Arguing why a reliever should win the Cy Young Award is difficult, and it's made all the more difficult when said reliever is already revealed to not be a finalist for the award. But let's discuss the Braves' Craig Kimbrel and the National League Cy Young Award anyway, shall we? Last week, the Baseball Writers' Association of America announced the finalists for the award: the Mets' R.A. Dickey, the Nationals' Gio Gonzalez and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw. The winner will be announced on Wednesday.
Worthy candidates all. And among that group, I'd cast my vote, if I had one, for Dickey, who went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 230 strikeouts in 233 2/3 innings. He stands a very good chance of becoming the first knuckleballer to win the Cy, and deservedly so. But relievers, like knuckleballers, do deserve special consideration on the heels of special seasons, and I think this was a season in which Kimbrel should have received more attention from the voters. In the 20 years since Dennis Eckersley won the American League Cy Young Award, only one reliever (the Dodgers' Eric Gagne in 2003) has won a Cy Young, and only four others have gotten so much as a first-place vote. So although the best closers are quite adept at sealing games, they are not so successful at swaying voters, even though the voting rules make it quite clear that relievers are fully eligible for consideration. Again, if you're a reliever, and if you're going to capture the attention and imagination of the voters, you'd better be downright dominant, and you'd better put up numbers that can be appreciated from a historic perspective. Kimbrel did that. In 63 appearances out of the bullpen this season, Kimbrel went 3-1 with a 1.01 ERA, converting 42 of 45 save opportunities. Those are obviously outstanding numbers, but dig a little deeper to see where Kimbrel holds up in history (counting only those who worked at least 40 innings in a single season):
Kimbrel worked 62 2/3 innings and struck out 116. That's a 16.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio. The best in history. The opposition hit .128 off Kimbrel. That is the lowest such mark in history. Kimbrel allowed 3.88 hits per nine innings. That, too, is the lowest such mark in history. The opposition registered a .358 OPS off Kimbrel. That is the second lowest in history, and the lowest in 48 years. Kimbrel posted a 0.65 WHIP, the lowest ever for an NL reliever and the third lowest all-time, trailing only the 0.61 marks posted by Eckersley in 1989 and '90. If you faced Kimbrel in 2012, you could basically flip a coin before walking into the batter's box to determine whether or not you'd strike out. Of the 231 batters Kimbrel faced, 116 did. That's the highest strikeout percentage (.502) in history. So although Kimbrel might not have had as much acclaim as a certain Cuban fireballer in Cincinnati, he was definitely the most dominant reliever in the NL this season. And you could argue that the historic heights to which he took that dominance deserved a little more Cy consideration. Kimbrel should have at least finished in the top three and, ergo, labeled a finalist. But if anything, Kimbrel's case just hammers home the point that the BBWAA voters are generally and genuinely inclined to side with starters when casting their ballots. In most cases, I don't blame them, but in certain, special cases, the relief route is defensible. Kimbrel, given his assault on opposing batters as well as the record books, would have been a defensible choice.