If there's been a hot topic around baseball over the past week, it's this: "Could [or should] Orioles closer Zach Britton win the American League Cy Young Award?"
It's fun to think about, because Britton is a great closer having a wonderful season, and it's pretty hard to look past that sparkling 0.54 ERA. Furthermore, the AL race is a complete mess without a clear front-runner. Right now, there's different leaders in ERA (Michael Fulmer, 2.25), FIP (Corey Kluber, 3.01), innings pitched (David Price, 169 2/3), strikeout percentage (Chris Archer, 27.8), average against (Marco Estrada, .190), wins (J.A. Happ, 17) and so on -- to say nothing of other pitchers with strong overall cases like Chris Sale, José Quintana, Aaron Sanchez, Danny Duffy and Cole Hamels.
That being the case, the door does seem ajar for Britton, assuming he remains essentially perfect through the remainder of the season. But regardless of whether you think he should win the award, the more pertinent question is whether he could win the award, and that seems like a pretty tough bar to clear given the recent behavior of Cy Young Award voters -- and we can explain why.
Most discussions of whether a reliever could win the award will point back to the times in recent history that a reliever has won it, like Dennis Eckersley in 1992 or Eric Gagne in 2003. But as MLB.com's Tom Tango has argued, the baseball world has changed so much in terms of how wins and saves are (or more accurately, aren't) valued that it's difficult to look back at long-ago ballots and suggest they have a great deal of relevance today. For example, if the 2005 AL Cy Young Award voting was redone today, would Bartolo Colon (21-8, 3.48 ERA, 17.3 percent strikeout rate) again beat Johan Santana (16-7, 2.87, 26.2)? Probably not.
In terms of how voters are likely to consider a reliever today, looking back to how they've behaved since 2010 seems to be of the most use, for two reasons. First of all, that was the year that Félix Hernández famously won the AL Cy Young Award with a 13-12 record, showing a sea change in how voters began to value pitchers. Second, that was the year the ballot was expanded from three names to five, which is important for reasons we'll show shortly.
So, can Britton win in 2016? Let's see if any relievers since '10 have come even close.
Best finishes by relievers in Cy Young Award balloting, 2010-15
4th -- Craig Kimbrel (tied with Matt Harvey), 2013
5th -- Jose Valverde, 2011
5th -- Fernando Rodney, 2012
5th -- Kimbrel, 2012
You have to go all the way back to 2008 to find a reliever who finished even in the Top 3, when Francisco Rodríguez did so by setting the all-time record for saves, with 62. (And, not unrelated, the all-time record for save opportunities, with 69.) Since then, the best anyone has done is Kimbrel, who tied with Harvey in '13 in a year in which Kimbrel struck out 98 in 67 innings and had a 1.21 ERA.
As relievers have become increasingly more dominant, it's become harder for any single one to stand out. For example, as great as Britton has been this year, it's not even a slam dunk that he's the best reliever who's even appeared in his own division -- not in an AL East that has (or has had) Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Roberto Osuna and Alex Colomé. Incredible relief numbers are so common now that we've become almost numb to it. Times have changed considerably since Eckersley dropped an 0.61 ERA in 1990, when no one had seen that before.
This is where the five-man ballot comes in, to some extent. Now, when voters want to get one reliever on their ballot, they're able to do so in a lower spot. And since points are awarded on a 7-4-3-2-1 basis, that's a less valuable vote overall than when the final spot was the third spot. Just look at MLB.com's own recent look at the AL Cy Young Award situations -- Britton appeared in the AL's fifth spot, and Kenley Jansen appeared in the NL's fifth spot.
Look at it this way: Since 2010, there have been 24 appearances by a reliever on the ballot, comprising 122 total votes. (Note that this is not 24 relievers, as Kimbrel, for example, appeared in four seasons.) Of the 122 times that a reliever was penciled into a voter's ballot, 96 of those times (nearly 80 percent) were in either the fourth or fifth spot. Adding a reliever to the back of the ballot has become an accepted way to recognize great performance without actually pushing them to win.
Of all those ballots, only twice did a reliever collect a first-place vote, both coming in 2012. Rodney got one in the AL for setting the relief ERA record at 0.60; he finished fifth. Kimbrel got one for his 1.01 ERA and 42 saves in 45 opportunities. He also finished fifth. It's just so difficult for a one-inning reliever to accumulate enough value to overwhelm the voters, especially when you think about the fact that the injured Clayton Kershaw will probably lose plenty of support for not pitching enough innings this year… even though his 121 to date are more than twice what Britton has accumulated.
So, could Britton win the award? Sure. If he breaks Rodney's record for lowest ERA in a season, and if he has a perfect season in terms of not blowing a single save, and if no starting pitcher manages to separate himself, and if he gets a little luck as far as the outlook of which Baseball Writers' Association of America members are selected to be voters for the Cy Young Awards this year, it's at least plausible. It's just not very likely, at least not based on what we've seen over the past several years.