Walker Buehler’s first pitch since his Tommy John surgery came on a podcast.
The Dodgers right-hander, who is close to returning to action after 12 months of recovery and rehab, proposed a “rookie Cy Young” award to honor the best first-year pitcher in each league.
Apparently, this has been gnawing at him since 2018, when he finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting. He was able to vent on the Just Baseball Show.
“Not to be like, ‘Oh, I should get all this stuff,’ but I was third in the Rookie of the Year to Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto. Pretty generational, but also, neither of them pitch, so who am I competing against?” he said.
“Starting pitchers get paid a lot of money. So what you’re saying is like, Oh, you aren’t as valuable as rookies but we’re still making the same money in the end. I just don’t buy that. For me, it should be a consideration.”
The idea has merit. Pitchers are eligible for Most Valuable Player awards and also can win the Cy Young award. But more pitchers have been named ROY than perhaps Buehler realizes.
Sixteen pitchers have won the award since 1998, 32% over a span of 25 years that produced 50 winners in the two leagues.
The most recent ROY pitcher was Milwaukee Brewers reliever Devin Williams in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Shohei Ohtani won in 2018, but his hitting overshadowed his pitching that year.
Only once were pitchers honored in both leagues in the same year: Craig Kimbrel and Jeremy Hellickson were the 2011 ROYs. The award since 1998 has gone to future stars such as Justin Verlander (2006) and Jacob deGrom (2014) and to journeymen such as Michael Fulmer (2016) and Jason Jennings (2002).
In a nod to dampening service time manipulation, the current collective bargaining agreement awards a full year of service time to rookies who finish first or second in the voting regardless of how many days they spent on the major league roster.
“These guys that come up … they should be rewarded in some way, and luckily in the new CBA there’s kind of an award-based pool, but also like, give that guy a plaque,” Buehler said.
This season position players are overwhelming ROY favorites. Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll is the NL front-runner, with the Reds’ Elly De la Cruz and Matt McLain and Mets catcher Francisco Alvarez also projected as ahead of top rookie pitchers Kodai Senga of the Mets and Eury Perez of the Marlins.
If an award existed for the best rookie pitcher, Dodgers right-hander Bobby Miller would be in the running along with Senga and Perez.
Buehler, of course, has an affinity for the organization he’s spent his career with, and he knows Dodgers history. No wonder he’d like the award named after a pitcher more contemporary than Cy Young.
“Let’s have a Fernando Valenzuela Award, the best rookie pitcher ever,” he said.
Valenzuela was not only Rookie of the Year in the strike-shortened 1981 season when he triggered Fernandomania in Los Angeles by leading the NL with eight shutouts, 25 starts, 192⅓ innings pitched and 180 strikeouts. The Dodgers won the World Series and Valenzuela won the Cy Young award.
Where did Valenzuela finish in MVP voting? Behind highly deserving Mike Schmidt, Andre Dawson, George Foster and Dave Concepcion. The only Dodgers position players to get votes were Dusty Baker, who finished ninth, and Steve Garvey, who finished 25th.
Back to what’s been bugging Buehler, he got only one of 30 first-place Rookie of the Year votes, with 27 going to Acuña and two going to Soto. But he had a superior year to the only other two pitchers on the ballot, Diamondbacks starter Jack Flaherty and Diamondbacks reliever Yoshihisa Hirano.
Buehler would have been the recipient of the Fernando Valenzuela Award had it existed. But, of course, it doesn’t. If MLB acts on his proposal, perhaps the next Dodgers rookie pitching phenom can thank Buehler while accepting the award from Valenzuela.