Only nine relievers have won a Cy Young Award, none since 2003, when closer Eric Gagne did it with the Dodgers.
And with two months left in this season, Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara is the heavy favorite to win the NL Cy Young.
But does Mets closer Edwin Diaz have a case in the midst of a downright dominant season?
“One-hundred percent,” Mets reliever Tommy Hunter said Friday. “Who’s throwing better than him?”
Diaz, who did not appear in the Mets’ 9-6 loss to Atlanta on Friday night, is in a class of his own. After his six-out save against the Braves on Thursday, Diaz has struck out 87 of the 167 batters he has faced this year to go with a 0.89 WHIP, 1.44 ERA and 24 saves in 43 ²/₃ innings. His strikeout rate of 52.1 percent is the highest by a relief pitcher through 43 appearances in a season in MLB history.
Alcantara, meanwhile, has been the most elite starter. Entering Friday, he had a 1.88 ERA, 141 strikeouts, three complete games and a 0.93 WHIP across 158 ¹/₃ innings.
“Yeah, he’s got great stuff, but not anywhere close to being as dominant [as Diaz], respectfully,” Hunter said. “He’s great, don’t get me wrong. But he’s definitely not in the same category as Edwin right now.”
Of course, across the way in the Mets clubhouse, a starting pitcher had a different view of a reliever’s Cy Young candidacy.
“To be quite honest with you, it’s very, very hard to win it as a reliever because the value,” Chris Bassitt said. “The value of a starter over the value of a reliever is drastically different. You have a starter who could win a Cy Young, that’s significantly more valuable than a closer.”
Wins Above Replacement would agree with Bassitt. Diaz has recorded a 2.2 fWAR to Alcantara’s 4.2, per Fangraphs. But both Bassitt and Hunter, who have previously been teammates of relievers who earned Cy Young votes, agree that what Diaz is doing is special.
Hunter was in the Orioles bullpen for the first half of 2016 when Zack Britton posted a single-season record 0.54 ERA (for pitchers with at least 50 innings). The lefty closer, a ground-ball specialist, placed fourth in the AL Cy Young voting that year.
“What Edwin is doing is on a different level,” Hunter said. “Granted, I’m not taking anything away from Zack Britton’s dominance and that’s not something I have intentions of doing — but this is a different level of dominance. ERA has a lot to do with your team and play and defense and uncontrollable results. Edwin’s controlling his own destiny at a historical rate.
“He’s taking chance out of it and he’s putting his stamp on it.”
Through Thursday, Diaz’s 87 strikeouts led all MLB relievers and were 21 more than the second-place pitcher, Cardinals closer Ryan Helsley. Diaz has been especially untouchable of late, with 33 of his last 45 outs coming by way of the strikeout.
“It’s video game-like,” Bassitt said.
In 2020, Bassitt was an Oakland teammate of Liam Hendriks, who placed ninth in AL Cy Young voting (Bassitt placed eighth). In 2018, he was on the roster with Blake Treinen when the Athletics closer tied for sixth in AL Cy Young voting. Diaz’s season reminds Bassitt of Treinen’s in the way that they were able to limit baserunners.
“There’s obviously closers with really good stuff but they let guys on base, so things can happen,” Bassitt said. “[With Diaz], it’s honestly more so, when someone gets on base, it’s like, ‘What the heck happened?’ It’s not even the scoring. The most impressive thing to me is he doesn’t walk guys.
“When you have that elite of stuff that he has, the biggest thing is, do you beat yourself? He just doesn’t.”