In case you weren't already aware you were in the presence of greatness, here are Jonathan Papelbon's statistics over his first four-plus seasons in a Red Sox uniform: 151 saves, an all-time Red Sox record. A 1.85 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and 346 strikeouts in 298 innings, versus only 77 walks. These aren't just great numbers — they're superhuman.
Shouldn't he be recognized for this in some way?
Of course, he is. He was a four-time All-Star by age 28, something that few in baseball history can claim. And he did, lest we forget, finish second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2006 (behind Justin Verlander). That does count for something. But shouldn't there be more?
You'd certainly think so. It's not rocket science; if you can produce results like the very best in the game at what you do, there should be a way of recognizing your greatness. Workhorse starters get the Cy Youngs, though, and the big boppers in the cleanup spot hog all the MVP plaques. So what do relievers get?
Not much. And something can be done about it.
ESPN.com's Jayson Stark presented a creative idea on Saturday for a relief pitching award, an annual honor bestowed by the Baseball Writers' Association of America as the relievers' version of the MVP or Cy Young. No longer would there be any unrest over the "starters versus relievers" debate — each would have their own postseason accolade.
The award, which Stark dubs the Jerome Holtzman Award in honor of the late Chicago sportswriter who invented the modern save rule, has received "almost universally positive response" from the BBWAA in recent meetings. And Stark, in his discussion of the potential award, mentions Papelbon multiple times as a worthy recipient — he also touches on recent big names like Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez, Brad Lidge and John Smoltz. And of course, the granddaddy of them all, Mariano Rivera.
Most, if not all, of the above pitchers have a very good chance of ending up in the Hall of Fame someday. Rivera, an icon in Yankee pinstripes for the past decade and a half, is one of the all-time great absolute locks. But when these ninth-inning titans have their plaques in Cooperstown, what will they say? What career achievements can these men trumpet?
Barry Bonds had seven career MVP awards. Roger Clemens had seven Cy Youngs. What have the Riveras, Papelbons and Wagners of the world won? Not much, really.
Relief pitching is a tricky career to come by. Most relievers, even elite closers, arrive in the role by chance, usually because they're failed starters. Even Papelbon — remember 2005? The Red Sox' rookie made three starts in July and August, but he ended up getting booted out of the rotation by a healthy Curt Schilling. The Sox had to find him a new role, and closing just happened to work. Trial and error.
The same is true for many of the game's greats. And that's what Stark is trying to reward here — greatness at a position that really exists for the best of the worst. The Jerome Holtzman Award would go to the game's best failure.
And really, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Sometimes greatness can come out of a happy mistake. The chocolate chip cookie was invented by a Massachusetts woman who failed to properly mix her semi-sweet chocolate pieces into her cookie batter. Just a flub that ended up working — much like when the Yankees tried moving a struggling rookie named Rivera into their bullpen in 1995.
Relievers can achieve greatness, too, and it's about time someone recognized them for it. When you see Papelbon's plaque in Cooperstown someday, it would be nice to see a few awards listed on there.
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