Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cy Young Relief Pitchers

When I explored the postseason awards & Hall of Fame members question the other day, it became pretty clear that the two big reasons that the postseason awards are bad at predicting Hall of Famers is the Rookie of the Year voting and the Cy Young voting. Both awards seem to go to less than stellar players far too often. Like I said before, this is probably because, with the fickle nature of pitchers and rookies, it's too easy for one or two players to have career years worth rewarding in any given season. I can accept that.

I also noticed, though, that for a while the writers seemed to be eager to reward relief pitchers and closers with a Cy Young award. We all know the Fingers' and Eckersley's of the world, but there are also the Sparky Lyles and Mark Davis' of the world, who seemed to come out of nowhere to nab the award. Once I realized that, I decided that it would be a good idea to explore why it was so. Below is the full list of Cy Young Relief Pitchers and some thoughts on why they were given the award. I hope to find a common theme between the choices, but I can't promise it.

Without further adeiu, baseball Cy Young Relief Pitchers (a '*' means that the pitcher also won the MVP that year)...

1974 - Mike Marshall - Los Angeles Dodgers
106 G, 83 Games Finished, 15-12 W-L, 21-for-33 Sv., 2.42 ERA, 208 IP

Marshall became the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young Award in 1974, when he appeared in a (still) record 106 games, all in relief. In those 106 games, he pitched 208 innings (nearly 2 innings per appearance) and struck out 143. He had only 33 save opportunities, though, so he was clearly operating under a different set of guidelines than today's relievers. But it was by no means a standard set of guidelines for the time, either, and that's probably why he was given the award. Marshall's closest competition that year was fellow-Dodger Andy Messersmith who, as a starter, pitched in only 84 additional innings and who had a higher ERA with only 5 additional wins (20-6 vs. 15-12). Atlanta's Phil Niekro had a nearly identical ERA in 94 additional innings and a 20-13 record. With Marshall's relief statistics looking so similar to the top starters of the year, the novelty and uniqueness of his season was just too much to ignore.

1977 - Sparky Lyle - New York Yankees
72 G, 60 Games Finished, 13-5 W-L, 26-for-34 Sv., 2.17 ERA, 137 IP

Lyle's Cy Young season for the World Champion Yankees was very similar to Marshall's, except in a more manageable 72 games. While Marshall averaged 5.9 outs per appearance, Lyle averaged 5.7. In 72 appearances, Lyle pitched 137 innings and struck out 68. He came in in tighter situations, though, entering a game with the bases empty only 13 times that year (compared to Marshall's 62 bases-empty appearances). Lyle also benefited from a relatively weak crop of starters to compete against. There were a few 19- and 20-game winners in the league, but none of them had less than 11 losses. Plus, Lyle's closest competitor, Jim Palmer, had just won 3 out of the last 4 awards. Voters may have been suffering from Palmer-fatigue. Whatever it was that won Lyle (and Marshall) his award, it clearly wasn't his save total. Lyle's 26 saves were only good for second in the AL in '77, trailing Boston's Bill Campbell and his 31 saves.

1979 - Bruce Sutter - Chicago Cubs
62 G, 56 Games Finished, 6-6 W-L, 37-for-47 Sv., 2.22 ERA, 101 IP

Sutter's 1979 campaign was the first time that the league-leader in saves was awarded the Cy Young. The single-season save record had been set six years before, when John Hiller saved 38 games for the Tigers. That year, Hiller finished 4th in the Cy Young voting, behind Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, and Catfish Hunter. It's hard to see any difference between Hiller's '73 campaign and Sutter's '79. Hiller actually pitched more innings per appearance with a much lower ERA (1.44 vs 2.22) and with more strikeouts. They both pitched in high leverage situations (as defined by Baseball Reference), though Sutter's appearances were "higher". Hiller's Tigers even finished with a better record than Sutter's Cubs.

So why did Sutter win it when Hiller did not? I can only speculate, but I can see a few reasons. First, Sutter was a more well-known and more popular commodity, having played in three All-Star games already and having received Cy Young and MVP votes in past years. Second, Sutter, like Lyle and Marshall, had weaker competition for the award. Joe Niekro and JR Richard finished 2nd and 3rd to Sutter, and that's not exactly equal to Hiller's Palmer/Ryan/Hunter competition. Finally, with Sutter compiling only one fewer save than the record number, it's possible that the writers felt that awarding Sutter would be "making amends" for not awarding Hiller. In any case, Sutter walked away with his Cy (and possibly his most important HOF credential).

