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With All-Star Nods, Unheralded Relievers Finally Earn Recognition

July 13, 2016
I don't often have brilliant ideas. That's probably a bit of an understatement. But I swear I had a great one involving the All-Star Game that I rolled out every July.

At least I did until the last two years -- now my genius inspiration has become somewhat obsolete thanks to the easily blamable Ned Yost. 

Stick with me, and I'll explain.

You have to go back to 2002, also known as "The Buddy Groom Era in Birdland," when I had my epiphany. 

Wedsel G. "Buddy" Groom (it's understandable why he went by the moniker, Buddy) was a journeyman left-hander with a great name who found a home in Baltimore from 2000-04.

He even saved 11 games to lead the Orioles in 2001 -- yes, he led the club with 11 saves. Three others (Willis Roberts, Mike Trombley and Ryan Kohlmeier) each had six saves during that awful season.

The next year, 2002, Groom had a splendid campaign, posting a 1.60 ERA in 70 games, including a 1.89 ERA in 39 first-half appearances. That year, remember, was part of the Steroid Era, so posting a sub-2.00 ERA was particularly noteworthy. 

The Orioles' lone representative to the All-Star Game that season was third baseman Tony Batista, who had solid credentials at the time, a .269 average with 19 homers and 53 RBIs at the break. It was hard to argue with Batista's selection, but I remember talking to Groom about whether he thought he had a chance to join Batista.

He just shrugged his shoulders and said unless you are a starter or a closer, you won't be an All-Star. That was the reality for non-closing relievers at the time. They were second-class citizens, pitchers not good enough to be starters and not steely-nerved enough to be closers.

That 2002 All-Star Game, though, was an eye-opener of sorts. It infamously ended after 11 innings in a 7-7 tie because the sides had used their allotment of pitchers -- and immediately it sparked debate about the All-Star Game's usefulness. Ultimately, to make sure managers wouldn't run out of pitchers again in an attempt to get everyone in, then-commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig decreed the winner of the exhibition would earn home-field advantage in the World Series for its league.

I still don't buy that concept; it seems like a festive, public coin-flip to me, and I'd much rather see the team with the best, regular-season record earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Orioles manager Buck Showalter occasionally will trumpet the same point.

I came up with another idea -- inspired by Groom's performance in 2002 -- that I thought would fix the extra-innings dilemma in the All-Star Game. Select one or two middle/non-closing relievers from each league, and then designate them "emergency relievers." They get all of the All-Star pomp and treatment, but they don't get into the game unless it goes to extras. They may have to pitch a whole lot or not at all. They'll know that reality from the start.

The whole point of the idea is that unheralded relievers receive attention on the national stage, while providing All-Star managers with a safety net. Brilliant.

Groom liked the idea way back when. And I kept floating it as the years went on -- the Orioles' Jason Berken was a perfect candidate in 2010, when he had a 1.95 ERA and a career-rattling 50.2 innings pitched in the first half. He got his own T-shirt day but no All-Star nod.

I have beaten my "emergency reliever" drum for years. But now there seemingly is no point. I may retire it here. Thanks, in part, to Yost, the Kansas City Royals' oft-criticized, highly successful skipper.

Yost's Royals have represented the American League in the past two World Series, meaning Yost has managed the AL All-Stars in 2015 and 2016. 

Yost's Royals are built on defense, situational hitting, good baserunning and outstanding relief pitching. In fact, relief pitching may be the club's biggest strength. The Royals led the AL in relievers' ERA in 2015, when they won the World Series. And it was that bullpen that shut down the powerful Orioles bats during the 2014 AL Championship Series.

Amazingly, the Royals won 95 games and the World Series last year with a rotation that was 12th in the AL in ERA and threw the least amount of innings of any AL rotation in 2015 (kind of gives the Orioles' disappointing rotation hope this year, eh?).

So Yost definitely grasps the importance of a stout bullpen. And it shows when he puts together his All-Star squads.

After the fans' and players' votes are tallied, the All-Star manager is charged with assembling the rest of the team, while making sure each club is represented. Striking that balance often means giving up a few pitching spots to good starters on bad teams.

But Yost didn't do that. For one, all six of his managerial pitching choices in 2016 were relievers -- meaning only five of the 14 pitchers initially selected for the AL All-Star team were starters (The NL's initial All-Star staff had nine starters and five relievers).

And Yost wasn't just filling a quota. Of his six relief selections, only one, Tampa Bay's Alex Colome, was taken from a team that had no other All-Star representation.

Furthermore, of the six, three were set-up men and two others assumed the closer role this season after excelling in setup duties.

Yost's philosophy allowed the Orioles' Brad Brach, whose ERA has hovered around 1.00 for most of the first half, to get to his first All-Star Game in San Diego. That's particularly sweet for Brach, who was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 42nd round, made it to the majors, and then was traded away unceremoniously to Baltimore in 2013.

Yost deserves plenty of credit for making that All-Star call on Brach -- and also sending Orioles setup man Darren O'Day to his first All-Star Game in 2015. 

In exchange, Yost basically has killed the need for my "emergency reliever" rule. 

It's bittersweet for me. Non-closing relievers are now getting the national attention they so richly deserve. But it came more than a decade too late to help one of baseball's greatest names, Buddy Groom, become an All-Star.