Relievers And The Cy Young Award


There has been a lot of discussion around baseball, and on this site as well, about the viability of pitchers winning the MVP award. The Tigers own Justin Verlander is going to be in the race for MVP, which is typically reserved for every day position players. The thinking being of course that pitchers have their own award called the Cy Young, and a starting pitcher can only affect a game every five days.

But what about relievers being viable options for the Cy Young award?

I don’t think there is any doubt that in 2011, Justin Verlander is going to be the Cy Young award winner. However, another Tiger, Jose Valverde is having a Cy Young award type season himself as a reliever. Valverde led the league in saves with 49 in 2011, and on the face of it, 49 saves would never be enough to wrestle an award away from starting pitchers. It’s not like 49 saves is a record. However, Valverde went through the entire season without blowing a save and finished with a 2.24 ERA. So when the Tigers got to the 8th with a lead this year, they won.

Given the relative infrequency of a closer going the entire season without blowing a save, is that enough to put you in the discussion for an award typically given to a starting pitcher?

The simple answer to that is yes. Valverde will be in the conversation. Since the award are given out by members of the press, the very nature of that means that Jose Valverde is going to garner a bunch of votes. After all, it’s a story when a guy goes an entire season without blowing a save, and it’s attention grabbing. Going entire seasons and not blowing a save has happened before though, and still doesn’t mean a reliever should be in the discussion.

Since the Cy Young began being awarded to each league in 1967, only 4 closers or full-time relievers have won the award in the American League, and 5 have done so in the National League. We are talking around 10% of the time the award is given away it goes to relievers. Not a large percentage obviously, and there is a reason for that.

While a closer like Valverde certainly has value to his team, he absolutely cannot affect the game on the same level that a starting pitcher does. It’s simple math. The bottom line is that Jose Valverde pitched 72 innings this year, and that is about 5% of the total innings his team plays. There is less opportunity to affect a game pitching that few innings, compared to a starter like Max Scherzer who threw 195 innings.

If you are a believer in WAR as a measure of value, you can see the difference in how relievers affect wins compared to starters. According to Fangraphs, Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves had the highest WAR for relievers in 2011 with 3.2. That was on par with starters like John Danks of the White Sox and Javier Vazquez of the Marlins. I don’t think anybody is going to be pushing those two guys for the Cy Young Award.

Baseball Reference is typically more forgiving to relievers, especially closers, when calculating WAR. Valverde for instance has 2.7 WAR at Baseball Reference, but just 1.0 WAR at Fangraphs. Valverde’s WAR at Baseball Reference puts him on par with a guy like Detroit’s Doug Fister, who still won’t likely be in top 10 in Cy Young voting. While the difference from Baseball Reference to Fangraphs shows you there is issue with WAR as a measure as much as anything, you can still see that there isn’t high end value attached to relievers, even closers having the kind of season Valverde is.

Saves are great and all, and I don’t mean to diminish Jose Valverde and his season at all, but I think we can see that relievers should never win the Cy Young. That doesn’t mean that relievers like Valverde shouldn’t garner any votes and can’t be a good 5th to 10th place option.

I will say this, what can’t be measured by WAR is the effect that a closer finishing games every time has on a team’s psyche. Blown saves are one of the worst things that can happen to a club. Nobody likes seeing a game that is won slip away in the bottom of the ninth.

The Tigers own Willie Hernandez was one of those relievers that won the Cy Young Award in 1984, and while Hernandez was tremendous, he probably didn’t deserve it as much as some other guys.

Relievers have their own award as well, it’s called the Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year Award, and I think Jose Valverde should have that on lock-down like he did all those games earlier this year.