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Making Félix Bautista’s case for AL Cy Young

No AL reliever has won the Cy Young since 1992. The Mountain seems set on changing that in 2023.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

During the Orioles’ series win against Tampa over the weekend, no Orioles star shined brighter than closer Félix Bautista. The Mountain certainly came up big in all three of the O’s wins, earning the win in extra innings on Thursday and picking up saves on Saturday and Sunday. Bautista worked a total of four innings, picked up six strikeouts and hurt plenty of batter’s feelings as he routinely made them look silly.

Whether you’ve stuck with this Orioles team since Bautista’s debut last season or just tuned in for last weekend’s battle for the AL East, it’s impossible to not be in awe of the mountainous righty’s dominance. He currently leads the AL in saves with 28 and games finished with 39. He’s also continued to get better as the season goes on. Over his last 11 appearances, Bautista hasn’t allowed a single run in 13.1 innings, given up eight total base runners and punched out 25 of the 47 batters he faced.

Those strikeout numbers are what really has Bautista turning heads around baseball this year. He’s also currently on pace to break Brad Lidge’s closer strikeout record, with Lidge putting up 157 Ks in 2004 and Bautista currently on pace for 158. His current 17.6 K/9 rate put him in the rarefied air—joining elite relievers like Aroldis Chapman (in 2014) and Edwin Díaz (2022) as relievers to average greater than 17 Ks per nine.

It’s this dominance that puts The Mountain squarely in the middle of a range of pitchers vying for this season’s AL Cy Young award. Should Bautista summit that seemingly insurmountable peak—winning the Cy Young award as a reliever—he’d be the first reliever to take home the award since Eric Gagne for the Dodgers in 2003. The last AL reliever to take home the hardware was Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and overall, only nine relievers have ever won the Cy Young.

Starting with Mike Marshall in 1974 and ending with Gagne, that group of highly lauded relievers averaged 37 saves—Gagne’s 55 pacing the group. They also averaged 99 K’s and only Gagne’s 15 K/9 came anywhere close to Bautista’s current mark. While it seems unlikely that Bautista will surpass 50 saves, he’ll undoubtedly blow that group’s strikeout numbers out of the water. If he can maintain his current 0.92 ERA, he’d also be the only pitcher of the 10 to post a sub-1 ERA.

What also may help Bautista’s case is the lack of an outstandingly dominant starting pitcher in the American League. Gerrit Cole currently leads the league with 4.2 pitching WAR, and he’s certainly having a good season, even by his lofty standards. However, Cole is also having his worst season in terms of K/9 and WHIP since his time in Pittsburgh and is on a last place Yankees team. Other top pitchers like Nathan Eovaldi, Framber Valdez and Sonny Gray have been similarly good—maybe even great at times—but it’s hard to argue they’ve been nearly as dominant as Bautista.

If you watch any of Bautista’s recent outings, you see an obvious difference from the rookie closer who was overpowering at times, but also someone you could describe as effectively wild. Throughout this 2023 season, Bautista has carried over all of his domineering qualities while eliminating much of the wildness. La Montaña now consistently commands his fastball at the bottom and top of the zone, dotting the corners on both sides of the plate and keeping his high heat tantalizingly close to the top of the zone.

Bautista has also cut down dramatically on the number of splitters he leaves over the plate, instead delivering those oh-so-satisfying splitters that start out at the batter’s knees and tumble out of the bottom of the zone.

In comparing the heat maps on Bautista’s primary two pitches from 2022 and 2023, it’s clear how much the Orioles’ closer has worked to fine tune his devastating offerings. He does not go from quasi-anonymous reliever to promising rookie closer to the best reliever in all of baseball just because his fastball hits 103 and he has a good splitter. Bautista has clearly invested time and energy into the subtle nuances of pitching. Combine that with his otherworldly stuff and it’s clear why he’s ascended to the peak of baseball’s relievers.

Bautista’s 2023 Heat Maps
Baseball Savant
Bautista’s 2022 Heat Maps
Baseball Savant

Now, there will be plenty of baseball fans and award-voters alike who say that no matter how good the reliever is, he shouldn’t win the Cy Young. They’ll make the argument that a reliever can’t possibly provide the value a starter does pitching 100 less innings.

To those arguments I say this: the Orioles are on pace to win 100 games—something they haven’t accomplished since 1980. Should they cross the century mark this season, the O’s will have gone from 100+ game loser to 100+ game winner in just two years. This team doesn’t make that gigantic leap without the towering presence of Félix Bautista. As we all witnessed against Tampa Bay, Bautista is routinely the difference between dropping games against baseball’s best teams and taking three out of four in the Trop against MLB’s best home team. Bautista currently leads this team with a 2.9 WAR, and even that feels like it’s underestimating his value.

The last time the Orioles won 100 games, they were led by Cy Young Winner Steve Stone—the last pitcher to capture the award while wearing the orange and black. Those who say it should take a truly remarkable season for a reliever to win the Cy Young are right. However, Bautista is having that remarkable season. Most current O’s fans probably thought they’d never see something rivaling Zack Britton’s 2016 season, and yet Bautista seems closer and closer to summiting that peak with every outing.

So, should he continue his utterly dominant way through the end of the season, voters, don’t screw this up. Give the big man the game’s biggest pitching honor. And make sure Adley’s there to give him a hug after he wins it.


Where will Félix Bautista finish in this year’s AL Cy Young voting?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    (208 votes)
  • 21%
    (163 votes)
  • 28%
    (222 votes)
  • 7%
    (60 votes)
  • 5%
    (41 votes)
  • 9%
    Outside the Top 5
    (76 votes)
770 votes total Vote Now