Gagne re-defining dominant for closers

The NL Cy Young Award should go to Eric Gagne, who is having perhaps the greatest season ever for a closer.

Originally Published: August 26, 2003
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Eric Gagne looks like the Gym Class Kid From Hell, the big and burly guy who terrorizes everybody in games of killball and intramural softball, competing at a different speed, leaving dents in the bodies of schoolmates. Everybody else just wants to get through class with a passing grade, but Gym Class Kid From Hell stares through the protective eyewear that his mother forced upon him and he's much more serious and intense than anybody else.

Eric Gagne
APGagne's sore arm could mean trouble for the Dodgers.

He is dominating the National League this season in a manner rarely seen; if Gagne were a batter, he'd be Barry Bonds in 2001 or Babe Ruth in 1921. Gagne has 43 saves in 43 chances, and that's probably the least remarkable feature of a 2003 résumé that should win him a Cy Young Award.

Opposing batters have mustered 30 hits and 17 walks in his 66 innings, which means that somebody reaches base about once every four outs against the Dodgers' closer. And if a runner happens to reach second base with nobody out, or third base with one out, don't bother waiting for the groundball or flyball to advance; Gagne has 113 strikeouts in 66 innings. It's as if he were Danny Almonte playing in the Little League World Series at 17 years old, instead of 14.

Gagne throws strikes consistently, reaching a count of no balls and two strikes against 77 batters -- and those hitters have a combined average of .039, with 55 strikeouts. You fall behind in the count, you are finished.

There is one blemish on Gagne's credentials, through very little fault of his own. The Dodgers are a mediocre run-starved team, hanging at the back of the pack in the wild-card race, and history shows that the baseball writers who submit Cy Young Award ballots prefer their closers to be on contending teams.

Eight closers have won the award in the past, five of those for division winners. The Dodgers' Mike Marshall won in 1974, when Los Angeles won the NL West, in an era when closers contributed more than three or four outs: Marshall made a record 106 appearances, threw 208.2 innings and went 15-12 with 21 saves.

Sparky Lyle was the AL Cy Young winner in 1977, a year in which the Yankees won the World Series. Rollie Fingers led the Milwaukee Brewers to the playoffs in 1981, when the playoff format was broadened to account for the affects of the players' strike that summer. Willie Hernandez won the award as the Tigers' closer in 1984, when Detroit won the World Series. And Dennis Eckersley won in 1992, when the Athletics advanced to the playoffs.

Strikeouts/9 IP
The top 10 pitchers all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (minimum: 50 IP):
Pitcher Year SO/9 IP
B. Wagner 1999 14.90
A. Benitez 1999 14.77
B. Wagner 1998 14.55
B. Wagner 1997 14.38
B. Kim 2000 14.14
R. Dibble 1992 14.08
M. Mantei 1999 13.71
R. Dibble 1991 13.55
R. Johnson 2001 13.41
P. Martinez 1999 13.23
* Eric Gagne leads the majors this year with 15.41 strikeouts per nine innings.

When Mark Davis was the NL Cy Young Award winner in 1989, his Padres went 89-73, finishing in second place. Only two closers of sub-.500 teams have won the award. Steve Bedrosian of the 80-82 Phillies in 1987, a season saturated with offense, a summer that saw the dominant Dwight Gooden beset by drug problems and Rick Sutcliffe lead the league with 18 victories. The Cubs went 80-82 when Bruce Sutter was the Cy Young Award winner in 1979, a feat that Hall of Fame voters might consider in the future.

The baseball writers submitting Cy Young ballots have demonstrated a clear preference for victories (and rightly so, victories being the primary goal of most players). There have been years in which the Cy Young winner was not necessarily his league's best pitcher but racked up a lot of victories (Baltimore's Steve Stone in 1980, LaMarr Hoyt in 1983, Bob Welch in 1990). Voters prefer players who contribute to winning teams; it helps immensely if your team is headed for the postseason.

But every so often a player has the kind of year when some of the usual standards are thrown out in the face of excellence. Steve Carlton won the Cy Young Award while pitching for the last-place Phillies in 1972, a fact that seemed to enhance his candidacy. Carlton won 27 games that summer, and the rest of the Phillies' pitchers produced 32 victories. Pedro Martinez had just 17 victories for the Expos in 1997, when Montreal finished six games under .500; that was three victories fewer than Denny Neagle's 20, or the 19 posted by Greg Maddux and Darryl Kile and Shawn Estes. But Martinez had an ERA of 1.90 and 305 strikeouts in 241 innings, in his last season before he was traded to Boston for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, Jr., and Martinez won the first of his three Cy Young Awards that year.

So it should be for Gagne, who is generating perhaps the greatest season of statistics for any closer in any year, in a summer when no NL starting pitcher has been truly dominant. Barring a collapse, Gagne will probably get a welcome phone call on the November day the NL Cy Young Award is announced. Like The Gym Class Kid From Hell, he's been competing at a different level than anybody else.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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