1981 - Rollie Fingers* - Milwaukee Brewers
47 G, 41 Games Finished, 6-3 W-L, 28-for-34 Sv., 1.04 ERA, 78 IP

The strike-shortened season of 1981 was definitely good to its top pitchers. NL Cy Young award-winner Fernando Valenzuela was also awarded the Rookie of the Year award, and AL Cy Young award-winner Fingers was also awarded the Most Valuable Player award. It was only the second time in history that a player had won multiple postseason awards, and it happened twice that year. [Note: I knew I should've taken the 30 seconds to check that statement... For some reason, those Koufax/Gibson/etc year escaped my mind.] Fingers' 28 saves may not seem like a lot, even for the era, but it was accomplished in a 109-game season. Extrapolated to a full 162-game season, it was a 41-save pace. Couple that with his obscene ERA and his 5-out-per-appearance rate, Fingers was a nearly impossible pitcher to vote against. He received 22 of the available 28 first place votes that year.

1984 - Willie Hernandez* - Detroit Tigers
80 G, 68 Games Finished, 9-3 W-L, 32-for-33 Sv., 1.92 ERA, 140 IP

Only three years later, Detroit's Willie Hernandez became the second pitcher (and second reliever) to win the MVP and Cy Young awards. It was a strong year for relievers. Hernandez finished first in the Cy voting and KC reliever Dan Quisenberry finished second. In most stats, Quiz had the better year. He had 44 saves, only one shy of the record he set the year before, and pitched in higher leverage situations. Quiz also pitched in the same number of innings as Hernandez, but in fewer appearances. He also walked only 12 batters all season. Hernandez, on the other hand, struck out almost three times as many batters, 112 to 41. Hernandez also had a lower ERA, 1.92 to 2.64, and, most importantly, blew only one save. Both the Royals and Tigers won their divisions, but Detroit did it with 104 wins while Kansas City did it with 84. This award seems to be the best example so far of the writers falling in love with the "aura" of a particular bullpen. As the 1984 Street & Smith's illustrates:
"[Hernandez] joined right-hander Aurelio Lopez in the bullpen and the two made the champion Tigers nearly impossible to beat late in the game (Detroit was 96-0 when it held a lead in the ninth inning)."
For what it's worth, Quisenberry won his third consecutive Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award that year, meaning he was the top reliever but not the top pitcher.

1987 - Steve Bedrosian - Philadelphia Phillies
65 G, 56 Games Finished, 5-3 W-L, 40-for-48 Sv., 2.83 ERA, 89 IP

Looking back at the stats from the year, it's really hard to see why Bedrock won the Cy Young this year. Yes, he saved 40 games, which was still pretty rare at the time. But it wasn't rare enough to win an award. At least one player had saved 40 games each year for the previous four years. The competition in 1987 wasn't very strong, though. There were no 20-game winners, and the closest to it was Rick Sutcliffe with an 18-10 record. I think the 1988 Street & Smith's can give the best explanation for what happened.
"The voting was not so decisive in the National League, which saw its closest election in the 32-year history of the award. Steve Bedrosian of the Philadelphia Phillies received nine of a possible 24 first-place ballots and 57 points, narrowly outpolling Rick Sutcliffe of the Chicago Cubs, who collected four firsts and 55 points, and Rick Reuschel of the San Francisco Giants, who had eight firsts and 54 points. ... Bedrosian, 30, the Fireman of the Year, had the most saves (40) and the fewest victories ever by a Cy Young winner. He had a 2.83 ERA in 65 games and set a major league record with saves in 13 consecutive appearances last spring."
Clearly, no one could really make up their mind that year, but an exciting consecutive saves streak could've easily swayed a few voters in Bedrosian's favor.

