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Fantasy Baseball Reliever Report: Week 17

Cam looks at which reliever could be in contention for the Cy Young Award.

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - JULY 20: Felix Bautista #74 and Adley Rutschman #35 of the Baltimore Orioles celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 at Tropicana Field on July 20, 2023 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

A few months back I made one of the worst takes in the history of takes. At the time, Kenley Jansen was lights out starting his Red Sox career. I proclaimed that if he kept up his pace and if no batter emerged with a dominant season, he could be in the MVP race. Jansen proceeded to blow back-to-back games. The following week I had to apologize for such a terrible take, with the biggest mea culpa I could give.

I’m about to make another hot take. Hopefully, this one isn’t as bad. Baltimore Orioles closer Felix Bautista is going to win the AL Cy Young Award. I put my money where my mouth is…the odds of him winning are 100/1, and it was worth me risking $100 to win $10,000. 

In coming to this conclusion, I did a deep dive at the contenders, who, other than Bautista, are all starters of course. First, I looked at the possible starters to see if there were any runaway candidates, and there are not. Only three AL starters have at least eight wins with a sub 3.00 ERA and sub 1.20 WHIP, Tampa Bay’s Shane McClanahan, Texas’ Nathan Eovaldi and New York’s Gerrit Cole.

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Shane McClanahan: 11-1 2.89 ERA 1.16 WHIP. 112K/106IP

Nathan Eovaldi: 11-3 2.69 ERA 1.01 WHIP. 123K/111IP

Gerrit Cole: 9-2 2.78 ERA 1.08 WHIP. 144K/129IP

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Other than McClanahan’s gaudy 11-1 record, none of the other stats by these three is otherworldly. Their ERAs are all in the same ballpark..solid, not great. And that goes for their WHIP too. And of the three, only Cole has struck out over 10/9IP. 

There are other starters who are having nice years, but they are all lacking something. Some don’t have the win-loss record, like George Kirby who’s 9-8, or Jose Berrios and Framber Valdez who are each 8-7. Some have an elevated ERA, like Zach Eflin’s 3.64 or Chris Bassitt’s 3.91. Someone like Dane Dunning, who has been a lifesaver for Texas, only has 64 Ks in 102 innings.

To me, this means it’s a three-man race among starters between McClanahan, Eovaldi and Cole..and Eovaldi has been skipped in the rotation just to give his arm, body, and mind a rest.

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Conventional wisdom says that one of these men will win the award, but I went one step further to see if there was even much of a precedent for a reliever to win. And although it is rare, it has happened nine times. The Cy Young Award has been given out for 67 years, with 134 recipients. Relievers have won the award 6.7% of the time. It has happened twice since 1992 when Dennis Eckersley won it. He was 7-1 with 51 saves. And the last time it happened was 20 years ago when Eric Gagne won the award. He was 2-3 with 55 saves and 137 Ks in 82.1 innings with a 1.20 ERA.

This means a reliever must put up such audacious stats that he gets the attention of the voters to overlook the contending starters. To this point in the season, Bautista is doing just that. In 45 appearances, Bautista has pitched 49 innings with 96 Ks. He’s on pace to strike out 155 batters, and his strikeout rate is 17.62/9IP! He’s on pace to win eight games and reach 45 saves. And his WHIP and ERA are both under 1.00. Eckersley and Gagne both hit the 50-save plateau, and that may be what Bautista needs to do to win the Cy Young, but even if he maintains his current pace, he is absolutely in the running.

And there is no way that his odds should be sitting at 100/1. In looking at the lay of the AL landscape, Bautista is on an Orioles team with the best record in the AL, just overtaking McClanahan’s Rays. The Yankees and Cole aren’t currently in the playoffs, and Eovaldi’s Rangers have the Astros breathing down their back. And again, Eovaldi is already dealing with load management issues, and we aren’t even out of July yet.

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It’s something that only happens 6.7% of the time and hasn’t happened in 20 years, which means it’s overdue. And, there is a worthy reliever who is pitching himself into contention to be the next guy. 

And that guy is Orioles closer Felix Bautista. Hopefully, this take does better than my last one related to closers. With my luck, he’s going to go out and blow the next three games he pitches…but hopefully not, as he is a wonder to behold on the mound, and a pleasure to watch. Sometimes the beauty of the game lies in the rarity of some of its feats…a closer winning the Cy Young award qualifies.

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