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MLB Awards 2016: Zach Britton places fourth in Cy Young voting

A modern closer has never done what Zach Britton did this year, but that was only good enough for fourth in the Cy Young voting.

Zach Britton celebrates after saving a game for the Orioles.
What’s a closer gotta do to win the Cy Young? Better than Zach Britton did this year.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We already knew that Orioles closer Zach Britton wasn’t seriously in the running for the AL Cy Young award because he wasn’t named as one of the top three vote-getters a week ago. The winner was Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Rick Porcello, who probably won because he got a lot of run support and had 22 wins.

Britton’s unprecedented performance as a closer was good for fourth place in the voting. The others who were ahead of him were Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Cleveland’s Corey Kluber.

What does a reliever have to do to win the Cy Young? It hasn’t happened in baseball since Eric Gagne of the Dodgers won the National League Cy in 2003. In the American League, you have to go back to 1992, when Dennis Eckersley won both the MVP and the Cy Young.

That 1992 Cy should have gone to Mike Mussina, or he should have at least been a runner-up, improving his career Hall of Fame credentials. This is a rant for another article later in the offseason.

Not even Mariano Rivera, the gold standard for all closers, ever won a Cy Young in his career, although he did finish in the top three in the voting in four different seasons. But not even Rivera ever had a perfect save season like Britton just did with his 47-for-47 conversions, and not even Rivera ever had a single season ERA below 1.00, as Britton just did with his 0.54 ERA.

Yet none of that was enough to put Britton up into real consideration for winning the award. All three of the finalists had fine seasons, ones you really wish someone in the Orioles rotation was capable of putting together, but these were not transcendent performances where any one of them, or all of them as a group, were head-and-shoulders above the ordinary.

As it works out, the 2016 AL Cy Young winner is the first above-3.00 ERA winner since CC Sabathia won in 2007. That would have been true no matter which of the “finalists” came out on top. So basically, what the heck?

The Orioles last had a Cy Young winner in 1980, when Steve Stone was the winner. This is another of the Orioles accomplishments that has never happened in my lifetime.

It’s true that Britton only pitched 67 innings over the course of the season, while all of Verlander, Kluber, and Porcello topped 200 innings. If that is the argument that will be made, then no reliever should ever win the award again and there should no longer be any fiction about whether a reliever might be able to win.

After all, while a starting pitcher only pitches one out of every five games, he has far more impact on the games he pitches than does a closer who records three outs. That’s a reasonable opinion, if a frustrating one to the Britton boosters in Birdland. But if Dellin Betances of the Yankees wins next year’s Cy Young or something, I’ll be annoyed.

Although Britton finished in fourth place in the voting, he received five first place votes out of the 30 that were cast. That’s a non-trivial amount of support for a guy who didn’t even crack the top three. Britton had more first place votes than Kluber and only three fewer first place votes than the winner, Porcello.

Two of Britton’s five first place votes came from Baltimore-based voters Roch Kubatko and Rich Dubroff, which may make you feel pride or embarrassment in the shameless level of homerism or provincialism on display. It’s OK if you feel both pride and embarrassment.

In all, Porcello had 137 points, narrowly edging Verlander, who had 132. Kluber had 98 points to Britton’s 72. Also receiving a respectable number of votes was Chris Sale of the White Sox. Support also trickled in for another 20-game winner, J.A. Happ, as well as Aaron Sanchez, Masahiro Tanaka, Andrew Miller, Rookie of the Year winner Michael Fulmer, and Jose Quintana.

Britton appeared at least somewhere on 24 of the 30 ballots cast. The Cy Young ballots go out to five places. In addition to his five first place votes, Britton picked up three second place votes, two third place votes, five fourth place votes, and nine fifth place votes.

The only award left to hand out is the MVP award, which will be done tomorrow night. Manny Machado is not among the finalists, but I’ll be curious to see how high he places.