Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton didn’t have a single blown save all year. With awards season barely underway, the Baseball Writers' Association of America may already have its first blown vote.
On Monday, the finalists for the American League Cy Young Award were announced, and Britton wasn’t among them. Instead, Boston’s Rick Porcello, Cleveland’s Corey Kluber and Detroit’s Justin Verlander were named as the three finalists.
Typically, relievers don’t factor into the Cy Young conversation, but Britton’s magical 2016 campaign was anything but typical. The Orioles’ closer was a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities, and his microscopic 0.54 ERA was the lowest ever for a pitcher who worked at least 50 innings in a season. In 67 innings, he allowed just 38 hits and one homer. He didn’t allow a single earned run from April 30 to Aug. 24, a span of 43 appearances. He was dominant enough to be the no-brainer choice for Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year Award (which he won last month), and dominant enough to be a legitimate Cy Young contender. As far as his manager was concerned, he should have come out on top.
“It’s shocking,” Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter said of the snub, according to MASN. “That’s a real poor reflection on the people who are evaluating him. God bless the three guys in front of him. They were doing it every fifth day and he’s doing it every day. I’m not so sure any of those guys could do what Zach does."
Showalter even took it a step further, suggesting that his closer was good enough this season to merit legit MVP consideration.
“This guy had maybe the best year in the history of relief pitching. He should have finished in the top three in MVP, OK? He should. There’s nobody in baseball who’s more valuable to their team than Zach Britton is to the Orioles.”
As for the Cy Young, whether Britton deserved to actually win the thing is up for debate. The general consensus is that no matter how good a reliever is, they just don’t pitch enough innings -- not in today’s world of hyper-specialized bullpen roles -- to impact the game the way a starter does. That’s why only nine relievers in MLB history have ever nabbed a Cy Young and why only two relievers in the last quarter-century have won it (Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and Eric Gagne in 2003).
For what it’s worth, I don’t have a Cy Young vote (awards duties are divvied up so that each one is voted on by a committee of BBWAA members), but if I did, I don’t think I would’ve voted for Britton to win it. That said, after watching him day in and day out and witnessing the impact he had on games, I’m pretty darned sure I would have put him in my top three, if for no other reason than a season as extraordinary as his was -- even if it was a reliever season -- deserves to be recognized in an out-of-the ordinary way.
Even though no reliever has won the Cy Young since Gagne in ’03, there have been four occasions since where a reliever has finished among the top three in his league’s Cy Young voting. The most recent occurrence was in 2008 when Francisco Rodriguez finished third in the AL balloting after setting a big-league record by recording 62 saves. His season was historic, just like Britton’s 2016 was historic.
Ironically, the lack of a runaway Cy Young favorite among starting pitchers, which was supposed to help the case of a reliever like Britton, likely doomed him in the end. In a year where there really was no clear-cut choice, you could make a strong case for any one of the three finalists to win it. And that’s probably what happened. Though the final results haven’t been revealed yet and won’t be until next week, odds are that it was a pretty tight race between Porcello, Kluber, and Verlander. In other words, they split the vote. Unfortunately, they wasn’t any left over for Zach Britton.