It is rare indeed for a relief pitcher to capture the Cy Young award. In fact, only nine relievers have accomplished such a feat.
Braves’ closer Craig Kimbrel could be the tenth.
In 43 appearances and 43 innings pitched, Kimbrel boasts a National League-best 1.26 ERA with 31 saves in 33 opportunities. His 0.65 WHIP (walks/hits per innings pitched) is the best in baseball.
The last closer to come away with a Cy Young was Eric Gagne in 2003, who won as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The burly Canadian won the award for a number of reasons, most notably his perfection. Gagne was virtually flawless that season, notching 50 saves in 50 opportunities. It’s hard to argue against a 100 percent conversion rate, and that alone was enough reason to give Gagne the award.
Closers to win Cy Young award within last 30 years — compared to Kimbrel:
Steve Bedrosian (’87)
1.20Mark Davis (’89)
1.05Dennis Eckersley (’92)
0.91Eric Gagne (’03)
What did the competition look like for each reliever to win the CY?
Rick Sutcliffe finished just behind Bedrosian in ’87 for the award. He went 18-10 that year with a 3.68 ERA. Davis’ runner up in ’89, Mike Scott, was 20-10 with a 3.10 ERA. In 1992 it was Jack McDowell who was edged by Eckersley. McDowell went 20-10 with a 3.18 ERA. And in 2003, Jason Schmidt was the runner up with 17-5 record and a 2.34 ERA.
In each case, a reliever won the award partially because no starting pitcher ran away with the honor. Gagne had arguably the strongest competition of any modern reliever to capture the Cy. But then again, he turned in the most impressive season of any closer to win it.
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Unfortunately for Kimbrel and Braves fans rooting him on, there are multiple starting pitchers having Cy Young-caliber seasons thus far, with RA Dickey (15-3, 2.72 ERA) and Johnny Cueto (14-6, 2.58) topping the list.
But despite the odds, Kimbrel remains in the thick of the race. There are many factors to consider down the stretch, none more encouraging than the thought of other candidates falling apart at the seams. While it remains unlikely several of the National League’s best starting pitchers stumble during the final months, it’s not impossible.
From Kimbrel’s side, a number of things have to go right to keep him in the thick of the Cy Young race at the end of the season. For starters, he needs to remain relatively perfect in save opportunities. While he’s only blown two saves thus far, each misstep from hereon out will make this achievement increasingly unlikely.
Of course, there is a lot of baseball left to be played, but that may work against Kimbrel rather than help him. It will be difficult for Atlanta’s closer to maintain the kind of success he’s had thus far, but that’s what it will take. A two or three game downturn, and his candidacy for the Cy Young likely falls apart.
Additionally, he may have to rack up saves at a higher pace than he has thus far to win over voters. As of Saturday, Kimbrel was on pace for 45 saves over the course of the 162 game schedule. While that’s a remarkable number in its own right, eclipsing Gagne’s total of 55 from 2003 would go a long way towards compensating for the two hiccups earlier in the year.
On the other hand, contenders that work in starters’ roles can afford a few bad games down the stretch and still manage to come away with hardware. That’s one of the added benefits of a heavy workload.
But if Kimbrel remains consistent, that steadiness would be among the best arguments to give him the award. It’s almost unheard of for a closer to pitch an entire season without a major bump in the road, especially one as young and inexperienced as him.
It’s a bit of a long shot. But Kimbrel still has a chance. And if his first two years in the league are any indication, this year won’t be the last that we have this discussion.
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Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh
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