Commentary

Kimbrel should win NL Cy Young

While he's not a starter, Braves' closer has sure put together a dominant season

Originally Published: September 21, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Some years, it's easy to be a Cy Young voter. Those are the years a Justin Verlander goes 24-5, leads the world in every category except most resin bags tossed, and makes it simple.

But then there are years like this.

If you're a National League Cy Young voter in 2012, there's way too much you have to decide on. Way too much.

[+] EnlargeCraig Kimbrel
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireCraig Kimbrel leads the way with a 1.10 ERA and 38 saves.

Would you vote for a knuckleballer (R.A. Dickey)? Would you vote for a guy who is rarely even described as the ace on his own team (Gio Gonzalez)? Would you vote for a reliever? And if you would, which one (Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman)?

These are the kinds of questions that have long made award voting America's foremost cause of migraines among the baseball-writing portion of the populace. So let's see if we can help those voters out -- with a look at this year's pressing NL Cy Young questions:

Starter or reliever?

Some people think no relief pitcher should ever win a Cy Young. Ever. And by "some people" I mean, for the most part, the entire planet.

It's now been 20 years since the great Dennis Eckersley won the '92 Cy Young award. In the two decades since, exactly one reliever (Eric Gagne, in 2003) has won a Cy Young -- and only four other relievers have even gotten a first-place vote. In 20 years.

So you don't need to be a Maddux brother to see this has somehow evolved into a starting pitcher's award. But it doesn't have to be. In fact, as my friends in the Baseball Writers' Association told me in 2010 when they shot down my proposal for a new relief pitchers' award, the rules clearly say we can vote for a reliever -- and we should, they told me vociferously, if we think a reliever deserves it.

Well, I'll tell you (and them) right now: I think this is one of those years.

Has any starting pitcher in the National League been even remotely as dominating as Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman? That answer, beyond dispute, is no. And this hasn't been just routine domination. This has been historic levels of domination -- particularly in the case of Kimbrel, who has had possibly the most dominant, overpowering season any NL closer has ever had.

So why should any voters feel compelled to vote for a starter in a season like this, just because there are 20 years of newfound tradition that say they should? I ran that question past one longtime dominating starter -- ESPN's own Curt Schilling -- and he laughed at the idea that starters "deserve" to be considered first.

"I have ZERO bias one way or the other," Schilling wrote, via the miracle of email. "Cy Young is for the BEST pitcher, not most valuable or anything else. When anyone in this game does something that hasn't been done in 112 years [as Kimbrel has], it bears noticing. Relievers, in my opinion, HAVE to have insanely dominant seasons given that they throw 150+ fewer innings than a starter. [But] 'tradition' is something I feel we need to move farther and farther from."

So why not start that movement now? I think that time has come. But the next big question is: If this is the year to vote for a reliever, then don't you have to determine …

Which reliever?

For a long time this summer, I was driving the Aroldis Chapman For Cy Young bandwagon. Not anymore.

Not that Chapman hasn't been awesome, other than in his last couple of outings before the Reds shut him down with shoulder fatigue. Heck, he's been ridiculous.

[+] EnlargeAroldis Chapman
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAroldis Chapman has 119 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings pitched this year.

As in … he's faced 262 hitters and given up hits to only 34 of them. … He's struck out 119 hitters in 67 2/3 innings (15.8 per nine innings). … And the poor mortals who have to bat against him have mostly had no chance, as evidenced by a .143 AVG/.221 OBP/.232 SLG slash line that indicates he's caused the best hitters alive to hit like Bronson Arroyo.

But he's still been no Craig Kimbrel. Ready for Kimbrel's historic credentials? Fasten your seat belts. (Note: To rank Kimbrel's place in history, I compared him only to pitchers -- starters or relievers -- who worked at least 50 innings in a season.)

Strikeouts: 105 in 57 1/3 IP, the best strikeout ratio ever (16.5/9 IP)
Opponent AVG.: .128, the lowest against any pitcher since 1900
Opponent OPS: .368, the lowest against any pitcher in the expansion era
WHIP: 0.68, best by any National League reliever since 1900
Percentage of hitters struck out: 49.5 pct., best in live-ball era
Strikeout-to-hit ratio: 105 whiffs, 25 hits (4.2), best of all time

And then there's the other stuff. With runners on base, he's faced 71 hitters -- and allowed a hit to four of them. … With runners in scoring position, he's faced 29 hitters -- and given up a hit to one of them. … Of his past 125 outs, 81 of them have come on strikeouts. … He's had eight outings in which he struck out all three hitters he's faced -- more than Chapman, Fernando Rodney, Jonathan Papelbon, Rafael Soriano, Jim Johnson and Jason Motte combined. … And have we mentioned this man has whiffed 11 more hitters for the season than his rotation amigo, Tim Hudson -- but in 107 1/3 fewer innings?

"He's a special guy," one NL scout said of Kimbrel. "When you go and watch him pitch, it's absolutely amazing. The hitters can't swing and hit the ball. It's that simple. They can't time him. You see guys try to cheat or do everything they can do to hit him. They can't do it."

