We’ve spent plenty of time talking about Bryce Harper’s MVP candidacy and Zack Wheeler’s chances for the Cy Young award, but the Phillies have one other player who might warrant some awards consideration this year: Ranger Suárez.
Suárez has been the most pleasant surprise of the Phillies’ season. Few of us expected Harper and Wheeler to be as good as they have been, but at least we knew they had the potential. Suárez’s success, however, came totally out of left field (sort of like Vince Velasquez), which makes it all the more exciting.
After a difficult start to the season, Ranger Suárez debuted on May 9 and quickly became one of the best relievers in baseball. From his debut until his final relief appearance on July 29, he lead the National League in innings pitched by a reliever (40.1 IP). His 1.12 ERA in that span ranked third.
He became a starting pitcher in August and has continued to dominate. Since making his first start on August 2, Suárez has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. His 1.85 ERA ranks 5th in the NL and his 2.68 FIP ranks 7th (min. 40 IP). He’s been worth 1.4 fWAR in just 9 starts. For context, Zack Wheeler has been worth 1.6 fWAR since the start of August, and he’s pitched 17 more innings than Suárez.
Suarez was the teams best reliever through the end of July, and he very well might be their best starter since the beginning of August. Unbelievable.— Leo Morgenstern (@morgensternmlb) September 16, 2021
On the season as a whole, Ranger’s 1.50 ERA is second among all NL pitchers (min. 80 IP) behind only Jacob deGrom. His ERA as a starter ranks second in the NL (min. 40 IP) as does his ERA as a reliever (min. 40 IP). In short, Suárez has been nothing short of marvellous this year. Is it enough to warrant Cy Young consideration? Maybe.
The biggest knock against Suárez is that he hasn’t pitched very many innings. If everything goes right, he’ll hopefully hit 100 IP by the end of the season, and for a starter, that’s a non-starter. However, plenty of relievers have received Cy Young votes with fewer than 100 IP.
In fact, it’s very common for relief pitchers to get Cy Young votes. Since 2010, when the BBWAA starting voting for five pitchers every year (ranked 1st-5th), at least one relief pitcher has gotten a Cy Young vote in both leagues almost every year. The only exceptions were in 2016, when no NL reliever received a vote, and in 2019, when no AL reliever received a vote.
That means that at least one NL reliever will probably receive votes this year. Who will it be? The obvious guess is Josh Hader. He leads NL relievers in fWAR and in FIP, xFIP, xERA, and SIERA (min. 50 IP). He’s second in ERA. He ranks 3rd in saves but first in save percentage. Former Phillies reliever Aaron Loup could also receive a vote or two. He currently has a 1.00 ERA in 54 innings of work.
Here’s where the case for Ranger Suárez comes in. Most voters only vote for starting pitchers, and none of those voters will vote for Ranger. But I think the type of voter who likes to put a reliever on their ballot will have to consider Suárez.
Hader has a slightly lower ERA and significantly better peripherals. Loup has a significantly lower ERA and relatively similar peripherals. But Suárez will finish the season with far more more innings pitched. He also deserves credit for how he seamlessly transitioned from being a reliever to a starting pitcher halfway through the season.
Voters who vote for relievers do so because they believe that being a reliever is a separate enough skill from being a starter. These voters believe that relievers are more valuable than their WAR suggests because relievers excel in their set role. If you believe that, how can you not vote for a pitcher who excelled as both a starter and a reliever in the same season? Is that not the ultimate display of pitching skill?
For voters who like a good narrative, Ranger Suárez has a pretty amazing comeback story. He was exclusively a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, but came up to the Phillies halfway through 2019 and found success as a reliever at the major league level. Then, COVID-19 ruined his 2020 season and visa issues and a quad injury delayed the start of his 2021 season. When he started his first game on August 2, it was his first start in the majors since 2018 and his first professional start since early 2019. Nobody expected him to be anything other than a fifth starter, but he has performed like an All-Star.
One more thing. Following his most recent start, Suárez ranked tenth among all National League pitchers in Baseball Reference WAR. His 4.4 pitcher bWAR in 84 IP is the same bWAR that Jacob deGrom put up in 92 IP this year. deGrom was so good to start the season that he was considered the obvious Cy Young favorite and a serious MVP contender, too. And according to this metric, Suárez has been equally valuable. (This is obviously not to say that Ranger Suárez has actually been as good as deGrom, it’s just one little point in Ranger’s favor.)
I’m not saying that I would vote for Ranger Suárez (I wouldn’t). I don’t think he’s been one of the five best pitchers in the league. I know, however, that there are voters who value relievers more than I do. There are voters who value a good story more than I do. There are voters who value stats like ERA and bWAR more than I do. To those types of voters, Suárez might just be the ideal candidate.
That is, as long as they’re aware he exists.
A final thought
Do relievers deserve Cy Young consideration? I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, I know that the best best starting pitchers are almost always much more valuable than the best relievers. It’s almost impossible for a reliever to be one of the best five pitchers in the league. On the other hand, fourth and fifth place votes on a Cy Young ballot rarely matter anyway. If a voter wants to use one of their down-ballot votes to celebrate a reliever’s fantastic season, I completely understand that.
As it stands right now, my Cy Young ballot would be: