Thursday, August 9, 2012
Could Craig Kimbrel win NL Cy Young?
By David Schoenfield
This came up today on the Baseball Today podcast: Is Craig Kimbrel a Cy Young candidate in the National League?
I guess it's a two-part question:
1. Does Kimbrel have the numbers to warrant consideration?
2. How likely are the voters to consider him?
The numbers, of course, are undeniably awesome: 1.27 ERA, 31 saves, two blown saves (the Braves won both games anyway), six runs allowed in 43 innings, a .117 batting average and .179 on-base percentage allowed, while averaging 15.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Kimbrel hasn't reached 50 innings yet, but only two relievers have pitched that many innings and allowed an OPS under .400: Dennis Eckersley in 1990 (.397) and Eric Gagne in 2003 (.374). Kimbrel has allowed a .345 OPS.
Kimbrel's knockout pitch is his devastating slider. In 63 plate appearances ending with the pitch, opponents have struck out 37 times and hit six singles for a .098 average. It's not quite an unhittable pitch, but it's about as close as you can get. So while Kimbrel isn't perfect in save opportunities like Gagne was in '03 or Jose Valverde last season, it's certainly one of the most dominant statistical seasons we've seen.
As for the second part of the equation, one roadblock is that Reds closer Aroldis Chapman is having a pretty fair season himself. He's limited hitters to a .129 average and .425 OPS while averaging 16.8 strikeouts per inning. He's allowed nine runs in 53 innings. But eight of those came over a period of seven appearances in mid-June, as Chapman blew three saves and lost four games. So while Chapman leads Kimbrel in WAR at 2.8 to 2.1, WAR doesn't account for when those runs were allowed. I give Kimbrel a decisive edge over Chapman on the "who's having the better season" argument.
Personally, I wouldn't vote for a relief pitcher. They just don't pitch enough innings to equal the value of a good starter. While there was a time when relievers were regularly voted Cy Young Awards (they won six from 1979 to 1992), since Eckersley in '92, only Gagne in 2003 has won. Besides Gagne, five relievers also finished in the top three in the voting in the past 10 years -- Francisco Rodriguez in 2008 (third), Trevor Hoffman in 2006 (second), Mariano Rivera in 2005 (second) and 2004 (third) and John Smoltz in 2002 (third). It's a tougher curve for relievers than 25 years ago -- as it should be.
It's also important to note that not having a clear-cut Cy Young candidate in the NL isn't the same as having a good candidate. Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey, Ryan Vogelsong, Stephen Strasburg and others are all having terrific seasons.
I wouldn't rule out Kimbrel having a chance, especially if the Braves make the playoffs. This could be a rare year where five or six pitchers receive first-place votes, making the final tally wide open.