Keidel: 2020 Cy Young Award Winners Will Come From Bullpen in 60-Game Season

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Now that MLB has blown the horn on a 60-game season, we actually have baseball issues to consider. 

Like pitching, for one. While it would help a team to have a sublime starting rotation and nuclear bullpen, teams rarely have both. And with such a short regular season, bullpens are more crucial than ever. Even if nothing goes wrong for a starter - injuries, rain delays, etc. - he would get 12 starts. If such a pitcher had a great season, and even was the pitcher of record in every game, he would finish around 10-2. And if he pitched six innings per start, he would top-off at 72 innings. 

Would that impress you or the voters enough to hand a Cy Young to a 9-3 hurler with a 3.00 ERA and barely 70 innings? It could create an implicit bias among fans, media, and voters, who are used to seeing 20 wins, 250 innings, 250 strikeouts and microscopic ERAs. 

So, could this be the first time we see the Cy Young go to a relief pitcher in both leagues in MLB history? Jacob deGrom is the only starting pitcher to win 10 games and the Cy Young Award. The only pitchers to win fewer than 10 are all relief pitchers. Rollie Fingers, Willie Hernandez, Dennis Eckersley achieved this in the American League. Bruce Sutter, Steve Bedrosian, Mark Davis and Eric Gagne did it in the National League. (You're quite right to wonder how Mariano Rivera never won one.) 

If you take the six aforementioned pitchers and add Sparky Lyle (who saved 26 games but also won 13 games in his Cy Young season, 1977) they averaged 87.1 innings per season. It's hard to think of a reliever amassing that many innings in a 60-game season. But plenty relief pitchers will log over half as many innings as the team's best starter, and perhaps more innings than two or three starters in his team's rotation, especially on a mediocre or miserly club. 

The Yanks could have Aroldis Chapman pine for the Cy Young. Likewise for Liam Hendriks, Roberto Osuna or a few more AL closers. In the National League, Kirby Yates of the Padres had an absurdly good 2019, leading the league in saves (41), in ERA (1.19), and fanned an obscene 101 batters in just 60 2/3 innings (or 15 per nine innings). Since Josh Hader blew it in the playoffs against the Nationals we forget how utterly dominant he was last season, saving 37 games and striking out 138 batters in 75 2/3 innings (or 16.4 per nine innings). The Brewers closer also had a laughably low WHIP (0.81). 

In other words, it's easier for relief pitchers to build a representative resumé than a starter during such a truncated season. Justin Verlander, last year's AL Cy Young winner, tossed 300 innings in 2019. If he hurled 12 complete games this season - quite impossible, of course - he would finish with just 108 innings pitched. But it's quite possible to predict a few closers will save 20, 25, or even 30 games, the latter being half his team's overall games. And since a closer rarely pitches more than one inning, he can do so and still pitch a few games in a row.

If the Yanks went 45-15, would it be crazy to think that Chapman could close 30 of them and keep a tight, 2.21 ERA (the same he had last season)? And wouldn't that look more impressive than deGrom going 7-4, with a 2.43 ERA (the same ERA he had last season)? 

There will be many debates and a galaxy of asterisks blotting out certain achievements. Even the World Series winner will be called a paper champ during one-third of a real season. They won't suffer the real rigors of travel during a full baseball season. A team that wins 40 games is considered fantastic in 2020, while in 2019 the Yanks won 103 games, the Dodgers won 106 games, and the Astros won 107 games. 

With stat geeks stuffing executive suites, owning GM jobs and all but ripping the game from the baseball lifer who judged the game by his gut, it's all about metrics these days. MLB.com studied each bullpen in March and listed the top 10. Five of the top six — Yankees, Brewers, Rays, Twins and Braves — all made the playoffs last year. (Somehow the Mets are at No. 7.) Teams 8-10 — the A's, Astros and Dodgers — made the playoffs, as well. Which means eight of the top-10 bullpens in 2019 played well into October. 

So if we agree that bullpens are the anchor of almost any playoff club, it's pretty agreeable to say that relief pitchers can bag both Cy Young Awards, for the first time in history. 

Twitter: @JasonKeidel

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