The “This Year in Baseball Awards” lack the prestige of counterparts like the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards that define excellence in Major League Baseball.
Chosen by fans rather than the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, they amount to a post-season popularity contest that keep people interested in the game.
Yet for Taiwan’s Kuo Hong-chih, who last week won the This Year in Baseball Award for best setup man, simply appearing in enough games at the major league level to be even considered for the honor is nothing short of amazing and a testament to his persistence.
Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a teenager in 1999, he blew out his elbow in his first professional game in 2000 and has faced considerable roadblocks since.
He missed the entire 2003 and 2004 season from his second Tommy John surgery and has been unable to remain fit at the major league level since he first pitched for the major league club in 2005.
As recently as last year, Kuo had rotator cuff problems and elbow surgery, leaving his career in jeopardy, according to MLB.com.
The Dodgers have been reluctant to use him as a reliever because it felt his surgically repaired left arm was not suited to the quick warm-up routines of pitchers coming out of the bullpen.
But after three poor starts to begin last season, Kuo was moved to the bullpen.
He began as a middle reliever, but claimed the setup role midway through the season when closer Takashi Saito was injured. Kuo was nearly unhittable after that.
Though Kuo sat out most of September with a sore bicep, he still posted impressive numbers.
He went 5-2 with a 1.69 ERA in relief, the best in the league, and struck out 86 in 69 1/3 innings of work. Most impressive was the 42 games he pitched in (including the three starts), nearly doubling his 45 appearances in his first three major league seasons.
Those numbers, and the legions of Taiwanese fans who closely follow US baseball, helped him garner 30.3 percent of the 1.2 million votes cast to win the setup man award.
With Saito not tendered a contract for next season, Kuo will compete with Jonathan Broxton for the Dodgers’ closer role, a much different role than he may have envisioned years ago but now accepts.
“I think I’m better suited to being a reliever because I don’t have a big assortment of pitches,” Kuo told local media. “But I may need another two to three years to be ready as a closer.”