Someone is going to win the 2016 American League Cy Young Award. That much we know.

After that, things get messy.

The Junior Circuit is flush with very good starting pitchers, solid starting pitchers and serviceable starting pitchers. But there isn’t that guythe one with consistently dominant results and eye-popping stats across the board.

Notice we said “starting pitcher.” Paging Zach Britton.

It has been more than two decades since an AL reliever won the Cy Young. The Oakland Athletics‘ Dennis Eckersley did it in 1992 and grabbed an MVP trophy as well.

Now, the Baltimore Orioles‘ Britton has a chance to break the streak.

He might not be the unequivocal front-runner, simply because it’s so unusual for bullpen arms to score any hardware. (We’re not counting consolation prizes such as the now-defunct Rolaids Relief Man Award.)

At the moment, however, Britton’s case is compelling. 

Entering play Tuesday, he owns an absurd 0.54 ERA. He’s struck out 59 in 50 innings while yielding 16 walks and 25 hits. He’s surrendered one home run all season, and opponents are hitting .145 against him.

He even has a shot at breaking Eric Gagne’s all-time single-season saves streak of 55. Britton is a perfect 37-for-37 in saves so far with 45 games remaining. When Gagne set the mark with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003, he became the last reliever to win a Cy Young.

Even if Britton doesn’t catch Gagne, he’s enjoying a season for the ages. 

He’s doing it, as FanGraphs’ Corinne Landrey noted Aug. 11, with a diabolically straightforward approach:

Britton has built upon the extraordinarily successful formula he’s developed in recent years: destroying opponents with an entirely unfair mid-90s sinker. He’s using the pitch more than 90% of the time for the third consecutive season and the whiff and ground-ball rates illustrate why. According to the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, Britton’s sinker is generating a league-leading 40.3% whiff/swing rate — Jeurys Familia‘s sinker is a distant second at 28.3% whiff/swing — while the ground-ball rate on the pitch also leads the league at 80%.

“He just doesn’t give in,” manager Buck Showalter said of his ninth-inning weapon on Aug. 4, per Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun. “He knows who he is.”

OK, here’s where we unfurl the wet blanket. If you go by wins above replacement, Britton faces an uphill battle.

Britton’s 1.8 fWAR is tied for No. 34 on the AL leaderboard. It’s the nature of the stat. Starters log more innings. They have more chances to do things that help their teams win games. 

However, Britton isn’t even the top reliever by fWAR. The New York Yankees‘ Dellin Betances (2.7), Houston Astros‘ Chris Devenski (1.9) and Cleveland Indians‘ Andrew Miller (1.8) have him matched or beaten.

Of course, WAR isn’t the only measure of a player’s value. And it’s certainly not always predictive in awards races.

According to‘s MLB Cy Young Predictor—which is based on a formula created by Rob Neyer and famed statistician Bill James—Britton is the second-most likely candidate to claim the prize, behind the Toronto Blue Jays‘ J.A. Happ.

Here’s a look at the eight AL starters who made’s top 10 (in ranking order) and their stats so far:

Chris Sale and Corey Kluber boast the highest strikeout totals. Kluber, in particular, jumps out as the fWAR leader and a guy who’s pitching for a postseason contender. Aaron Sanchez, Happ and Cole Hamels sport sub-3.00 ERAs. And Steven Wright has the knuckleball novelty factor.

Again, though, there isn’t any starter who’s in the midst of a monster seasonno one who’s set to blow past 200 innings with a minuscule ERA. Fair or not, those are the benchmarks voters often use.

In a way, with so many starters bunched together in that strong-to-solid range, Britton could benefit from being a reliever. At least it distinguishes him from the pack. And the O’s are in the playoff mix.

This race will be won or lost on what happens in the season’s final month-plus. If Kluber, Sale or anyone else reels off a crazy streak of shutdown starts and mixes in a no-hitter, that could be the difference.

Likewise, all it will take is one or two rough outings to blow up Britton’s ERA and his award chances. So far, though, rough outings haven’t been in his lexicon.

Someone is going to win the AL Cy Young. For the first time since the dawn of the Bill Clinton administration, that someone could hail from the bullpen.


All statistics current as of Aug. 15 and courtesy of FanGraphs and unless otherwise noted.

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