LOS ANGELES -- There was a time in the not too distant past when teams would have been more inclined to exhaust every starting pitching opportunity with the young arms of Edwin Diaz and Josh Hader before "banishing" them to the bullpen. But today, the high-velocity, high-leverage impact these two 24-year-olds are capable of making in the late innings is more valued than ever, and their enormous impact on their respective clubs in 2018 was recognized Saturday.
The Mariners' Diaz and the Brewers' Hader were named the American League and National League Relievers of the Year presented by The Hartford. Diaz received the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award, while Hader won the Trevor Hoffman NL Reliever of the Year honor. Diaz, Hader, Rivera and Hoffman, as well as Commissioner Rob Manfred and The Hartford president Doug Elliot, were all on hand for the awards presentation prior to Game 4 of the World Series.
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"Congratulations to Edwin Diaz and Josh Hader for an outstanding year," Elliot said. "We saw another example of how pivotal and critical a role the relievers play on the game today [in the Game 3 marathon between the Dodgers and Red Sox]."
Hitters logged a combined 529 at-bats against Diaz and Hader in 2018, and they managed to hit just .146.
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That utter dominance of the opposition created an elevation in standing for the right-handed Diaz and the left-handed Hader, both of whom were first-time All-Star selections. Diaz made history as the youngest reliever to reach the 50-save threshold, while Hader emerged as the Brewers' multi-inning out-eater and their most dangerous weapon in the October run to the NL Championship Series.
"I think it really comes down to pitching," Hader said. "I think that whenever your time is up and you can get out on the mound and help the team out in any way, I think that as long as you don't set a role to yourself, that's really where the game is going now. Pitchers are just going out there to pitch, and ultimately to get outs and help the team win."
For Diaz, who is nicknamed "Sugar," the rise to a rank among the game's best current closers has been a rapid -- and sweet -- one. He was promoted in 2016, direct from Double-A, and took over as the Mariners' closer within two months of his arrival. He put up terrific numbers in '16 and '17, but he went to the next level in '18, with a Major League-best 57 saves and 65 games finished to go with a 1.96 ERA, 124 strikeouts and a 0.79 WHIP in 73 1/3 innings.
He even won a bet with manager Scott Servais, who promised to cut his hair like Diaz's if the young reliever reached 50 saves.
"At that point early in the season, I had like three saves already," Diaz said. "I came with a new haircut to the ballpark. He said, 'Hey, if you get 50 saves, I will make my hair like you.' And I had nothing to lose, so I said, 'Let's do it.' When I get the 50 saves, I keep all the balls of my saves. I keep it, bring them home and put them everywhere in the house. But I give that ball to him to let him know, 'I got to 50, so you have to be ready to get the haircut.'"
Diaz broke Roberto Hernandez's single-season record for most saves by a Puerto Rico-born reliever, and he tied Bobby Thigpen (1990 White Sox) for the second-highest single-season saves total of all-time, trailing only Francisco Rodriguez's tally of 62 (2008 Angels).
"For us in Milwaukee, we always caught the West Coast games, towards the end of their games, and just watching Diaz pitch is unbelievable," Hader said. "Watching how he goes about hitters, and how he uses his slider as a weapon, I think that's the biggest thing. It kind of played into my game, where I kind of focused on using that fastball-slider combination."
Hader's role did not lead to nearly as many save opportunities as Diaz. Rather, the Brew Crew turned to him to be a human fast-forward button in the mid- to late-innings. He entered games as early as the fourth inning and as late as the 11th.
Along the way, Hader posted a 2.43 ERA with a 0.81 WHIP and 143 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings. The 6-foot-3, 185-pound Hader used a fantastic fastball/slider combo to strike out 46.7 percent of batters he faced -- the fourth-highest percentage of all-time.
"He was almost punching out two guys an inning," Red Sox starter Chris Sale marveled. "And what he did in the postseason was huge for his team."
Hader's usage this season was evidence of evolution within the game, and his selection for this honor is evidence of the continued evolution of the award.
"I think we're seeing a microcosm of what baseball is turning into, with the bullpening and things like that," Hoffman said. "Andrew Miller received the award a few years ago, the Mariano Rivera Award, in an equal position with the Cleveland Indians."
Voting for the Reliever of the Year Award is conducted by a nine-member panel that includes the top five retired relievers in career saves (Rivera, Hoffman, Lee Smith, John Franco and Billy Wagner) and the four living relief pitchers (in addition to Hoffman) who are in the Hall of Fame (Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter).
The award was revamped from the Delivery Man of the Year honor in 2014.
"The redo of this award was really timely," Manfred said. "I think in the last few years, relief pitching has probably attracted more attention than any other position in baseball."
The voters ranked the top three AL relief pitchers and the top three NL relief pitchers based solely on regular-season performance, using a 5-3-1 weighted point system.
• Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox (63 G, 5-1, 2.74 ERA, 42 saves, 62 1/3 IP, 31 H, 31 BB, 96 SO, 0.99 WHIP)
• Blake Treinen, Athletics (68 G, 9-2, 0.78 ERA, 38 saves, 80 1/3 IP, 46 H, 21 BB, 100 SO, 0.83 WHIP)
• Wade Davis, Rockies (69 G, 3-6, 4.13 ERA, 43 saves, 65 1/3 IP, 43 H, 26 BB, 78 SO, 1.06 WHIP)
• Kenley Jansen, Dodgers (69 G, 1-5, 3.01 ERA, 38 saves, 71 2/3 IP, 54 H, 17 BB, 82 SO, 0.99 WHIP)