Since its creation in 1956, nine relief pitchers have won the Cy Young award. In 1974, Mike Marshall, a reliever for the Los Angeles Dodgers, became the first relief pitcher to win the award. The last reliever to win it was Éric Gagné in 2003. Dennis Eckersley (1992) is the only other modern closer to win the award—and he won the MVP award in the same year he won the Cy Young. Not only does Edwin Díaz have some lofty competition for the award this year, he’s also going to be compared to these nine relievers who have been immortalized by their outstanding performances out of the bullpen.
Most of the relievers who have won the Cy Young award won it during the 70s and 80s. Bullpen usage during this era was completely different from the modern era. You would often see relievers throwing multiple innings and the role of a closer was just beginning to take hold. With the specialization of relievers and more conservative usage patterns, the modern closer has had a much harder time building a case for winning the award.
Below you’ll see a table listing the nine relief pitchers who have won the Cy Young award and their relevant stats. To better compare across eras, I’ve adjusted each of their strikeout and walk rates to account for their league context. I’ve presented these stats (K%+, BB%-) as plus/minus metrics where 100 is average and each integer above or below that mark is one percentage point above or below league average. I’ve also used ERA- and FIP- for the same reasons.
Cy Young Award Winners - Relievers
|Mike Marshall||1974||208 1/3||21||125||68||70||72||-0.02||4.1|
|Bruce Sutter||1979||101 1/3||37||198||81||54||47||4.13||4.8|
|Willie Hernández*||1984||140 1/3||32||134||72||49||63||8.58||3.2|
|Mark Davis||1989||92 2/3||44||149||90||53||73||5.72||2.2|
|Éric Gagné||2003||82 1/3||55||248||68||30||19||6.32||4.7|
The first thing that should stand out to you is the innings totals for the first seven relievers to win the Cy Young award. Rollie Fingers won his award during the strike-shortened 1981 season—if they had played a full season, he would have almost certainly exceeded 100 innings pitched. All those additional innings pitched gave these seven relievers more opportunities to accumulate fWAR and WPA too. Comparing Edwin Díaz to these pitchers is helpful but shouldn’t be given too much weight.
Like I stated in the lede, Dennis Eckersley and Éric Gagné are the only two modern closers who have won the Cy Young award. They were both incredibly dominant during the years they won. In ’92, Eckersley beat out 20-game winner Jack McDowell and the AL ERA leader Roger Clemens to win the award with a 76% share of the vote total. Eckersley saved 51 games, blowing a save three times and losing just once. He was a big reason why the Athletics won the AL West that year and he won the MVP award for his efforts too.
Gagné’s 2003 season is one of the best relief seasons ever. The field he faced that year was relatively weak—Jason Schmidt and Mark Prior each had excellent seasons but neither pitched for playoff teams— but that shouldn’t detract from Gagné’s insane numbers. He deservedly won the award with a 91% share of the vote total. Since the mound was lowered in 1969, Gagné’s FIP- of 19 is the lowest among all qualified relief seasons. Edwin Díaz’s FIP- of 35 would rank fifth on this leaderboard, right below Kenley Jansen’s 31 from last year.
The current field
The modern bullpen has made it almost impossible for a reliever to stand out among his peers. Kenley Jansen’s FIP- I referenced above isn’t abnormal. The most elite relievers in the game have compiled similar seasons recently too. Craig Kimbrel had a 21 FIP- in 2012, Aroldis Chapman had a 23 in 2014, and Jansen put up consecutive seasons of 36 and 31. If Díaz is to have any hope of winning the Cy Young award, he’ll need to continue to dominate batters at an even better rate than he already has.
Taking a look at the field Díaz is facing doesn’t exactly inspire hope either—though there is a narrow path that could result in an award. Dan Szymborski took a brief look at the Cy Young hopefuls on FanGraphs earlier this week. He gave Díaz a less than 1% chance of winning the award. Here are the top ten candidates he listed and their relevant stats:
2018 AL Cy Young Award Field
|Name||IP||W-L / SV||K%+||BB%-||ERA-||FIP-||fWAR|
|Name||IP||W-L / SV||K%+||BB%-||ERA-||FIP-||fWAR|
|Gerrit Cole||153 2/3||10-5||160||104||67||66||4.8|
|Justin Verlander||164 1/3||11-8||158||55||62||71||4.7|
|Luis Severino||154 1/3||15-6||147||83||90||76||4.1|
|James Paxton||139 1/3||10-5||129||74||76||72||3.4|
|Carlos Carrasco||136 1/3||14-6||116||43||62||79||3.4|
|Charlie Morton||137 1/3||12-3||141||119||70||82||2.8|
|Edwin Díaz||59||46 SV||194||74||49||34||3.1|
Chris Sale obviously leads the pack. His recent injury and the resulting low inning count could be marks against him. His strikeout totals and pristine ERA could make up the difference though. Trevor Bauer was making a decent case for himself but was recently placed on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his leg, putting his availability for the rest of the season in doubt. The trio of Astros starters could push their way into the conversation but it’s possible their combined success will force voters to split their vote among them all, giving Díaz room to push himself up the field. Luis Severino has really struggled recently, almost certainly removing himself from the race.
There is one other way Díaz could elevate himself in the eyes of the award voters: breaking the single-season save record. Grant will have a closer look at Díaz’s chances of breaking that record later today.