1989 - Mark Davis - San Diego Padres
70 G, 65 Games Finished, 4-3 W-L, 44-for-48 Sv., 1.85 ERA, 92.2 IP

Mark Davis seems like the oddest person on this list to me, though the numbers he put up in 1989 were certainly more-than-respectable. Saving 44 games in 48 chances puts him on par with the modern-day relievers, and his 1.85 ERA is excellent. He even averaged 4 outs per appearance while pitching in very high leverage situations. It's about all you can ask for in a closer. Of course, today that wouldn't be enough to win the Cy Young. In 1989, though, when the closer position was still getting "defined" by managers and agents alike, these numbers were hard to ignore. But what really won him the award was how he finished the year. From the 1989 Street & Smith's:
"Davis, 29, had the best season ever by a Padres reliever. The National League Fireman of the Year won four games and recorded 44 saves in 48 opportunities with a 1.85 ERA. The left-hander was almost untouchable in the final month, in which he pitched 24 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings and stranded all 19 runners he inherited. Davis had 19 of the 24 first place votes and 107 points. Mike Scott of Houston was the runner-up with four firsts and 65 points, followed by Greg Maddux of Chicago (17)."
Davis was incredibly fortunate. 1989 happened to be his contract year, and he was able to parlay his Cy Young award into a 3 year, $10 million contract with the Royals, whose own Bret Saberhagen was the '89 Cy Young winner in the AL. Davis would never again save more than 6 games in a year.

1992 - Dennis Eckersley* - Oakland A's
69 G, 65 Games Finished, 7-1 W-L, 51-for-54 Sv., 1.91 ERA, 80 IP

The ultimate closer Cy Young winner, Eck had a pretty fantastic season in 1992. He won the Cy Young award and the MVP award that year. Bobby Thigpen had set the record for most saves in a season with 57 only the year before, but when Eck notched 51 he was still only the second person to break the 50-save mark. But Eck only blew 3 saves all season while Thigpen, in his record setting year, blew 8. Also, Eck was able to strike out 93 batters in 80 IP. Thigpen was only able to strike out 70 batters in 88.2 IP.

That's about all I can find as differences between the two pitchers. What I think put Eckersley over the top, though, was his flair and popularity. By this time, he had been an ace reliever for 5 years now and that 51 saves in 54 opportunities stat was really rather impressive. It was a story that the writers just couldn't ignore. Eck ran away with the award.

2003 - Eric Gagne - Los Angeles Dodgers
77 G, 67 Games Finished, 2-3 W-L, 55-for-55 Sv., 1.20 ERA, 82.1 IP

No reliever would win the award for ten more years. By that time, the writers seemed to realize that they were awarding too many relievers the Cy and that every year it seemed that the bar kept getting reset for what constituted a star reliever. They finally seemed to get scared off from rewarding closers for high save totals. It didn't hurt that they now had a crop of starting pitchers the likes of which hadn't been seen in decades. It was really easy not to vote for the Randy Myers' of the world when you could instead vote for Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux.

Eventually, though, some closer was going to do something so fantastic that the writers would swarm back to him. That someone was Eric Gagne, who converted all 55 save opportunities he was provided in 2003 as part of an eventual 84 consecutive saves streak. Gagne was also a spectacle on the mound, with his wild hair, goatee and goggles. The fact that he was able to strike out 137 batters in only 82 IP was also incredibly impressive. In his 77 appearances, Gagne entered the game with the bases empty 69 times, and his average outing lasted just 3.2 outs. In fact, he only pitched more than one inning 13 times. Despite all of that, Baseball Reference shows that he faced high leverage situations the vast majority of his appearance.

In the end, Gagne is a perfect example of what needs to happen for a closer to win the Cy Young these days: he needs a perfect-to-near-perfect season and he needs to make a good story for the writers to follow him. If a closer can do this, especially if his appearance and/or performance is as electric as vintage-Gagne, then he just might win the Cy. Anything other than that, including a perfect-but-boring season (see: Lidge, Brad) or a record-setting season (see: Rodriguez, Francisco), just won't cut it these days.

In the 19 years between 1974 and 1992, there were eight different relievers who won the Cy Young award. In the 17 years since then, there has been only one. It seems to have taken the people voting on the Cy Young awards quite a while before they were able to realize that a merely "strong" season from a closer is just not enough to earn the Cy Young, but I'm happy they have. There are definitely seasons here and there that deserve the recognition (Fingers, Gagne, maybe Eck, maybe Marshall), but they aren't nearly as plentiful as the 1970s and 1980s seemed to suggest.

I am a little surprised at the reasons that these relievers were awarded the Cy Young. I assumed it would have to do with the changing saves expectations, but that only seemed to come into play on one or two awards. Mostly, it was either strong performances from already-popular players or one or two really excellent streaks that would capture the public's attention (like Bedrosian or Davis). Even that, though, seems to have slowed down considerably... and that can only be a good thing.

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