When the Cleveland Indians acquired relief pitcher Dan Otero from the Philadelphia Phillies for cash considerations last December, not much was made of it. In fact, the bigger news of that day was that the Indians also designated Jerry Sands for assignment, something that was worth celebrating at the time.
Otero, while an interesting relief arm, was just another body in a sea of reliever bodies that the Indians signed in the offseason. When spring training rolled around, they had added 18 altogether through a mix of trades, minor league signings, and a couple big-league deals. Otero remained unassuming through most of spring training and into the regular season, but while the rest of the bullpen struggled, the 31-year-old veteran remained consistent and provided one of the few constants in the bullpen for the Tribe.
Otero’s great season was once again overshadowed by the Andrew Miller trade, but he responded by continuing to dominate. He will not win a Cy Young, of course, but Otero has a legitimate case to be the American League Comeback Player of the Year.
Otero is great in 2016 and he has been great before
Like most postseason awards, the exact definition of how to vote for comeback players can be tricky and up for individual interpretation. For me, to really be considered a “comeback player,” I think that assumes you were pretty good in a season or two before. Otero has done that.
He was never a closer, which might hurt his chances of winning the award, but in two seasons with the Oakland Athletics — 2013 and 2014 — Otero had a 2.01 ERA and a 2.92 FIP over 125.2 innings of relief work. He was never a big strikeout pitcher, but he induced groundballs 56.3 percent of the time.
Otero fell off a cliff in 2015 with the A’s, sporting a 6.75 ERA over 46.2 innings in the majors. For the first time in his career he had troubles giving up home runs, and it completely nullified his abilities to induce groundballs.
This season, however, Otero has been back and better than ever with a 1.25 ERA, a 2.59 FIP, and a 59.5 percent groundball rate. His scary home run issues are seemingly gone again, having allowed just 0.31 long balls per nine innings in 2016. He is also striking batters out a better clip than he ever has in his career (20%).
Otero’s ERA this season is second among relievers behind only Zach Britton, who isn’t really “coming back” from anything, as he has been a great reliever the past three seasons. His groundball rate is also 14th among the same group of relievers.
A reliever winning the award is not unheard of
Although Sporting News has had their own unofficial Comeback Player of the Year dating back to the 1960s, Major League Baseball did not start handing out the award until 2005. Since then, three relief pitchers have taken home the hardware: Fernando Rodney (AL, 2012), Mariano Rivera (AL, 2013), and Brad Lidge (NL, 2008).
The first two names have some caveats. For one, Fernando Rodney was absolutely incredible in 2012, sporting a .060 earned run average in 74.2 innings with the Tampa Bay Rays. He was unhittable as the Rays closer, and for the only season in his career, he managed to walk next to no one — he finished the season with a 5.3 percent walk rate, the lowest of his career by a wide margin. As good as Dan Otero has been this season, he is no 2012 Fernando Rodney; not many pitchers are.
And in the case of Mariano Rivera’s 2013 win, he was coming off of an injury and playing in the final year of his career. All he had to do was be any kind of an average reliever and he would have won the award by a mile. Even still, he was near-vintage Mariano Rivera in 2013 with a 2.11 ERA and a 3.05 FIP in 64 innings.
The final winner, Brad Lidge, is what gives me hope about Otero’s chances. Like Otero, Lidge had a couple seasons of effectiveness in the past, but he was never the league’s best. He was not even that bad in 2007 with a 3.36 ERA and a 3.88 FIP, but he was great in 2008 to the tune of a 1.95 ERA and a 2.41 FIP. That is right in line with the kind of performance we are seeing out of Otero to this point.
Whether or not he actually wins is one thing, but the Indians should be glad to have him, regardless
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute: He probably is not going to win. While Brad Lidge’s situation is very similar to Otero’s, Lidge was a closer, as were the other two reliever winners.
Baseball, as a whole, has slowly begun to move away from believing that coming into the ninth with no one on base and a three-run lead is the ultimately show of clutchigrittiosity, but there is still a large enough sect of “traditional fans” who hold the save stat near and dear to their hearts.
Dan Otero has exactly one save this season, and he probably will not get many more.
There is also the fact that Yu Darvish is in the running. Starting pitchers make a much sexier pick, anyway, and Darvish is coming back from an injury, instead of just a bad season. Maybe if he collapses the rest of the way it could open the door for Dan, but right now Darvish looks like the Comeback Player of the Year winner.
Still, Dan Otero has a chance, and that’s pretty awesome.