When the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays begin a three-game series Tuesday at Camden Yards, the two most effective relievers in the American League will be in uniform.
It's fair to speculate that without Orioles closer Jim Johnson and Rays closer Fernando Rodney, their teams probably wouldn't be in playoff contention.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter has said all season that Johnson's steadying presence in the back of the bullpen and in the clubhouse has been one of, if not the most important element, in the club's surprising success.
And how essential has Rodney been to a Rays team that has continually had to overcome injury to be one game behind the Orioles in the AL Wild Card race?
"Kind of like oxygen," quipped Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Yet, in the inevitable patter this time of year concerning postseason accolades, Johnson and Rodney don't appear to be in the conversation surrounding the AL Cy Young Award, which is, technically, given to the league's best pitcher.
Really, though, it's an honor awarded to the league's best starting pitcher.
"Unless, as a reliever, you go through a season giving up no runs, you aren't going to win it," said ESPN baseball writer Jayson Stark. "It's become a starting pitcher award. Period."
It's been 20 years since the AL has seen a reliever win the Cy Young: Oakland's Dennis Eckersley, who also won the league's Most Valuable Player Award in 1992 by going 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves in 54 chances.
Just one closer has won the Cy Young since: the Los Angeles Dodgers' Eric Gagne in 2003, when he posted a 1.20 ERA and converted all 55 of his save opportunities.
"In the last 20 years, other than the Eric Gagne year, [closers] don't show up on the radar screen," Stark said. "I'm not sure how it evolved in that direction … but voters don't think of relievers unless there really is no one else to vote for."
So why is it that an award for pitchers really goes to only a subset of the classification? There are several factors at play.
First, baseball is a numbers game. And, by virtue of their job description, starters pile up numbers.
"I think it is definitely a starter's award because they have the Triple Crown of pitching: ERA, strikeouts and wins," said Johnson, who is tied with Rodney for the major league lead in saves at 42. "When the award came about, I don't think they had the idea of guys pitching out of the bullpen having an impact on the game. Guys in the bullpen were just there because they weren't good enough to start."
Certainly the game, and the importance of quality relief pitching, has evolved in the past two decades or so, but top starters still wield the most lofty status among baseball arms.
"I think the starting job is just more notable," said Pedro Strop, Johnson's set-up man. "Those guys win 20 games, with ERAs in the twos and so many strikeouts. It's hard to pick a closer with 40-plus saves, because usually closers come in for one inning. Starters that win Cy Young are throwing seven innings, eight innings, nine innings. I think that's why. Those starters pitch deep into games and do more work."
Right or wrong, perhaps the simplest answer is that the BBWAA — the baseball writers' group that doles out the sport's four most recognizable awards (Cy Young, MVP, Rookie and Manager) - traditionally hasn't given the Cy Young to a reliever. And perceptions die hard.
"I think it's more that baseball is just a traditional sport," said Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. "And when you get to that tradition of the best starter every year wins it, it's just going to keep happening. So it's a rare occasion where a closer does win it."
Since the award's inception in 1956, only nine relievers have won Cy Young. Mike Marshall of the Los Angeles Dodgers was the first based on numbers that read like a starter's: 15 wins, 208 1/3 innings pitched (in 106 games) and 143 strikeouts.
The tide seemed to be turning slightly in the 1980s, when five relievers won the award from 1981 to 1992; three of those, Rollie Fingers in 1981, Willie Hernandez in 1984 and Eckersley in 1992, also won their respective league's MVP award.
But that trend has stopped. New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation, has never won a Cy Young Award, though he has finished in the Top 5 in voting five times, including one second-place finish and three third-place finishes.
Trevor Hoffman, the long-time San Diego Padres closer who is also likely headed to the Hall of Fame, had three Top 5 finishes, placing second once. Each time they had a tremendous season, Hoffman and Rivera were beat out by starters who threw more innings and piled up wins.
That's probably how it should be, said John Smoltz, who won the 1996 National League Cy Young Award with a 24-8 record and a 2.94 ERA in 253 2/3 innings pitched for the Atlanta Braves.
Smoltz, now a baseball analyst for TBS, has a fairly unique perspective. He also saved 44 or more games three times in his career, including a league-best 55 in 2002.
"Everything is perception," Smoltz said. "Let's just say I had to put my Cy Young year, 24-8, against 55 saves and let's just say I didn't blow a save. I would have a hard time with the guy getting 55 saves being put ahead of the guy who is 24-8 for Cy Young."
In 1996, as a starter, Smoltz finished first in the Cy Young voting and 11th for MVP. In 2002, as a reliever, he finished third in the Cy Young voting but eighth for MVP. That makes sense, according to Smoltz, because he believes closers are more like position players in how often they affect games. And so it's his belief that relievers should be considered for MVP before Cy Young.
