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Zach Britton is not the best reliever candidate for AL Cy Young

Besides the fact that he's not the best reliever in the AL, talk of Britton’s candidacy has highlighted the problem with the existing reliever awards.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There has been lots of talk about the weak candidates for the AL Cy Young award. No starting pitcher in the AL is worth even 5 WAR by any measure of Wins Above Replacement. It’s unlikely that any of the leading candidates will finish with over 6 WAR, which would be the lowest WAR of an AL Cy Young winner since C.C. Sabathia won in 2007 and the lowest of any pitcher since the voters started putting less weight on pitcher record. Of the leading candidates this season, only José Quintana has an RA9 below 3.00.

Because of this weak AL Cy Young class, there has been plenty of talk in the past week about giving the award to a reliever. The best relievers in the AL are having phenomenal seasons, after all.

I’m not going to go in depth on the debate surrounding a reliever winning the Cy Young. Others have done so already. Suffice it to say that I stand strongly on the side of the argument that is against a reliever winning the Cy Young award. You’ve probably heard the arguments before: They don’t pitch enough innings, it’s an easier role, they don’t have to turn over a lineup more than once, and it’s illogical to give an award for the best pitcher in baseball to one who isn’t even good enough to start. To that last point, for example, Zach Britton has a career 5.51 RA9 and 4.25 FIP as a starter.

Relievers have actually had their own awards since 1976; it’s just that nobody pays any attention to them. They used to have the embarrassingly bad name of the Rolaids Relief Man Award. The name came from a time when the best relievers were more properly used to put out fires instead of hold a three-run lead in the ninth inning. In 2005, the name changed to the more respectable Major League Baseball Delivery Man of the Year Award. Finally, in 2014, the name changed to the Trevor Hoffman Award for the NL and the Mariano Rivera Award for the AL.

Before 2014, the methods for selecting the winners for the reliever awards were outdated, to put it nicely. There were no votes cast. The winners were selected via a point system surrounding Saves, Wins, and Losses. It’s one thing to use that system up to 20 to 30 years ago, but it was done this way until 2013. With the new award names in 2014, they thankfully threw out the old system and replaced it with a nine-man panel consisting of Rivera, Hoffman, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, John Franco, and Billy Wagner. That might sound better, but how much do you want to bet that this panel is giving out these awards based on Saves and pitcher record? To be fair, with the exception of Mark Melancon, three out of their four selections were good ones, even if they weren’t my first choices.

(As an aside, I would love for somebody to suggest using FIP to this panel and record Gossage’s response.)

I believe one of the reasons why people are pushing for Britton in the Cy Young race is because nobody pays any attention to the reliever awards. I went to Google News and did a search for each of the following topics:

  • NL MVP
  • AL MVP
  • NL Cy Young
  • AL Cy Young
  • NL Rookie of the Year
  • AL Rookie of the Year

I found many articles discussing a candidate or multiple candidates for these awards. I even found quite a few on Manager of the Year, an award I’ve never understood. None of this should come as a surprise. What did surprise me is doing the same search for the Trevor Hoffman Award and Mariano Rivera Award and finding nothing. The only articles I found were the ones that announced last year’s winners. That’s it. If the BBWAA really wants to give elite relievers the attention they deserve, they would be better off giving more attention to the Hoffman and Rivera awards.

So if Britton is being discussed for the Cy Young, that should make him a no-brainer for the Rivera Award, right? Well, no, not exactly. Like with his Cy Young case, claiming Britton as the best reliever in the AL is the result of shallow analysis.

With Britton, people are citing his 0.54 ERA and dropping the proverbial mic. If you’re a frequent visitor to this site and sites like this, then you understand that one needs to look beyond just runs allowed when evaluating pitchers. This is especially important for relievers, as they are susceptible to a lot of batted-ball variance as a result of pitching in small samples spread out over the course of a season.

It’s important to note that Britton has allowed three unearned runs that count just as much as the earned ones. It’s not like a 1.07 RA9 isn’t still awesome, because it is. He also has a .211 BABIP, though that’s not all luck. He has a gaudy 80.5 percent ground ball rate while pitching in front of arguably the best infield defense in baseball. In terms of what Britton had more direct control over, he does have an outstanding 60 cFIP.

Let’s take a look at how Britton compares to the AL’s best relievers.

Zach Britton 50.1 1.07 31.1 8.4 .211 11.1 60 2.15
Dellin Betances 58.1 2.78 44.8 7.8 .356 13.8 42 1.48
Andrew Miller 55 1.64 43.7 3.9 .253 21.9 40 1.51
Brad Brach 62.1 1.88 29.2 7.9 .238 6.6 85 3.03
Kelvin Herrera 55.2 2.10 32.7 3.7 .279 8.2 70 2.39
Roberto Osuna 55 2.29 31.5 5.2 .238 8.8 87 2.90
Nate Jones 57.2 2.81 28.3 5.7 .252 11.5 76 2.85

What jumped out at me after putting that table together is how much better Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller have been than Britton. They have a far superior strikeout rate, cFIP, and DRA. Miller’s walk rate is less than half of Britton’s, and he has a 1.64 RA9 despite his 21.9 percent HR/FB ratio. Betances has a flukishly-high .389 BABIP in high leverage situations, which have contributed to the 15 of the 18 runs he’s given up this seasons, per Baseball-Reference, even though he still struck out 41.1 percent of batters in those situations. Betances and Miller are also on track to finish with a lot more innings pitched than Britton, relative to how few innings relievers pitch, of course. If the season were to end today, it would be a toss-up between Betances and Miller for the Rivera Award, with Britton coming in third.

So far, I’ve neglected to mention a stat that has been frequently cited in building a Cy Young case for Britton: Win Probability Added (WPA). Britton not only leads all relievers in that category with 4.52 WPA, he leads all of baseball in it, including starters. Among AL relievers, Miller comes in second place at almost a full win behind Britton. Some very smart baseball writers have presented arguments for Britton using leverage stats. Even The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote something along these lines, although he admitted to having a more context-neutral philosophy.

When it comes to selecting players for any award, I’m strongly in favor of context neutral stats. WPA is a fun, descriptive stat, but players can’t control how often high leverage situations will come up, and in the case of relievers, they can’t dictate when they’re going to be used. Furthermore, relievers will have more opportunities to accumulate WPA on competitive teams because they will provide more leads to protect. Even with the exact same performance, I doubt that Britton would have even half of his current WPA if he pitched for the Twins or the A’s.

If the BBWAA really wants to present a reliever with the Cy Young award, this is the best year to do it, and WPA is the best argument for a voter who wants to pick Britton. However, a voter putting that much weight on WPA will almost certainly be contradicting how he or she normally evaluates pitchers, both in the past and going forward. In other words, it’s moving the goalposts just to satisfy a narrative. Let’s face it, if Britton wins the Cy Young award, it’ll be because of "teh savez," with maybe some WPA or other leverage stats thrown in.

The BBWAA has done a great job in being more progressive the past couple of years with awards voting. They did a great job in ignoring pitcher record when giving Cy Young awards to Zack Greinke and Félix Hernández several years ago. Unfortunately, awarding Britton the Cy Young would be a step backward for the BBWAA, not just because he’s a reliever, but because he’s not even the best reliever in his own division.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He has also contributed to Camden Depot. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.