Taking my cue from the reliever we chose to name our award after, I did not conceive of this as resembling the "Rolaids Reliever of the Year" award, which is open exclusively to closers who pile up saves. I did give some consideration to closing prowess, as I do tend to believe that all other things being equal, the last three outs are the hardest. However, there are of course many games when the hardest outs come earlier, with men on base and the heart of the lineup coming up. With that in mind, these were the factors I prioritized:
1.) Overall Dominance: Generally represented by stats like ERA, WHIP, and K/9, clearly if I was going to put a pitcher on my ballot, he needed to be among the best in his league at keeping runners off the basepaths and, preferably, able, when the situation demanded it, to keep them from even putting the ball in play.
2.) Durability: Being able to strike guys out is great, but being able to get outs night after night is even better. Therefore, relievers who piled up innings and appearances while maintaining their effectiveness got a significant boost on my ballot. After all, during the prime of Gossage's career, from 1977 to 1985, he averaged 93 innings per season.
3.) Closing Games: Pitchers who remained in the running on the basis of the first two standards were given an added boost if they also logged a significant number of those innings at the end of games.
4.) Pressure Situations & Pennant Implications: This was essentially my tiebreaker category. When it came to guys who were more or less evenly matched, I tried to take into consideration how they faired in "Close & Late" type situations, with men on base, etc., and also whether they were pitching crucial innings in August and September, with their team's fate riding on every game.
So, here's my ballot for the American League:
Honorable Mentions: Daniel Bard (Red Sox), Neftali Feliz (Rangers), Andrew Bailey (Athletics), Mariano Rivera (Yankees), Matt Thornton (White Sox), Alexi Ogando (Rangers)
3.) Joakim Soria (Royals)
Pitching for the worst franchise in baseball, Soria proved that he's nonetheless among the most valuable relief pitchers. The Royals have Soria wrapped up at rather favorable terms until 2014, so the 26-year-old may never get to show off his talents on the national stage, but over the last four years he has been one of the top five closers in all of baseball. This season he logged 65 2/3 innings, third most among AL closers, picked up 43 saves for a 65-win team, posted a 1.78 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP, and an exceptional 4.44 K/BB ratio. He finished 2nd among AL relievers in WAR at 1.7.
2.) Rafael Soriano (Rays)
1.) Joaquin Benoit (Rays)
You can easily make a case that the biggest difference between the '09 and the '10 Rays was the presence of shutdown relievers, Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit. Last year the Rays didn't establish their bullpen roles until deep into the season and ended up blowing 22 save chances and being in the middle of the pack in bullpen ERA (3.98). This year Soriano led the league in saves, with 45, and, more importantly, alongside Joaquin Benoit, made it almost impossible for teams to put runners on base in the late innings against Tampa. Tampa's overall bullpen ERA topped the league at 3.33. Benoit and Soriano ranked #1 and #2 in the AL in WHIP, Opponents OPS, and Opponents Batting Average. In 127 combined appearances, they coughed up only six leads. It was difficult to decide which should rank higher, since Soriano had, arguably, the harder job, but in the end, Benoit's dominance was just too exceptional.
Benoit: 25 HLD (1 SV), 60 1/3 IP, 75 K, 0.68 WHIP, 1.34 ERA
Soriano: 45 SV, 62 1/3 IP, 57 K, 0.80 WHIP, 1.73 ERA
As for the senior circuit:
Honorable Mentions: Heath Bell (Padres), Matt Belisle (Rockies), Billy Wagner (Braves), Mike Adams (Padres), Jonny Venters (Braves), Sean Marshall (Cubs)
3.) Brian Wilson (Giants)
In many seasons, Wilson would be the runaway #1 on my ballot. He led the league in saves (48), while producing a stingy ERA (1.81) and WHIP (1.18), pitching a ton of innings (74 2/3) and piling up strikeouts (93). And, his team edged into the playoffs, highlighting how critical each of his outings was. He was particularly dominant down the stretch, when the Giants needed him most. From August 1 to the end of the year, his ERA was 0.95.
2.) Hong-Chih Kuo (Dodgers)
You though Benoit's numbers were impressive. While pitching almost the exact same number of innings, Kuo did him one better, compiling a 1.20 ERA, a 0.78 WHIP, an absolutely insane 403 Opponents OPS, and an 11.50 K/9. Kuo also spent about half the season as the Dodgers closer, so he picked up 12 saves to go along with his 21 holds. What really stands out to me, however, is the fact that over a whole season, he only allowed eight earned runs. Single digits!
1.) Carlos Marmol (Cubs)
If you just see Marmol's solid, but not superlative ERA (2.55) and his 38 saves, you might think I'm revealing my Cubs bias with this vote. However, Marmol's season was actually kind of historic. Only once before in a the Division Play era has a pitcher compiled as many as 138 strikeouts as a reliever (Brad Lidge had 157 in 2004). What gets really crazy, however, is when you look at Marmol's strikeout rate. His 15.99 K/9 is literally the best in baseball's long history, for a player who pitched at least 40 innings. And, really, it isn't even close. Eric Gagne's wild 2003 season, for which he won the Cy Young, comes in at #2, a full strikeout behind Marmol (14.98). Marmol also led all NL closers in innings (77 2/3), so this wasn't exactly a matter of small sample size. And, he topped all relievers in WAR (3.1) by a significant margin. Marmol's ridiculous combination of power stuff and durability has turned him into the league's premier reliever, even though he continues to struggle with wildness (6.03 BB/9).