BALTIMORE — Zach Britton has been pretty near perfect this season for the Baltimore Orioles.
The left-handed closer has 45 saves in 45 tries, a minuscule 0.59 ERA and nearly four times as many strikeouts as walks.
Those numbers certainly a warrant a look for voters choosing the AL Cy Young Award winner, even though it’s been 24 years since a reliever took home the trophy.
“The Cy Young winner, by definition, is the best pitcher in the league,” Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.
That distinction is arbitrary, but here’s something that isn’t: Britton’s numbers are far better than those of 1992 Cy Young Award winner Dennis Eckersley, who was 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves in 54 tries with Oakland.
Dodgers closer Eric Gagne won it in the NL in 2003, going 55 for 55 in save opportunities with a 1.20 ERA. For that, he received 28 of 32 first-place votes in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Some voters might find it difficult to get behind a pitcher who’s thrown only 61 1/3 innings, as Britton had through Tuesday. Yet, there’s something to be said for a guy who’s sealed more than half his team’s wins.
“I think all pitchers should be considered,” Britton said. “It’s not an award just for starting pitchers.”
To be clear, the 28-year-old is not running a campaign for himself.
“It’s not something I’m going to focus on,” he said. “Whoever has a vote is going to vote the way they want for their own reasons.”
So, should a reliever be considered for the coveted award?
“That’s a simple answer for me: Yes, for sure,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “The guy, to me, is the most dominant reliever in the American League.”
Few would argue with that assessment. But for decades, the AL Cy Young Award has gone to a starter, and that makes Red Sox right-hander Rick Porcello (21-4, 3.08 ERA) the odds-on favorite. Toronto’s J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.28) and Chicago’s Chris Sale (16-8, 3.03) are also having outstanding years.
Boston manager John Farrell would love to see Porcello get the nod but can’t dismiss Britton as a possibility.
“When you think that a guy has converted every save opportunity in the fashion in which he does it, well, he might be the best closer in the game right now,” Farrell said. “In my opinion, if a closer is to be considered for the Cy Young, it takes a year such as Zach is having.”
Hinch backed up the assessment.
“If there’s not a worthy candidate out of the rotation, then I don’t see a huge problem with a dominant reliever leading the way,” he said. “They do have their own award, though it’s not as sexy as the Cy Young.”
He’s got a point. No one in baseball history won more games in his career than Cy Young, whose name has become synonymous with pitching excellence.
The Reliever of the Year Award is, well, merely what it says it is.
There’s really no argument when it comes to choosing the most effective reliever in the league. Britton (2-1) lost his only game in April, when he gave up a run in a tie game against the White Sox. He’s appeared in 64 games and allowed an earned run in only four of them.
Oh, and his run of 45 straight saves to start a season is the most by a left-hander in baseball history.
“There are just so many things working against you — a chopper here, a broken bat there, a strike that was called a ball,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It just tells you how good he’s been. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t realize how lucky we are to have him and the year he’s having.”
Britton is perhaps the main reason why the Orioles remain in contention for a playoff berth.
“When they start talking about Cy Young and MVP,” Showalter said, “how can you be better at what you’re asked to do for a club than what he’s done?”