No, Jayson Stark, Craig Kimbrel is not the NL Cy Young

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ESPN’s Jayson Stark built his Cy Young case for Craig Kimbrel in Friday’s column. It’s chock full of some delicious statistics that demonstrate Kimbrel’s unprecedented accomplishments, and it’s well worth reading. It’s actually a really good column. I just totally disagree with the premise.

Now, I’m not one to say relievers don’t deserve consideration for the Cy Young Award. But it would have to be a truly epic season for a reliever to trump the league’s top starters.

And in a way Kimbrel is having that epic season. His strikeout rate is ridiculous. His .128 average against is insane. He’s incredible, and there’s no one I’d rather have pitching the ninth for my team right now.

That said, Kimbrel’s sole job is pitching the ninth inning with a lead of one, two or three runs. Of his 57 1/3 innings this season, 55 have been the ninth. He’s gotten one out in the eighth, and he’s twice pitched in extras.

And Kimbrel has blown three of his 41 save chances. That’s very good, maybe even great, but it’s far from historic.

When Eric Gagne won his Cy Young award in 2003, he was a perfect 55-for-55 converting save chances. He also threw 82 1/3 innings. Kimbrel figures to finish at about 60 innings.

Kimbrel is one of five closers this season with at least 34 saves and no more than three blown saves. Jim Johnson is 46-for-49. Fernando Rodney is 43-for-45. Joel Hanrahan is 36-for-39. Joe Nathan is 34-for-36.

Last year, Jose Valverde was 49-for-49 saving games and John Axford was 46-for-48. Valverde finished fifth in the AL Cy Young balloting and Axford was ninth in the NL.

Now, Kimbrel is more dominant than those guys and maybe that should matter, given that Cy Young is for “best pitcher” rather than “most valuable pitcher.” But unless that “best” is adding more wins to his team’s total, I find it hard to put weight to it. Because the closer’s role is so specific these days, the guy who routinely strikes out the side in the ninth isn’t doing anything more to help his team than the Todd Jones-type nail-biter who always puts two guys on before securing the save.

Give me a reliever who works the eighth on occasion, throws 80-90 innings and picks up several wins in tie games and maybe he could be a Cy Young winner. Something along the lines of Tyler Clippard’s 2011, only better. As is, I’m taking the starter. In this case, it’s R.A. Dickey.

Zack Cozart thinks the way the Rays have been using Sergio Romo is bad for baseball

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The Rays started Sergio Romo on back-to-back days and if that sounds weird to you, you’re not alone. Romo, of course, was the star closer for the Giants for a while, helping them win the World Series in 2012 and ’14. He’s been a full-time reliever dating back to 2006, when he was at Single-A.

In an effort to prevent lefty Ryan Yarbrough from facing the righty-heavy top of the Angels’ lineup (Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, Justin Upton), Romo started Saturday’s game, pitching the first inning before giving way to Yarbrough in the second. Romo struck out the side, in fact. The Rays went on to win 5-3.

The Rays did it again on Sunday afternoon, starting Romo. This time, he got four outs before giving way to Matt Andriese. Romo walked two without giving up a hit while striking out three. The Angels managed to win 5-2 however.

Despite Sunday’s win, Cozart wasn’t a happy camper with the way the Rays used Romo. Via Fabian Ardaya of The Athletic, Cozart said, “It was weird … It’s bad for baseball, in my opinion … It’s spring training. That’s the best way to explain it.”

It’s difficult to see merit in Cozart’s argument. It’s not like the Rays were making excessive amounts of pitching changes; they used five on Saturday and four on Sunday. The games lasted three hours and three hours, 15 minutes, respectively. The average game time is exactly three hours so far this season. I’m having trouble wondering how else Cozart might mean the strategy is bad for baseball.

It seems like the real issue is that Cozart is afraid of the sport changing around him. The Rays, like most small market teams, have to find their edges in slight ways. The Rays aren’t doing this blindly; the strategy makes sense based on their opponents’ starting lineup. The idea of valuing on-base percentage was scoffed at. Shifting was scoffed at and now every team employs them to some degree. Who knows if starting a reliever for the first three or four outs will become a trend, but it’s shortsighted to write it off at first glance.