November 10, 2014
Rarefied Rookie Relief
Dellin Betances very well could, at a few minutes after 6 p.m. Bronx Time, post the highest finish ever in the Rookie of the Year voting for a middle reliever.
He won’t win. Jose Abreu will win and very well could receive all 30 of the American League’s first-place votes to join Mike Trout and Evan Longoria as the only unanimous AL MVPs since the Jeter-and-Nomar back-to-backs of the mid-1990s.
We do know that with his being announced a finalist, though, that he’ll at least finish third, and just finishing third would match the best ever finishes by a reliever who wasn’t a closer. It’s been 10 years since any middle relievers stood out enough to reach the podium with Akinori Otsuka finishing third for the 2004 Padres. Jeff Zimmerman of the Rangers was third in 1999, and that’s it. The rest of the relievers to finish top three – and there have been plenty – were either closers or pitched early enough in the game’s evolution that they often finished games just because there were no roles.
If Betances can beat out Matt Shoemaker, who isn’t exactly the most deserving top-three candidate you could find in the AL pool this year, he’ll be the first ever to finish that high.
There are a few reasons that his kind—the kind that recorded 231 of his 270 outs in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings—don’t typically get this type of recognition. It starts with a lack of preseason hype, of course. Betances was nowhere to be found on any of the 37 voting Baseball Prospectus staffers’ preseason ballots for this award. But that’s something that rookies can overcome.
It mostly comes down to three things.
1. The traditionalist voting element, the one that’s left its imprint on the last couple of American League MVP awards and the one that presumably voted up 16-win Matt Shoemaker over Collin McHugh and Masahiro Tanaka, needs to recognize a player without saves. That’s probably the easy one, especially when you’re recording half of your outs on strikeouts. That was impressive long before DIPS theory came around (although I guess it never really happened before DIPS theory came around.)
2. Meanwhile the more analytically inclined portion of the electorate, which is becoming larger on the seasonal awards where there is no 10-year waiting period, needs to justify voting for a relief pitcher. On WAR(P) alone, Betances was not a top-3 player no matter whose metrics you use.
There’s a case to be made, though, for crediting up the higher leverage innings if you want to make that case, but the advanced metrics will rarely present a strong case for a reliever.
3. And by far the most difficult: There is a huge survivorship issue. Betances will be (at least tied for) the highest finish ever by a middle reliever, but there are plenty of other names on the ballots over the modern bullpen usage era that started the season as middle relievers and graduated to closer either on their own dominance or by circumstance. This of course helped them get on the ballot, so it isn’t just a technicality, but several others may have been able to get close to the same recognition if their closers had held on.
Even on the heels of Betances striking out 135 out of the 270 batters he retired—I’d give him Rookie of the Year just for making the math easy on us—and allowing 15 runs for a 1.40 ERA and a 1.67 FIP, the Yankees still extended a qualifying offer to David Robertson last week.
Just an hour before the order of finish is announced tonight, Robertson faces a deadline to decide whether he’s going to accept the offer. On a lower payroll team, Robertson would have never even been eligible for a qualifying offer, must less received one. He would have been gone before July 31, and Betances would have been the closer.
Obviously, the Yankees can spend, but especially with relievers, there’s no guarantee that this rookie success carries over into a viable long-term replacement. The list of top-three Rookie of the Year finishers who were relievers has great success stories amid those who flamed out quickly and those whose arms just couldn’t hold out much longer.
2011: Craig Kimbrel 1st
Despite the small sample, it’s no coincidence that of the last 10 relievers to hit the podium, six have occupied the top step. Being a reliever is something that’s relatively easy to be great at early in one’s career, and it’s an easy thing to get a shot at early as well. Usually, that combination means a quick ascent to closer, but we’ll find out a lot today about the speed of Betances’ ascent.