Last night, as John Lackey finished sewing up a playoff spot for the Red Sox, Fenway Park chanted his name.
Six months ago, that name was all but an epithet in Boston. Spoken in the same tone as Julio Lugo, Eric Gagne, and Carl Crawford. When the Red Sox cleaned house last year, he was what was left. A memory of what had gone so wrong before that most were hoping would just shrivel up to be pushed out by the up-and-coming arms of Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster. The turnaround is so dramatic that it's hard to imagine a more deserving candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
And yet, last week our own Matt Collins wrote the following on his chances:
With all that being said, though, I'd be shocked if [Lackey] won this award. Mariano Rivera is in his last MLB season, and the league has been honoring him all year. (And deservedly so) Since he missed the entire 2012 season, it'd be shocking if he wasn't given this award.
The award is given every year to one player each from the National and American Leagues who has "re-emerged on the baseball field during a given season."
Amusingly, in the release introducing the award from 2005, the candidates are listed with their impressive 2005 numbers, and far less impressive 2004 numbers. Neither candidate really fits the bill here in that neither Lackey nor Rivera really pitched in 2012 (Rivera managed just eight innings), but the award does have a long history (as long as can be for one created so recently) of going to recently injured players, even ones who didn't play all that poorly in their previous year--see Ken Griffey Jr. from 2004 to 2005.
That being said, there's no way to claim that Mariano's comeback is anywhere near as monumental as Lackey's. For Rivera, this is just more of the same. What makes his comeback more impressive than anything is age, which is worth consideration, but more as a tiebreaker than anything else. His ACL injury kept him out of a season where he would have been expected to be one of the game's best relievers. His coming back to do the same thing he's always done is not terribly surprising. Hell, he's actually having one of the worst seasons of his career, however good that may still be. By ERA+, this is the worst season he's had since 2007, ranking above only that, 2000, 2002, and 1995. By blown saves, it's his worst since the stat has been tracked.
For John Lackey? This is a complete turnaround from a disaster start to his Boston career. Yes, he's had better, particularly from 2005-2007, but it's been a while since he's been this good. Certainly not since his introduction to Boston. To put some numbers on it, Lackey has gone from being a -1.9 rWAR player in 2011 to a +2.9 rWAR player in 2013. Mariano? 0.4 rWAR to 2.2 if you count 2012, 3.2 to 2.2 if you don't.
The problem Lackey faces is simple: sentiment. This is the final year of Major League Baseball's favorite citizen. Whenever he shows up in any given town, the opposition enters full-on cult of personality mode. It's gotten so ridiculous that the Red Sox daring to make reference to his shortcomings in 2004 inspired Keith Olbermann to go off on them for ten full minutes. Of course, it doesn't take much to get Keith ranting, so maybe that's not so impressive.
Honoring Mariano Rivera for his incredible career is all well and good. But if we're talking about what's strictly correct, who's strictly more deserving, then Lackey clearly needs to get the nod over Rivera. If they want to give Mariano a lifetime achievement award, then they should make one (or just wait five years) rather than appropriating someone else's.
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