Assessing Craig Kimbrel’s Validity as a Cy Young Candidate

In the past weeks, sports writers have started to throw Craig Kimbrel in as a legitimate top 3 candidate for the Cy Young and it has piqued my interest; so much so that I wanted to write an article comparing why he should with why he shouldn’t.  I usually prefer a starter to a reliever for the Cy Young as they provide more value to the team by having more opportunities to pitch.  I also think that the stamina required for a starter to pitch 200+ innings in a year is incredible and to be considered for the award.  However, there are some seasons in which a relief pitcher is so dominant that he has to be at least in the consideration for the award.  The way I’ll go about this is by comparing Kimbrel to the three previous relief pitchers to win the award (Mark Davis, Dennis Eckersley, and Eric Gagne), compare Kimbrel to the other NL Cy Young contenders, and finally I will compare Kimbrel’s season to great seasons by a relief pitcher which did not win the award.

Mark Davis  (1989 SD Padres)

Mark Davis, closer for the 1989 San Diego Padres won the Cy Young award with 44 saves in 92.2 Innings of 1.85 ERA ball.  He struck out 8.94 per 9 innings, had an FIP of 2.69, a 2.97 K/BB, and a WHIP of 1.05.  To be honest, I do not know how he won  the award.  He was simply a good reliever in the year, but certainly not the best pitcher in my opinion.  Oral Hershiser pitched to a 2.31 ERA in 250+ innings and would have been my top pick for the Cy, but he came in fourth and for some reason didn’t garner the votes.  Kimbrel beats out Davis in nearly every conceivable category except for saves and IP, and is also up against a lesser field of pitchers, though Davis probably should not have won the award.

Dennis Eckersley (1992 Atheletics)

It is a shame that I knew very little of Dennis Eckersley before putting this article together, but he is probably one of if not THE greatest relief pitcher ever.  Now, he was a starter for the first half of his 24 year career.  His 1992 campaign featured 51 saves, a 10.46 K/9, 1.91 ERA, and 1.72 FIP in 80 IP.  He amassed 3 fWAR and allowed 0.91 WHIP.  Eckersley won BOTH the MVP and Cy Young in 1992 and it wasn’t particularly close in either race.  He was not up against an incredible field of pitchers for the Cy, though Roger Clemens had put up a very solid season.  Eckersley’s A’s did make the playoffs and this could have given him more consideration for the awards.  Kimbrel has better peripheral stats this year than Eckersley ( and almost any pitcher ever, actually), though Eckersley has the advantage in saves and IP.  Interestingly enough, 1992 wasn’t even Eckersley’s best season(s).  In 1990 he pitched to a 0.61 ERA and put up 3.2 fWAR in fewer innings.  He also owned a 18.25 K/BB ratio, the second best in history; the record is also Eckersley’s a 18.33 in ’89.  This is about 6 higher than the next highest ever.  I think, however, that Kimbrel has a slight edge on his 1992 season.

Eric Gagne (2003 Dodgers)

Interestingly enough, Gagne has been in the news recently for his newly published memoir, in which he admits steroid usage and claims that 80% of his teammates used roids.  Anyway, roids or not, Gagne had a MONSTER 2003 season.  His peripherals are the most similar to Kimbrel’s, but let me start with the basics.  He had a 1.20 ERA in 82.1 IP while converting 55 of 55 save opportunities.  He owned a 14.98 K/9, 0.86 FIP, 0.69 WHIP, and 4.5 fWAR.  Gagne had solid, though not great competition in Mark Prior and Jason Schmidt.  Perhaps you could argue Prior’s high K rate and low ERA as a starter should have led to him winning in 2003, but Gagne was victorious and it wasn’t even close.  His and Kimbrel’s seasons are similar, with Kimbrel edging Gagne in pure dominance, but Gagne having more saves, no blown saves, and more IP probably gives Gagne’s 2003 season an edge over Kimbrel’s 2012.  However, i would argue that Gio Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, and R.A. Dickey’ 2012 seasons are inferior to Mark Prior and Jason Schmidt’s 2003 seasons.  If you think Gagne won because of his dominance and peripheral stats, Kimbrel should probably win in 2012, but if Gagne won because of his perfect performance in his large number of save opportunities, Kimbrel might not be the best candidate.

