Orioles' Jim Johnson, Rays' Fernando Rodney show importance of closers

Dominant seasons beg question: why aren't relievers given more consideration for Cy Young?

September 10, 2012|By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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