Rivera deserves the AL Cy Young

These days in the Bronx, winning isn’t coming easy to baseball’s highest-paid players. With a pitching staff in tatters, getting a night with the lead hasn’t become easy for the game’s most potent offense.

Yet, this year, Yankee games are only 8 innings long, for when Metallica’s “Enter Sandman? starts thumping from the PA system at the Stadium and Number 42, Mariano Rivera, Number 42, comes trotting out of the bullpen, it’s all over.

For Rivera, this is nothing new. During his career, Rivera has saved 367 games, good for fifth all time. His postseason resume – 32 saves and a 0.75 ERA in 108.6 innings – is without comparison in the game’s history.

Now, it’s time for Rivera to earn one award that has long alluded him: the Cy Young. In a wide-open race in the American League, Rivera truly has been the best pitcher and the most important cog in the stumbling Yankee juggernaut.

No matter how they’re spun, Rivera’s numbers are astounding. First, Rivera’s recorded 31 saves this year and all of them in a row. His two blown saves against the Red Sox in early April seem a distant memory. During the 2005 campaign, Rivera has been in 48 games. He’s thrown 52.1 innings, and he’s given up a meager six earned runs for a 1.03 ERA.

But wait, it gets even better. In those 52.1 innings, Rivera has allowed just 27 hits. That’s one hit nearly every two innings. He’s walked 11 and struck out 59. Opponents are hitting a whopping .148 off of him with a .202 slugging and a .199 on-base percentage. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Except that it does. Discounting those two disastrous games against the Red Sox in April, Rivera’s numbers are even more unbelievable. Since April 7, Rivera has been in 46 games. He’s thrown 50.2 innings with an ERA of 0.71. He’s walked eight while striking out 56 and hasn’t surrendered a home run. He’s also given up just 22 hits in that span.

Rivera’s dominance is unprecedented in recent times, and there is no reason why he should not win the Cy Young. Rivera, though, will face an uphill battle. The BBWAA voters are often loathe to give the Cy Young out to a reliever. They seem to feel that guys who go every five days contribute more to the overall success of a team than a closer. While Eric Gagne won the 2003 Cy Young during his record-setting run of consecutive saves, Dennis Eckersley was the only relieve to win the Cy Young during the 1990s. Of the 50 Cy Young Awards given up in the NL and AL combined since 1980, only five of them have gone to relievers.

Despite this inherent bias, it will be tough to deny Rivera his rightful award simply because the American League has not produced a clear-cut starting pitcher who deserves this award. Looking at the win and ERA leaders, two popular categories among the BBWAA voters, a few names jump out. Roy Halladay, Mark Buerhle, and Jon Garland are on the list. Yet the three of them have hardly been overwhelming pitchers.

While he has won 16 games, Garland has managed just 72 strike outs in 152 innings. Opponents are hitting a fairly pedestrian .255 against him. At 13-5 and with a 2.99 ERA, Buerhle seems to be a legitimate contender. Yet, his July ERA was 5.01, and he was shelled by the Red Sox tonight. Roy Halladay is out indefinitely, and his 19 starts wouldn’t qualify him in the eyes of the voters.

On the West Coast, there are two other candidates worth considering: Rich Harden and Barry Zito. Zito’s season numbers aren’t remarkable. He’s 11-8 with a 3.62 ERA and 117 strike outs in 164 innings. Yet, opponents are hitting just .217 off of him, and he’s given up 35 fewer hits than innings pitched. Zito also has a winning streak that has propelled the A’s to the top of the West going for him. Since June 18, Zito is 8-0 with a 2.27 ERA. If he continues to drive the A’s toward the playoffs, he will emerge once again as a serious Cy Young contender.

Then finally, there is Rich Harden, a 23-year-old phenom for the A’s. Due to injuries, Harden is just a few innings short of qualifying for the ERA leaderboard. He is 9-5 with a 2.99 ERA. In 108.2 innings, he has 99 strike outs. Opponents are hitting .214 off of him. But he too will suffer from a lack of wins by the season’s end. Harden has around eight starts left. For him to earn serious consideration, he’ll have to win seven of those while keeping his ERA down and his strike outs up.

With this weak field, there’s no reason for anyone to deny Mariano Rivera what is rightfully his. If this seriously flawed Yankee team makes it to the playoffs, it will be as a result of Rivera’s pitching. If they fail, it will be in spite of a phenomenal campaign by the 35-year-old reliever. The 2005 Cy Young Award should simply be another part of Rivera’s resume as he builds his portfolio on the way to Cooperstown.

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