Now, on to Kimbrel’s oft alluded competition.   I’ve identified Clayton Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez, and R.A. Dickey as the major competitors for the award.  I won’t go into as much detail on them as with the other pitchers, just enough to get the basic idea of their season.  Gonzalez and Dickey have both reached the 20-win milestone, which voters take into consideration.  Gio is the only player on a playoff bound team of the three.  Dickey owns the lowest ERA, at 2.66, Kershaw is right behind with 2.68, and Gonzalez has a 2.84 ERA.  Kershaw and Dickey both have 1.04 WHIP while Gonzalez is at 1.12.  These three are all having excellent seasons by any metric, but not seasons typical of a Cy Young award winner.  Also, the fact that these three are all very similar may push voters to look at Kimbrel.  They may very well choose his historical dominance over a typical “ace” like year.  200 IP and a sub 3 ERA is very good, but several pitchers in each league get those numbers every year.  How often do you have a pitcher strike out nearly 17 batters per 9 innings?  Answer: Only once so far, Kimbrel’s 2012 season.  Of the three starting pitchers, I think that Gio Gonzalez and his 21 wins barely beats out Dickey because of slightly better peripherals and the fact that he plays on the winning-est team in baseball this year.

I’ve already talked about Dennis Eckersley’s 1990 campaign, but there are also several other amazing seasons by a reliever which did not garner any Cy Young or MVP awards.  Aroldis Chapman’s 2012 is definitely up there as far as dominance is concerned, and, if not for Kimbrel, he may be a legitimate Cy Young contender in his own right.  He has a near 16 K/9 and 1.55 ERA.  Mariano Rivera‘s 4.4 fWAR 1996 campaign is up there, though he was not even the closer for the Yanks.  Billy Wagner‘s 1999 season was worth 3.6 fWAR and he had near a 15 K/BB ratio.  (Billy Wagner also served as Kimbrel’s mentor in the 2010 season before his retirement).  Rob Dibble’s 1990 was worth 4.4 fWAR and he pitched to a 1.50 FIP.  K-Rods 2008 season in which he become the only pitcher ever to record 60+ saves with 62 is another of the greatest seasons by a reliever.  He had around a 10 K/9 ratio and a 2.24 ERA.  Fernando Rodney of the 2012 Rays is pitching to a 0.63 ERA and has saved 45 games.  Lastly, Kimbrel’s season last year was one of the greats; he saved 46 games with a 2.10 ERA in 77 Innings of work.  He also had his amazing peripherals which he has only improved upon in 2012.  Just because his 2012 is better doesn’t mean his 2011 is not among the best.  There are plenty more fantastic seasons put out by relief pitchers, but i feel as though these are among the most dominant.  Kimbrel is right there with the best of them, though some of these guys had even better seasons than relievers who won the Cy Young and even Kimbrel.

I have talked a lot about other pitchers, but now it’s Kimbrel time.  Kimbrel has a 0.66 WHIP, 16.56 K/9, 50.2 K%, 0.82 FIP, 111 punch outs, 4 strike outs in an inning, and has allowed just 26 hits this whole year with 221 batters faced.  Also, he has struck out the side a whopping 8 times, though he has struck out 3+ batters in an inning 16 times.  The only knock on him is that he blew three save and doesn’t have the IP numbers of some other relievers.  However, he has put together what is probably the most dominant season ever by a pitcher.  I think that, with this in mind, and the fact that there is no clearly dominant starting pitcher in the NL, and that the Braves are playoff bound, Kimbrel wins my NL Cy Young.  This is just in his second full year ever!  In his first two years in the Bigs, he has put up two of the best seasons by a closer ever.  As a Braves fan and a fan of the game, I absolutely cannot wait to see what he does next!

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