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Zach Britton is in the middle of an elite season, yet still a Cy Young longshot

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So far this season, Zach Britton is pitching at a level no relief pitcher has ever done. Even as good as he’s been, it’ll be tough for him to win the Cy Young award.

From 1969 to 1980, the Orioles had a Cy Young winner six times. They have not had a winner ever since. If we’re all being honest with ourselves, this year is probably not the year that the drought is going to end, but the Orioles do have a couple of pitchers who are at least on the fringe of Cy consideration in Chris Tillman and Zach Britton.

Buried deep within ESPN’s website is a little tool they call the Cy Young Predictor. The Predictor is based off of a formula created by sabermetrics forefather Bill James and his disciple Rob Neyer, which analyzed historical voting patterns to gauge the likelihood of a player being given the Cy Young Award.

You can check out the exact formula, but in general it’s good for pitchers to do things you would expect good pitchers to do: Pitch a lot of innings, get a lot of strikeouts, don’t give up a lot of runs, and win games. Voters have also tended to favor pitchers who pitched for division winners.

That’s a lot of stuff that favors starting pitchers, but saves are also in the formula, so a relief pitcher performing at an elite level who’s getting a lot of save opportunities can make up some points in the Predictor. Britton is presently in second - and if you want to give the O’s the sole AL East lead by the .001 edge they have over Toronto, he’d be in first.

The Predictor’s track record isn’t perfect. It did nail the Cy Young winner in both leagues every year from 2011-14, plus last year’s NL Cy. The AL winner last year, Dallas Keuchel, was second in the Predictor’s score, so it gets close.

An uphill battle for relievers

Whatever the Predictor says, it’s been a long time since a reliever has won a Cy Young award. The last reliever to win a Cy was Eric Gagne in the NL in 2003. The last one in the American League was Dennis Eckersley in 1992.

Eckersley also won the MVP that year because the voters were apparently dopes. Seriously, who gives a closer the MVP? Not that he particularly deserved the Cy either. This was one of the many Cy-related snubs of Mike Mussina’s career - Mussina placed fourth when he “should” have been a runner-up.

The reason why it’s hard for a closer to win the Cy is simple. They don’t face as many batters or throw as many innings as a great starting pitcher, or anywhere close. Although Britton has appeared in 52 games, more than twice as many as his teammate Tillman, he’s faced 189 batters to Tillman’s 613.

Newer writers who have joined the BBWAA over the last decade are even less likely to be impressed by closers as Cy candidates. The ones who have placed high in that time, like Francisco Rodriguez placing third in 2008, have done so with gaudy numbers of saves with unimpressive WHIP numbers.

The more enlightened crowd is not so impressed by glittering saves, and also tends to be less impressed with starting pitchers racking up lots of wins thanks to a team that gives them a lot of run support.

A unique case for Britton

Britton’s Cy Young case, as of this moment, is stronger than your standard reliever’s case. Most of the time, a closer who gets Cy attention is a decent-to-good reliever on a great team. Sometimes it might even be a great reliever, like surefire future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, who racked up four top-three Cy Young finishes in his career.

Rivera’s name is basically the gold standard when it comes to relievers. Any time some closer comes along and is good for a few years, the refrain is nearly always, “Well, yeah, but he’s no Mariano Rivera.” They’re not wrong. None of these guys in the last two decades have ever approached Rivera.

Even Gagne, who won that 2003 Cy in the NL, had nothing close to Rivera’s staying power. Gagne had four very good seasons but his last MLB season was 2008, when he was only 32. Rivera kept on trucking through age 43 without ever losing a step.

Yet even Rivera at his best never had a season with a sub-1.00 ERA, like Britton currently does. Even Rivera at his best never had a season where he was perfect in save opportunities, as Britton presently is.

And even at his best, Rivera never topped a 30% strikeout rate or a 60% ground ball rate. Britton has struck out 31.2% of batters this season, and when they do actually put the ball in play, it’s been on the ground 80.4% of the time. That kind of stuff is unheard of for a pitcher. Britton, right now, is doing something not even the best relievers have ever done.

To have any chance of impressing a Cy electorate, he’d have to hold that through to the end of the season. He might not do so. It’s hard to be sub-1.00 ERA good. Not even the best reliever ever managed to do this! All it would take is allowing three runs over his next two innings and Britton’s 0.54 would suddenly be sitting at a 1.04 ERA.

By the same token, it’s hard to not blow any saves. Sometimes you might blow a save and it’s not even your fault, if your defense decides to start bumbling at the worst possible time. Or if you come out to pitch and you’re having an off night. It only takes one night.

Let’s say Britton somehow escapes the season while continuing to be perfect and that the Orioles win the division to give him that extra oomph. Even then, he’s going to have a hard time winning.

The competition is tough

If you’re an Orioles fan, you probably hear the names J.A. Happ and Rick Porcello and think, “Pff, they’re not that good.” You’re not wrong. They’re not that good. But they’re having great seasons so far this year.

Each has won 16 games, which doesn’t matter to you or I but will impress significant numbers of voters if either or both ends up winning 20. Even Tillman, with 15 wins, has a chance at 20 wins.

Boston’s Steven Wright has a 3.01 ERA and he also has the Knuckleball Mystique. Baseball writers love knuckleballers. Wright also just went on the disabled list, which may cost him enough playing time to have a chance.

Aaron Sanchez and Cole Hamels are both below a 3.00 ERA. Hanging out in the low 3s range are Chris Sale and Corey Kluber.

That is a heck of a lot of starting pitchers who all probably need to stumble in order for Britton to garner serious attention. Some of them might. Happ or Sanchez could be robbed of innings if the Jays really stick with a six man rotation to season’s end.

All of that will probably end up to Britton being on the outside looking in for the Cy Young award. That doesn’t take anything away from the great season he’s having. If the Orioles get themselves into the postseason, it doesn’t matter who wins the Cy Young anyway.