Closers have the life. They make more money than their bullpen counterparts. They have the coolest entrance, all heavy metal and scoreboard pyrotechnics on par with a Pink Floyd laser-light show. Their workday starts after 9 p.m. and lasts a few minutes. They get losses off. They have more pressure, sure, but they also rack up saves and stardom. They usually have awesome facial hair.
Along with their fabulous life, closers have one comeuppance. During award season, they are ignored like Michael Bay movies. Despite their rising profile with the creation of the modern, specialized bullpen, closers have claimed only two Cy Young awards since 1990, and not once since Eric Gagne won in 2003. In the National League, no closer finished in the top five in voting since Trevor Hoffman in 2006.
This year, two National League fireballers could challenge the starters’ hold on the award. Both Reds closer Aroldis Chapman and Braves closer Craig Kimbrel have dominated enough to work their way into the conversation, dominating ninth innings and putting up preposterous strikeout totals for playoff contenders.
Chapman leads the league with 35 saves, and Kimbrel is right behind him at 34. But mere saves are not what elevates them into the Cy Young race. They both have a 1.23 ERA, right behind the 1.20 that Gagne posted in his Cy Young season.
For a reliever to win the award, they need something eye-catching. It can be a record, like Gagne saving 55 games in 55 chances. It could even be an act, like Dennis Eckersley swaggering and finger-gunning his way to 51 saves, a Cy Young and an MVP in 1992.
Kimbrel and Chapman share the same enticing hook: gobs and gobs of strikeouts. They both scare 100 miles per hour with every fastball. Chapman has struck out 15.95 batters per nine innings, the fourth-best mark of all time. He is easier to hit than Kimbrel, who has struck out 16.48 batters per nine, the best ever.
Despite their dominance, Chapman and Kimbrel will run into the same problem every closer faces. Even if they record the final three outs in close games, they simply do not pitch enough to be chosen above a top starter. The discrepancy shows up in the wins above replacement metric, which aims to determine a pitcher’s total contribution.
In the FanGraphs.com version, Gio Gonzalez leads the National League with 4.9. Chapman stands at 3.6, 11th in the NL, with Kimbrel at 2.8. The next best reliever, the Rockies’ Matt Belisle, lags a full win behind them. That they are so much more dominant than other relievers lifts them into the conversation, but they will have a hard time breaking through.
It is also an especially deep field of starters. Gonzalez has 18 wins and a sub-3.00 ERA for the best team in the majors. R.A. Dickey has 18 wins, a 2.64 ERA and an irresistible story. (Yes, his story should not factor into the factor, but it’s unrealistic to think it won’t.) Johnny Cueto has a 2.35 ERA for the second-best team in baseball, the Reds. Even Stephen Strasburg, despite missing his final handful of starts, could work his way into the conversation.
And so ultimately, it appears Chapman and Kimbrel will have to begin consoling themselves as their mantle remains empty. We recommend they start by growing a mustache.