Zach Britton – the closer for the Baltimore Orioles – is arguably the most dominant reliever in Major League Baseball today.  His sinking fastball – which regularly clocks in the mid-to-upper-90’s – is borderline unhittable.

That’s no secret.

But it’s also no secret that the Cy Young award is mostly dominated by starting pitchers with power arms.

The stats – much like Shakira’s hips – don’t lie.

In fact, Eric Gagne is the only reliever to win the Cy Young over the last two decades.  Prior to Gagne, Dennis Eckersley was the last closer to win it – and that was way back in 1992.

It’s clearly a rarity, but Zach Britton certainly deserves to be in the conversation.

Zach Britton Baltimore Orioles closer

Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton deserves to be in the 2016 Cy Young conversation

With the MLB regular season over, the focus now shifts to the playoffs and major awards.

Let’s talk Cy Young and Zach Britton, shall we?

Zach Britton: The 2016 Cy Young Argument

To state Zach Britton’s case, it’s key to first compare Baltimore’s shutdown man to Gagne’s 2003 campaign, while peppering in baseball numbers surrounding the 2016 Orioles, the American League season and any key competitors that also belong in the conversation.

2016 Britton vs. 2003 Gagne

The most logical first check would be a comparison to the last Cy Young award-winning reliever, that being Eric Gagne, when he won the award during his 2003 season in Los Angeles.

  • Britton’s 2016 campaign is as gaudy as a celebrity’s bling at the Oscars: 67 IP, 4 ER, 0.54 ERA, 74 K’s and most importantly, 47-for-47 in save attempts
  • In comparison, Gagne tossed 82 1/3 IP, with a 1.21 ERA, 55 saves and a ridiculous 137 K’s
  • Gagne’s 55 saves are tied for the third most all-time.  Only Francisco Rodriguez (62 in 2008) and Bobby Thigpen (57 in 1990) had a higher total during a single season
  • The additional eight saves is a big number, but Britton’s ERA is astronomically low (compared to Gagne’s)
  • The last earned run allowed by Britton was on August 24th against the Nationals (in a non-save situation).  Prior to that, the additional three earned runs allowed were all in the month of April – think about that!
  • While Britton is by far the most dominant pitcher on Baltimore’s roster, one could argue that Gagne maybe wasn’t that man on his own team.  Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo combined to win 30 games and strike out more than 350 batters in 2003

2016 Orioles

Any elite award-winning performance almost always goes hand-in-hand with the performance of the team.  The 2016 Orioles would serve as a helping hand for Britton, especially for the following reasons:

  • The Orioles are a playoff team, landing a Wild Card spot as one of three teams from the AL East to make the postseason
  • Baltimore’s bullpen was its strength (and not the rotation), bringing the spotlight and focus straight to Britton
  • Over the course of the season, Kevin Gausman and Chris Tillman were the only rotation arms to post a sub-4.00 ERA
  • Baltimore needed until its 162nd game to clinch the Wild Card, meaning that every perfect performance by Britton was necessary for the Orioles to get into the postseason

Zach Britton vs. the AL’s Best

When arguing for a Cy Young, one must check on the rest of the competition in the league.  Here are Britton’s numbers when compared to other top performers (and teams) in Major League Baseball:

  • Britton vs. Baseball’s Best
    • We already know the gaudy numbers, but who were these stellar performances against?
      • 5-for-5 in saves against the AL East champion Boston Red Sox
      • 4-for-4 in save opportunities against the AL Central champion Cleveland Indians (just two hits allowed)
      • Throw in 5 saves against the Blue Jays, 3 against the Tigers and 2 against the Giants
      • Britton also had two saves against the Dodgers and one against the Nationals
      • As bad as they were, it’s still no cake walk to manage 8 saves against one team (in this case, the Rays)
    • Let’s not forget Britton shutting the door on the National League in the All-Star game, cementing homefield for the American League in the World Series
  • Britton vs. the Competition
    • Consider wins, ERA and K’s for pitchers on teams that are (or were close to being) playoff-bound
    • Rick Porcello: 22-4, 3.15 ERA, 189 K’s
    • J.A. Happ: 20-4, 3.18 ERA, 163 K’s
    • Corey Kluber: 18-9, 3.14 ERA, 227 K’s
    • David Price and  Justin Verlander could also be in the conversation, but don’t quite have the numbers
    • Knock out Kluber, because of his numbers vs. key opponents: 4.38 ERA vs. Boston, 3.86 ERA vs. Baltimore and a 6.30 ERA against the Blue Jays
    • Happ fared better against key competition: 2.33 ERA against Boston, 3.54 ERA vs. Baltimore and a 1.29 over one start against the Indians
    • Porcello was iffy in single starts against the Royals and White Sox, while posting a 4.50 ERA in four combined starts against the Rangers and Blue Jays; Otherwise, he was rather stellar against the rest of the competition

Comparing Britton’s numbers to starting pitchers is an apples-to-oranges situation, yes, but nevertheless, it’s important to outline the key competition and how each performed over the course of the season.  It’s clear that Porcello is likely to be the primary competition, with Happ likely to be also in the picture, as well.

In Conclusion

When Zach Britton is on his game, he’s borderline untouchable, but has his 2016 season been enough to warrant Cy Young consideration?

The simple answer is YES.  But if you need convincing, go back and re-read the above.

Seriously, a 0.54 ERA in high-pressure situations, with 47 saves and zero blown?  It takes a lot of precision throws and opposing team preparation to be able to consistently post numbers like that day in and day out.

If the voters are not biased against starting pitchers or major markets, then these facts would be realized and the Orioles closer could very well run away with the award.

For these reasons and more, Zach Britton has a legitimate chance to be Baltimore’s first Cy Young winner since Steve Stone won the award following the 1980 season.