No to WPA. No to Zach Britton for Cy Young.
I understand why the traditional baseball writer might be pushing for a closer for Cy Young honors in the AL this year. There aren’t any great starting candidates. The one guy in the league with a sub-3.00 ERA, Aaron Sanchez, sits at 2.92, ranks 14th in innings pitched and 24th in strikeouts. Then there are 11 guys who qualify for the ERA title with ERAs ranging from 3.07 to 3.34. No one really stands out.
Zach Britton does. He did even more last month, when he was starting to get talked up as a Cy Young candidate with his Orioles surprisingly in first place in the AL East. Britton has been the game’s best reliever this year. He’s 40-for-40 saving games, and he has a remarkable 0.65 ERA. He’s a truly exceptional closer, and the BBWAA used to like voting for closers for Cy Young.
What I didn’t expect as much was for the sabermetrically-inclined to also endorse Britton. One of my very favorite writers, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh, did that last month, even going so far as to label Britton the league MVP. Much of his argument was based on WPA and cWPA, both of which had Britton as the top player in the majors.
I strongly disagree with that take.
WPA, for those who don’t know, is short for Win Probability Added, a stat that tracks each event in baseball and adds up how much it altered a game’s win probability. Hitting a grand slam down 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth, turning a nearly certain loss into a win, would give a player something like a 0.97 WPA for just that event. Hitting a grand slam in the first inning of a 0-0 game would be worth considerably less, perhaps a third as much, even if the team went on to win 4-0.
Similar measures apply for pitchers. A game’s win probability swings more with each event the closer the game is to the end. Britton pitching a scoreless ninth with a 4-3 lead can be worth as much or more as Chris Tillman turning in a quality start that helped generate that late lead.
(cWPA broadens the WPA concept and weighs games differently as well. The “c” stands for championship, and the stat measures how much each event contributes towards winning the World Series, which obviously places much greater emphasis on those players helping winning teams.)
It’s a valid concept, but when you add it all together, it’s mostly just a big pile of mush. I’m not 100 percent against WPA if one is comparing hitters and giving it a little weight in an MVP battle. I don’t think it tells us anything in comparing starters to relievers, though.
It’s not like Britton’s lead in WPA among pitchers makes him unique. Relievers also led all pitchers in WPA in 2012 (Jim Johnson), 2011 (Tyler Clippard), 2007 (J.J. Putz), 2006 (Francisco Rodriguez), 2004 (Joe Nathan) and 2003 (Eric Gagne). Right now, four of the top 10 pitchers in WPA are relievers. Last year, it was six of the top 10. In 2014, it was five of the top 10. In 2013, the AL’s top three pitchers in WPA were relievers (Greg Holland, Joe Nathan and Koji Uehara). Cy Young winner Max Scherzer was fourth.
If we went by WPA this year, four of the five pitchers on the AL Cy Young ballot would be relievers. Andrew Miller and Sam Dyson are second and third behind Britton. Sanchez comes in fourth, followed by Roberto Osuna.
No one, though, will be placing Dyson third on an AL Cy Young ballot. Maybe someone will have Miller in the top five, but I doubt anyone will put him second. Instead, those who vote Britton will argue that he’s a special case. He’s perfect in his save chances. He has that incredible ERA.
The problem is that Britton has thrown 55 innings. He’s actually thrown just one so far in September. He’s protecting leads, but he’s not winning any games by himself. Thanks to him, the Orioles are 64-0 when leading after eight innings this year. The average team, though, wins 96 percent of those games. The average team should be 62-2 when leading after eight. Do those two extra wins Britton has generated over an average closer make him the Cy Young?
No. I’d say it’s virtually impossible for a 70-inning reliever to be the league’s best pitcher in any given year (rWAR would say that, too, it places Britton 18th among AL pitchers this year). And as great as Britton is and an unexceptional as the top of this year’s SP class has been, a Cy Young for a reliever still doesn’t add up.