dozen voters who ranked Weaver second, we might just attribute those spots to a general infatuation with wins and losses, since Weaver went 20-5. But since there were only two, I think it's safe to assume a spot of local bias.

Both of those voters also listed Price first and Verlander third. Flip-flopping Weaver and Verlander would not have been enough to swing the election to Verlander; not quite. But if they'd listed Verlander first, he would have won. It was that close. So yes, when you have only 28 voters, one or two really can make a difference.

The other two really interesting ballots were cast by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Drew Davison in the American League, and ESPN's Tim Kurkjian in the National League. Davison ranked Fernando Rodney No. 1, and was the only voter who had Rodney higher than third. Kurkjian ranked Craig Kimbrel No. 1, and was the only voter who had Kimbrel higher than third.

I know, I know ... You think I'm going to rip those guys, right? Ha! I wouldn't rip my BBWAA brethren!

Instead, I would like to see if there's any possible way to conclude that Rodney and/or Kimbrel were the most valuable pitchers in their leagues.

Wins Above Replacement sure isn't any help. According to Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR, Rodney and Kimbrel were the 12th- and 16th-best pitchers in their leagues. According to FanGraphs' version, they were 21st and 15th. There are five spots on a Cy Young ballot. According to WAR, neither Rodney nor Kimbrel belonged anywhere on anyone's ballot. And considering how well those guys pitched, we might conclude that if they don't belong on a Cy Young ballot, no modern reliever belongs.

But of course relief pitchers do show up on the ballots. They don't win -- just one relief pitcher has won a Cy Young Award in the last 20 seasons -- but they do show up. So somebody's wrong.

What I wonder is this: Does the Wins Above Replacement methodology have a good idea of what constitutes a "replacement" closer?

For my own idea, I looked at the four pitchers last season who recorded approximately 15 saves. I chose 15 because a) it's half of 30, which is a nice round number, and b) a pitcher who saves 15 games probably either lost his job as closer halfway through the season, or gained it. Roughly speaking. Anyway, those four were Glen Perkins, Greg Holland, Matt Capps, and Ryan Cook. Both Perkins and Capps pitched for the Twins, but I don't believe that's a problem; in fact, it just makes my point.

From there, I counted successes and failures as closer. A save is a success, and so is a victory in a close game. A blown save is a failure, and so is a loss (but no double-counting). Yes, I know it's not very scientific, but I think the answer is going to seem reasonable: these guys were "successful" 81 percent of the time.

By the same measure, Fernando Rodney was successful 49 of 51 tries. To get him down to 81 percent, he'd have to go 41 for 51. That's a difference of eight ... and eight wins would push him squarely into Verlander territory.

Mission #1 accomplished.

What about Kimbrel? He was "successful" -- again, according to my back-of-the-envelope method -- 45 of 49 times. To knock him down to 81 percent, he'd have to go 40 for 49. That's a difference of five ... and five wins would actually push him squarely into Kershaw/Gio/Dickey territory.

Ah, but there's one big problem with this line of reasoning. Okay, there are a lot of problems with it. But one of them is that blown saves don't always lead to losses. I didn't count victories that came after blown saves as victories for the pitcher. But I did count all blown saves against them, even when their teams came back and won. Which might have happened with anyone on the mound. Point being, teams occasionally survive blown saves by their closers. Which makes actual saves just a touch less valuable than it might seem.

So I would recommend, even if you're going to bend over backward to assign extra credit to closers, in this case we should probably knock them down a peg. So I'm willing to say that Rodney was six or seven wins better than a replacement-level closer, and Kimbrel four wins. Which leaves Kimbrel short of the top National League starters, in just about any season. Rodney, though? The guy posted the lowest ERA (0.60) in history for a guy with at least 50 innings, and he converted 48 of 50 save opportunities. He also lost two games, but those were the blown saves.

WAR be damned, that strikes me as an incredibly valuable season. I still think Verlander pitched better, though. If Rodney had pitched in the National League, I think you could have justified giving him a first-place vote. I don't know that I would have actually done it. But it wouldn't seem crazy to me. In the American League, though: no.

When Eric Gagne won the Cy Young Award in 2003, he basically did what Rodney did this season. But he didn't actually blow any saves -- he did lose three games, in non-save situations -- and benefited from a lack of 20-game winners, as the league's only 20-game winner, Russ Ortiz, sported a 3.81 ERA.*

* Ortiz finished 48th in Wins Above Replacement, and fourth in the Cy Young balloting. The league's best starting pitcher that season, Mark Prior, won 18 games and finished third.

As things stand now, a relief pitcher has a fighting chance for the Cy Young Award only if he's nearly perfect and there isn't a starting pitcher with 20 wins and a low ERA. Which is probably as it should be.

In the end, I cannot justify either of the first-place votes for closer this season. Verlander was just too great, and Kimbrel not quite great enough.

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