A Cy of relief? These 9 could win the award

July 11th, 2020

One of the many peculiar repercussions of the shortened 2020 MLB season is that a reliever could conceivably win a Cy Young Award.

Think about it: Not only will starting pitchers be limited to, at most, a dozen appearances on normal rest, but they’ll also, in all likelihood, have innings limits in the early portion of the 60-game schedule after a short Summer Camp. It will be up to the bullpens to pick up the slack. And while one rough outing among, say, 25 innings pitched will make it difficult for a reliever’s ERA to recover, all it would take is a hot hand (most likely on a hot team) in this mad dash of a season to totally skew what is prioritized in the voting for the game’s most prestigious pitching honor.

First, a brief -- and I do mean brief -- history of relievers winning the Cy Young:

Mike Marshall, Dodgers, 1974: 208 1/3 IP, 21 SV, 143 K, 2.42 ERA
Sparky Lyle, Yankees, 1977: 137 IP, 26 SV, 68 K, 2.17 ERA
Bruce Sutter, Cubs, 1979: 101 1/3 IP, 37 SV, 110 K, 2.22 ERA
^Rollie Fingers, Brewers, 1981: 78 IP, 28 SV, 61 K, 1.04 ERA
^Willie Hernandez, Tigers, 1984: 104 1/3 IP, 32 SV, 112 K, 1.92 ERA
Steve Bedrosian, Phillies, 1987: 89 IP, 40 SV, 74 K, 2.83 ERA
Mark Davis, Padres, 1989: 92 2/3 IP, 44 SV, 92 K, 1.85 ERA
^Dennis Eckersley, A’s, 1992: 80 IP, 51 SV, 93 K, 1.91 ERA
Eric Gagne, Dodgers, 2003: 82 1/3 IP, 55 SV, 137 K, 1.20 ERA

(^Also won the MVP Award that year)

So back in the day, if a starter hadn’t clearly distanced himself from the pack, a reliever with eye-catching numbers and a high volume of innings (78 was the minimum, and that came in the strike-affected ’81 season, when teams played anywhere from 103 to 111 games and only one starter reached the 200-inning total) had a chance to sniff the Cy Young Award.

As Baseball Writers’ Association of America voter tastes -- and the stats they utilize to make their decisions -- have evolved this century, the Cy Young Award has essentially become an unattainable goal for relievers. No better evidence exists than Zack Britton having a season for the ages in Baltimore in 2016 (his 0.54 ERA in 67 innings was the lowest in history for a reliever) and finishing fourth, with five first-place votes.

It's potentially a different equation this year. So here are some guys who I think could seize the award if things go right.

, LHP, Brewers
How he could do it: Basically by striking everybody out

Hader is the axis around which the Brewers’ pitching plan operates, and he gives the club both length (157 innings over the last two seasons) and excellence (169 ERA+, 0.81 WHIP over those two seasons). Even in a 2019 in which he was more susceptible to the long ball, his K rate of 47.8% was the fourth-highest of all time, and his rate of 16.4 strikeouts per nine was fifth all-time.

Pitchers could generally be ahead of the hitters after a short Summer Camp, and the regional schedule could play to Hader’s favor. His K rate against his four NL Central opponents last season was 49.3%, and the Tigers and White Sox were among the three highest team strikeout percentages in 2019.

, RHP, A’s; and , RHP, Padres
How they could do it: By repeating what they did in 2019

These were, in my opinion, the best relievers in their respective leagues last season. Yates had a 1.19 ERA and saved a Major League-best 41 games with a 0.89 WHIP in 60 2/3 innings. Hendriks had a 1.80 ERA with the league’s best strikeout minus walk rate (36.2%) -- and he did it in 85 innings of work.

Were either guy to fulfill the tall order of replicating or even improving upon those rates in a smaller sample, he’d probably be in the running for the Cy Young Award. These should both be competitive clubs, which can’t hurt.

, RHP, Rays
How he could do it: By building off a huge second half

There might not have been a more dominating pitcher in the home stretch of 2019. And because '20 will be entirely “home stretch,” who’s to say he can’t keep it going?

Anderson was acquired by the Rays at last year’s Trade Deadline and proceeded to strike out 52.9% of batters faced while with Tampa Bay. He struck out 41 and walked just two in 21 1/3 innings. For the season, his 37.9% whiff rate was tied for fifth among those with at least 500 swings generated. He’ll likely be the primary closing option in a deep Tampa Bay bullpen.

, RHP, Mets
How he could do it: By living up to the projections

The mere mention of the name still sends shivers down the backs of Mets fans after a disastrous first season in Queens. But Díaz was acquired for a reason after a 2018 season in which he saved 57 games with a sub-2.00 ERA in Seattle, and he is a clear bounceback candidate in '20.

For what it’s worth, the Steamer projections available at FanGraphs.com peg Díaz to the lowest ERA (3.06) and Fielding Independent Pitching mark (2.99) of any active NL pitcher, starter or reliever. Despite the ugly 5.59 ERA, he had, per Statcast, a .207 expected batting average against last season, based on quality of contact, to go with a 15.4 K/9 rate.

Teammates Seth Lugo and Dellin Betances should also be considered dark horses given their potential dominance and potential to appear in a higher percentage of games.

, LHP, Yankees; and , RHP, Dodgers
How they could do it: By saving the day

Chapman doesn’t throw 180 mph (or what seemed like it) anymore, and Jansen’s ERA has been inflated by homer trouble the last two years, so these are iffy inclusions. On the Yanks, Adam Ottavino and the aforementioned Britton are every bit as capable of having the best relief season in the league. And if the Dodgers’ Blake Treinen were to bounce back to his 2018 level, he’d be in the conversation, too.

But Chapman and Jansen have to be mentioned here because they are both reliable sources of saves on the early odds-on favorites in the AL and NL. They’ve both had six seasons of 30 or more saves and should both have ample opportunity to lead their leagues in 2020. Pairing a high save total with strong rate stats could put them in Cy Young Award position.

, LHP, Twins; and , LHP, White Sox
How they could do it: By going long

The AL Central -- on paper, at least -- lends itself to a weaker schedule. These two arms are both capable of giving their teams quality length, thereby making a big impact on the standings.

Though Tyler Duffey and Trevor May both had spectacular second halves last season and merit a mention here, Rogers is the anchor of an underrated Twins bullpen. He had 30 saves and a 2.61 ERA in 69 innings last season, which is nice. But what’s really notable here is that 12 of those saves included four or more outs (only Hader, with 15, had more multi-inning saves).

Bummer is not the closer on the South Side (Alex Colome has that job), but he’s an extreme ground-ball guy (72.1% last year) in a high-homer era, which could lead to a low ERA. And last year, he made 21 appearances (covering 35 2/3 innings) in which he recorded four outs or more. In those appearances, he had a 0.50 ERA and 0.62 WHIP.

The field
How someone else could do it: By getting hot at the right time

I haven’t even mentioned the likes of Brandon Workman (Red Sox), Will Smith (Braves), Will Harris (Nationals), Roberto Osuna (Astros), Brad Hand (Indians), Ken Giles (Blue Jays), Giovanny Gallegos (Cardinals), Drew Pomeranz (Padres) and others coming off a terrific 2019. And what’s really fascinating about this environment is how much impact a previously unproven reliever who makes the right tweak -- or perhaps a pitching prospect who is thrust into the limelight -- can swing a team’s fortunes.

Trying to predict reliever performance is a fool’s errand, especially in the 60-game season we’re about to embark upon. But because the math is fundamentally different this year, conditions might be ripe for a reliever to swipe the Cy Young Award.