It's about time the Baseball Writers Association of America and Major League Baseball pull the plug on one of its traditions, or at least call it what it is.
It's time to define the Cy Young Award properly: Recognition of the season's best starting pitcher.
It's not a pitcher's award any longer; it's a starting pitcher's award. Period. Even after this so-called "Postseason of the Reliever."
If you weren't sure, the voting for the 2016 American League Cy Young race confirmed it. Orioles closer Zach Britton, who turned in an historic season with a 0.54 ERA in 67 innings, wasn't named as a top three finalist.
He was beaten out by three starters -- Cleveland's Corey Kluber, Boston's Rick Porcello and Detroit's Justin Verlander -- all of whom had ERAs higher than 3.00 but threw at least 200 innings.
That trio certainly had excellent seasons, but none dominated. Verlander, for instance, was 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA and 1.001 WHIP in 227.2 innings this season. In his spectacular 2011 campaign in which he won the AL Cy Young and MVP awards, Verlander was 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and a 0.920 WHIP in 251 innings.
If someone had that kind of year in the AL in 2016, I wouldn't be writing this column. But no one did.
Britton, however, arguably was as dominant as any reliever in the game's history. His ERA was the lowest ever for someone with at least 50 innings pitched. He was perfect in his 47 save chances, allowed just one homer and four earned runs in 69 appearances and put together a run of 43 outings without yielding an earned run, the longest such streak.
And he's not in the top three in his league? (At least not according to the BBWAA; Britton did make the top three for AL Outstanding Pitcher in the Players' Choice Awards.)
Today's baseball writers, as a unit, don't view late-inning relievers in the same class as starting pitchers because of the innings pitched by each group.
Really, the writers rarely have. The Cy Young Award has been around since 1956, and only nine relievers have won the award in either league. It took almost 20 years for the first one, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Mike Marshall in 1974. And he wasn't the breed of reliever we know now.
Marshall posted a 2.42 ERA in a whopping 208.1 innings -- appearing in 106 games in relief.
The last time a reliever -- specifically, a closer -- won the award was in 2003, when the Dodgers' Eric Gagne converted all 55 of his save chances. The last time a reliever won in the AL was Oakland's Dennis Eckersley, who picked up the 1992 MVP and Cy Young awards with a 1.91 ERA, 0.913 WHIP and 51 saves in 54 opportunities while pitching 80 innings in 69 games.
The argument can easily be made Britton had a better year this season than Eckersley 24 years ago. But Britton isn't competing against Eckersley; he's competing against the growing sentiment that closers are interchangeable and defined roles for relief pitchers are archaic.
Britton's agent, Scott Boras, made that clear in a text after the finalists were announced: "Baseball writers have now excluded closers from winning the Cy Young. Ridiculous."
Britton was a little more diplomatic.
"Whether I was a finalist or not, it wasn't going to change the way I feel about the season I had," Britton texted. "I figured I wasn't the safe [Cy Young] choice and it was going to be an uphill battle. Obviously, I hope a reliever in the future has a better season than I had and gets recognized for it."
The truth is, you can't do much better than what Britton did as a reliever. This is what his manager, Buck Showalter, had to say: "This guy has maybe had the greatest year in history of relief pitching. He did it at home, he did it away. It was with a one-run lead, a three-run lead, when we got into a city at 4 o'clock the previous morning."
You also don't often see a group of upper echelon starters so evenly matched like the top candidates were this year. So, this was the perfect storm for a reliever to win the Cy Young Award. And Britton didn't come close.
It should signify to the BBWAA membership -- of which I belong -- that times have changed, and an adjustment in the rules is necessary.
Several years ago, esteemed baseball writer Jayson Stark of ESPN.com made a proposal to the BBWAA to add a fifth award in each league to honor relief pitchers (joining the Cy Young, MVP, Rookie and Manager awards).
His point was the Rolaids Relief/Delivery Man accolades didn't have the same prestige as the BBWAA awards, and relievers were buried in the Cy voting. The proposal was shot down.
Full disclosure: I voted against it. I liked the idea, but as then-chairman of the local BBWAA chapter, I was always struggling to get 16 qualified voters (two per award, four awards, two leagues) because large media entities such as
The Baltimore Sun and
Washington Post didn't allow their employees to vote, and MLB.com writers were not allowed to be part of the BBWAA.
Trying to find four more voters from a limited pool would have been a logistical nightmare. Conceptually, I agreed with the idea, though.
And, now, membership of the BBWAA expanded to include approved internet media such as MLB.com. Finding qualified voters is no longer as much of a challenge.
I'd now be on board for adding a BBWAA reliever award. But that ship likely has sailed.
In 2014, Major League Baseball took over the reliever awards and renamed them in honor of Trevor Hoffman (NL) and Mariano Rivera (AL). A panel of nine former elite closers pick the annual winners, and do an excellent job (Britton won the Rivera award this year).
The primary benefit of having the writers take ownership of the awards is they are all under one umbrella. The finalists are all announced at once and the winners are spread out for a period of days to create maximum interest. (The BBWAA award winners are revealed in the offseason, while the MLB reliever awards are presented during the World Series).
Plus, because of the historical tradition involved with the MVP and Cy Young, the BBWAA awards just have a little more juice than any other baseball accolades. That's the way it is.
That's not to say the writers get it right every time; we didn't come close this year with Britton, seemingly ignored in Cy Young voting.
So, it's time to alter things. Make Cy Young officially for starters only, and promote the Hoffman/Rivera honors in the same manner as the BBWAA awards, so the relievers get their proper recognition.
Regardless if it's fair, it's certainly obvious after this year's balloting that relievers can't compete for the Cy Young these days.
Issue 227: November 2016