The criteria for the Fire Brand of the American League Award is as follows:
“The Fire Brand of the American League is a Red Sox player who exhibits character under pressure, an unassuming man who leaves the spotlight for other people but makes his indelible mark on the past season’s Boston Red Sox. A piece most people take for granted, but whom we would have missed dearly.”
In years past, the recipients of this award displayed widely varying skill sets, and enjoyed vastly different levels of professional prestige and notoriety. The rather eclectic mixture of players receiving the honor is part of what makes it an interesting and compelling distinction. Giving such an award to the team’s best player is both simplistic and easy. Identifying the player whose contributions, though undervalued and unsung, were vital to the team’s success is a pretty special thing.
The previous Fire Brand of the Year award recipient, Alfredo Aceves, won based on the strength of his chameleon-like ability and rubber arm. He started. He mopped-up. He set-up. In a way, his selfless ability to change roles on a dime to suit the team’s needs nearly saved the star-crossed 2011 club that blew a seemingly insurmountable lead in September. After his 2012 season, one that was marred by inconsistency, selfish behavior, and childish outburst; that sentiment seems almost ironic.
This year’s winner, yet another relief pitcher, is cut from a similar cloth. Like Aceves, Scott Atchison is a rubber armed reliever who can fill multiple roles based the team’s need. Unlike his predecessor though, Atchison neither has a promising ceiling, nor is still on the right side of 30. Instead, he’s a 36 year old journeyman reliever who lacks the stuff and natural ability that is typically needed to dominate hitters in a high leverage bullpen role. Still, somehow he managed to do so flawlessly.
In a way, Atchison’s entire career almost personifies the Fire Brand of the Year Award. He was originally drafted in 36th round of the 1994 Amateur Draft by the Seattle Mariners, but chose to attend Texas Christian University instead. In 1998, he re-entered the draft. Yet again, he was drafted by the Mariners, but this time he fell further into the bowels of the draft; being drafted in the 49th round. After toiling in the minors for 5+ years, both as a failed starting pitcher and as a converted reliever, Atchison finally got his chance to shine, posting a 3.52 ERA with solid peripherals in 25 appearances. Unfortunately, his stint in the Major Leagues was short lived as he spent much of the next three seasons (2005-2007) shuttling back and forth between AAA Tacoma and Seattle.
Looking for a change of fortune, Atchison fled to Japan where he played for the Hanshin Tigers in the Japanese Central League. After two successful campaigns, he returned stateside, signing with the Boston Red Sox. Though he received a number of opportunities during his first two seasons with the Red Sox organization, he still rode the Pawtucket to Beantowne bus with regularity. It wasn’t until the 2012 season where he truly got his opportunity to make a name for himself.
A freak injury to incumbent closer, Andrew Bailey, and the subsequent struggles of recently acquired set-up man, Mark Melancon, thrust Atchison into a key role in the much maligned early season bullpen. Taking control of the opportunity, he delivered. In 51-1/3 innings, he produced a stellar 1.58 ERA with a pristine 36/9 K/BB ratio in a variety of bullpen roles.
What the statistics don’t tell you is that his presence and performance stabilized the Red Sox’s bullpen cadre. Most of us have tried to forget the bullpen’s struggles in April, and understandably so. It was an abysmal situation that culminated in the Red Sox allowing 15 unanswered runs, after holding a 9-0 lead in the seventh inning, to the rival Yankees. Interestingly enough, he never threw a pitch in that game. Still, from that point on, his versatility allowed Bobby Valentine to slot his relievers into more defined roles, which helped stabilize the late innings for the Red Sox.
Looking forward to 2013, we’ll have to look on someone to help stabilize the bullpen with Atchison leaving via free agency. Luckily, it looks like we’ll have a number of solid, talented options to choose from. Sadly though, we lost a warrior in Atchison; a man who fought for every bit of success he achieved.
Lastly, I have an announcement to make. This will be my last article with Fire Brand of the American League. I have decided that for the time being, I will take a break from writing to pursue other opportunities and interests. It is with a very heavy heart that I do this, and my decision was not made without serious deliberation. Still, I feel it’s time. I just want to thank each and every one of you for all of your support during my tenure here. Additionally, I’d like to thank all of the writers that have been on staff since I’ve been on board. I’ve learned so much from you guys, and I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your work. Lastly, I’d like to thank Evan for not only allowing me to write on his site, but also giving me the reigns of Fire Brand. It’s meant a great deal, and it’s opened a number of doors I’d never thought were imaginable.
Thanks again you guys for all of your support!