"It's hard for me, having done both, to give the Cy Young to a guy who has pitched 200 innings or 180 innings less [than a starter]. He is super important and affects the team more on a day-to-day basis," Smoltz said. "So his remarkable year — say Fernando Rodney's or Jim Johnson's, and there's nobody else comparatively close to them — I would be more apt to say that that is more worthy of a MVP than a Cy Young."
It's in the definition of the award, says Smoltz. MVP is for the most valuable to his team, whereas Cy Young is for the year's best pitcher, Smoltz believes.
"Think about it. The MVP does not always go to the guy who has had the best year. It's gone to the guy who in [the writers'] estimation has affected their team," Smoltz said. "Without him on their team, there is no way they would have been in the playoffs or where they are at. That's why the Cy Young can win on a losing team. The argument of a MVP would be, 'Well, that guy on a losing team is still on a losing team.'"
In the past, relievers have won the Cy Young Award primarily in seasons in which there were no starters that have had standout years. In the AL in 2012, no starter is running away with the award, but there are five who have won at least 13 games with an ERA under 3.00: Tampa Bay's David Price, Chicago's Chris Sale, Los Angeles' Jered Weaver, Detroit's Justin Verlander and Seattle's Felix Hernandez.
"You have five, sub-3.00 ERA starters," said Fox Sports baseball writer Ken Rosenthal, who has one of the 28 votes for AL Cy Young this season. "I just can't see selecting a closer over a starter having that kind of year. I just don't see it. I know you can make the argument, but I just think closers are more MVP candidates. It would have to be an extraordinary circumstance for me to vote for a reliever over a starter."
Even those who are hoping to promote their own players begrudgingly understand that reality. Despite Rodney's importance to his club, the Rays have sent out promotional information to potential voters supporting Price's candidacy — and not Rodney's.
"We sent out on Price because he is a starter and we think, historically speaking, he has a better chance as a starter than Fernando the reliever," said Rick Vaughn, the Rays' vice president of communications. "But we joked internally about how funny it would be if Fernando wins it after we sent out our Cy Young propaganda on Price."
The decision was based on practicality and not a preference for one or the other. In fact, when asked to choose between Price and Rodney for a fictitious Cy Young ballot, Maddon, the Rays' manager, said, "That's like, do I vote for my oldest son or my second-oldest son? You talk about choosing within your family. … I think both are deserving of consideration."
ESPN.com features a Cy Young Predictor based on a formula that includes past voting results. In it, Price is listed as first this year in the AL and Rodney second. Johnson is seventh.
Another potential indicator is the Sabermetric baseball statistic known as WAR, which is designed to provide how many wins a particular player would give his team beyond a replacement, or reserve-level player, at that position. According to ESPN, the highest WAR for an AL pitcher is 6.0, assigned to Verlander, the league's defending MVP and Cy Young winner.
Rodney is 10th highest in WAR with 2.9; Johnson is tied for 43rd in the AL with 1.6, which is actually behind fellow Orioles relievers Strop, Darren O'Day and Troy Patton.
The WAR figures lean heavily toward elite starters, rendering the comparisons between the rotation and bullpen almost useless. But there's no arguing that both roles are important, just difficult to compare against each other.
That's why Stark, the ESPN writer, has attempted to create a new BBWAA Award strictly for relievers. It's long due, Stark believes, plus it would allow writers to better quantify a reliever's career versus other relievers when it comes to Hall of Fame voting.
In December 2010, at a BBWAA meeting, Stark's proposal was shot down. Among the most prevalent reasons was that relievers can win the Cy Young since they are pitchers.
"My point is that we don't do that, we don't vote that way," he said. "We are shutting out a really important position and we act like it doesn't exist."
Another argument is that relievers do have two other awards: The Rolaids Relief Man, which is awarded on a statistical formula that weighs heavily on saves accumulated; and MLB's Delivery Man of the Year, which is awarded by a fan vote. But Stark points out that the two are awarded with little fanfare and little national recognition.
"They carry zero weight," Stark said.
Even though he may be the biggest advocate for closer credibility in baseball, Stark admits that if he had a vote for AL Cy Young, Rodney and Johnson would probably fall into a tier below the five top starters. In the NL, however, Stark has made a case for Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman to win the award.
Johnson said if he had a vote, he would potentially give it to Rodney, the guy anchoring the opposing bullpen this week. Especially considering Rodney, who has a 0.69 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings pitched, was supposed to be a set-up man but was thrust into the main role when Kyle Farnsworth was sidelined due to injury.
"Yeah, just the numbers he has had this year and what he has done for that club is just unbelievable," Johnson said.
But here's the big question: Would Johnson vote for himself for Cy Young over Rodney and all those excellent starters.
"No," snapped the no-nonsense Johnson. "Because I wouldn't. What do you want me to say?"
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