Looking for a good definition of a Cy Young? "The hitters can't swing and hit the ball" sure works for me. So if I had to vote right now, it would be for Craig Kimbrel. No contest.

But for those traditionalists out there who still think a starter should win, there's still this question:

Which starter?

If Cy Young ballots were like MVP ballots and you could list 10 names on every ballot, here are just some of the names we'd be kicking around in this space:

Johnny Cueto, Kyle Lohse, Stephen Strasburg, Yovani Gallardo, Jordan Zimmermann, Cole Hamels and Wade Miley. They've all been tremendous. And there's a Cy Young argument to be made for every one of them. Then there's the incredible Kris Medlen, whose numbers as a starter and reliever (9-1, 1.51 ERA, 0.94 WHIP overall; plus 8-0 in his 10 starts, allowing a TOTAL of 6 ER) are getting tougher to overlook.

But in Cy Young balloting, you can vote for only five. So since Kimbrel and Chapman have to make any rational voter's top five, the starter debate realistically comes down to three men: R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez and Clayton Kershaw.

The case for Dickey

He might not have thrown a pitch all year that traveled faster than a Justin Verlander changeup. But if you can put that aside, it's easy to argue that Dickey deserves to become the first knuckleball king to win a Cy Young.

He could easily win the pitchers' triple crown, for one thing. (He's currently one win behind Gonzalez and one strikeout behind Kershaw, and he leads the league in ERA.) And since the creation of the Cy Young award in 1956, no pitcher has ever hit that trifecta and not wound up with a Cy Young to go with it.

You'll also find Dickey in the top three in WHIP, opponent average, opponent OPS, Wins Above Replacement and quality starts -- all while pitching more innings (212) and facing more hitters (837) than any other pitcher in the league.

OK, so maybe Gonzalez and Kershaw seem to have been more dominating, in a traditional heat-wave kind of way. But this award is about performance, period. So take a look at this:

In other words, don't tell me what the radar guns or FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) calculations say should be happening. Tell me what has happened. And the answer is: R.A. Dickey has actually pitched the best. Not that there aren't fabulous cases for the other two. So …

The case for Gonzalez

I surveyed three National League scouts this week and asked which starter they'd vote for if they had a Cy Young vote. All three of them said, almost instantly: "Gio."

"He's such a big part of why Washington's winning, and he's maintained it all year," said one.

"Right now, I'd have to go with Gio, by a little, over R.A.," said another. "I may be biased toward a guy who's had an impact in a playoff scenario. But the other part is, he's had to play along while everyone was going, 'Strasburg, Strasburg, Strasburg.' And it hasn't fazed him. He's just continued to do what he does."

And what Gio does, start after start, is push himself to the top of the unhittability charts. He leads the league in lowest opponent average (.207). He leads in lowest opponent OPS (.588). He's allowed three hits or fewer in 11 starts, more than any starter in the league. And he's second only to Strasburg in strikeout ratio (9.47) and FIP, if you're into that (2.86).

On the other hand, Gonzalez is only sixth in the league in ERA, eighth in WHIP, 16th in innings pitched and 21st in number of batters faced. Dickey and Kershaw have made 20 starts apiece in which they worked seven innings or more. Gonzalez has done that only 10 times, in part because he's pitching for a team that's so conscious of workloads.

And even his league lead in wins wouldn't be possible without a bullpen that hasn't blown a save for him all year or an offense that's elevated him to second in the league in run support. (The Cardinals, for comparison's sake, have blown seven saves for Lohse and have scored nearly a run fewer per game for him, and he's still 15-3.)

So there's a lot to be said for a guy like Gio, who's 19-8 and who has been this dominating for a team this good. But has he really outpitched R.A. Dickey? Depends on how you look at it. Get back to me in two weeks on that. And meanwhile …

The case for Kershaw

The Dodgers' ace is kind of the stealth candidate in this field. The "wins" crowd overlooks him because he's only 12-9. But I thought we'd arrived at a stage where we knew how to look past misleading stuff like that.

I'm not sure why nobody has noticed that it's Kershaw who leads the league in WHIP (1.02) and strikeouts (206). But I've heard zero talk about that, for some reason.

He also ranks in the top three in ERA (2.70), opponent average (.212), opponent OPS (.600), innings pitched, FIP (2.94) and Wins Above Replacement (4.8). And considering the guy was pitching his best baseball of the year before his hip started acting up (1.76 ERA in his past nine starts), he might actually sit higher on many of those lists if he'd been able to get to the mound more than once in the past 2½ weeks.

And if you're stacking him up against Gonzalez, you might be shocked to find that Kershaw leads Gonzalez in every major statistical category except wins, opponent average, opponent OPS and strikeout ratio.

"I'd actually put him slightly behind the other two," said one scout. "But I'll tell you this: There's no pitcher I'd rather not face [in a big September game] than Kershaw."

Of course, his chances to win this award probably depend on how many big September games his hip -- and his medical staff -- will allow him to pitch in these next couple of weeks.

But that's just one more pivotal question and one more thing to keep your eye on as we head for the finish line. And if the Cy Young drama is going to the final night of the season, that's a great thing for everybody -- unless, that is, you're one of the poor folks who actually has to cast a vote in an election with too many right answers.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com