Aroldis Chapman—Starter or Closer?

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The Reds have experimented with Aroldis Chapman as a starter this spring after he spent the first three seasons in the majors as a reliever. He was their closer in 2012 and saved 38 games with dominant 122 strikeouts in 71.1 innings. Overall, in his three years, he’s thrown 135 innings and struck out 212. It’s obvious why the Reds would like to see how he’d do as a starter with those kinds of strikeout numbers and a Randy Johnson/Sandy Koufax potential for left-handed dominance if he has the durability to start.

Let’s look at the various factors in Chapman as a starter or reliever from the point of view of the participants.

Aroldis Chapman

He’s said he wants to go back to the bullpen. How much of an influence the player has on his role depends on the player, his contract, how much of a pest he can make of himself if he doesn’t get his way. Chapman’s statement that he wants to close was said in a sort of passive aggressive manner of, “I want to close, but it’s not my decision.”

Some players would exercise a self-fulfilling prophecy and say they won’t be able to start and stay healthy and effective over a full season if they want to be in the bullpen, and then come up with a malady that may or may not be psychosomatic. In the age of heavy stat use, the mental aspect is regularly ignored but no less important. Years ago, the Dodgers’ on-again/off-again third baseman Pedro Guerrero was so miserable at third base that it affected his hitting. When the Dodgers finally said enough and moved him back to the outfield, he went on a tear. It took Jonathan Papelbon to go to the Red Sox in 2007 and basically “save” their season by saying he wanted to close. It’s not to be ignored what the player wants.

What the Reds need

The 2007 Red Sox didn’t have a closer and were on the verge of making the same mistake they made in 2003 by going into the season without someone who could get the outs in the ninth inning and having it cost them games and teamwide confidence. The Reds are not in that position. They re-signed Jonathan Broxton to close if the Chapman-as-starter experiment worked. What they promised Broxton is unknown. Given the closer market and how it crashed, Broxton wasn’t in a position to be making demands that he be the closer or he wouldn’t re-sign. He’s making $21 million over three-years to soften his bruised feelings and gaudy save stats if he’s not closing.

The Reds don’t need Chapman as a starter. He’s competing with Mike Leake for the fifth spot and they’d be perfectly fine with the rotation they’d have with Chapman in the bullpen.

Management

GM Walt Jocketty is not an ideologue as Theo Epstein was when he continually insisted that he wanted Papelbon to start. Brian Cashman did the same thing with Joba Chamberlain and the Yankees succeeded in nothing more than destroying Chamberlain. Because of that, it’s clear that Jocketty believes that Chapman could be a very good starter and he’s not trying it based on theory or what’s popular.

With that 100+ mph fastball, a slider and a changeup that he rarely uses as a reliever, he certainly has the stuff to be as good as Johnson and Koufax were. At age 25, it’s a tough thing to relegate him to the bullpen for his whole career when there’s that chance that he could be a Hall of Fame, Cy Young Award winning starting pitcher if only given the opportunity. An old-school baseball man like Jocketty also doesn’t want to be seen as having his decisions dictated by the players or by new orthodoxy.

Manager Dusty Baker wants Chapman to close.

For all the outsider talk that closing will be “easier” on a pitcher’s arm, a future Hall of Famer in his own right, John Smoltz, did both and said that closing was tougher on him than starting was and he preferred being a starter. He was great at both. It depends on the pitcher.

If Johnson, Koufax or Nolan Ryan came on the scene today, it’s very possible that the powers-that-be would have said, “No way they can maintain this velocity over 220 innings. Make him a closer.” The White Sox made Rich Gossage a starter in 1976. His record was a dreadful 9-17, but the team was awful and he was mostly effective in the role. His strikeout numbers plummeted and he hated it. He was moved back to the bullpen and went to the Hall of Fame.

The best decision

Considering the Reds depth in the starting rotation, there’s no reason to move X here and Y there to accommodate the Z theory for the sake of it. They have five starters and their bullpen would be devastating with Sean Marshall, Broxton and Chapman in the late innings. If they weren’t legitimate World Series contenders, it would make sense to let Chapman start and see what happens. But they’re in it to win now and that’s not the time to experiment. For 2013, they should move Chapman back into the closer’s role and keep it in mind that he might be capable of starting at some other time in his career, just not now.

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The R.A. Dickey Trade, Part I—The Rumors Are Lies

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The Mets’ trade of R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays along with catcher Josh Thole and a minor leaguer for catcher Travis d’Arnaud, catcher John Buck, minor league righty Noah Syndergaard and another minor leaguer is contingent on Dickey signing a contract extension with the Blue Jays by Tuesday afternoon. Until then, it’s not done. But negative analysis of why the Mets are doing this has run the gamut from them being tight-fisted to petulant to stupid.

It’s none of the above.

The easy storyline is to take Dickey’s comments at the Mets’ holiday party as the last straw. At least that’s what’s being implied by the New York media. That holiday party has become a petri dish for dissent and the final impetus to trade players. It was in 2005, after all, that Kris Benson’s tenure with the club was effectively ended when his camera-loving wife Anna Benson arrived in a revealing, low-cut red dress. Then-Mets’ GM Omar Minaya subsequently sent Benson to the Orioles for John Maine and Jorge Julio, which turned out to be a great deal for the Mets.

The Benson trade and the pending Dickey trade are comparable in one realistic way: they got value back. Maine was a good pitcher for the Mets for several years and they spun Julio to the Diamondbacks for Orlando Hernandez, who also helped them greatly. With Dickey, it’s an organizational move for the future and not one to cut a problem from the clubhouse.

Were the Mets irritated by Dickey’s constant chatter? Probably a bit. In looking at it from the Mets’ position, of all the clubs Dickey pitched for as he was trying to find his way with the knuckleball—the Rangers, Brewers, Twins (three times), and Mariners (twice)—it was they who gave him a legitimate shot. He took advantage of it, they got lucky and he became a star because of his fascinating tale on and off the field and his ability to tell it. It’s not to be ignored that the Mets, under Sandy Alderson, gave Dickey a 2-year, $7.8 million guaranteed contract after he had one good season in 2010. They didn’t have to do that. They could’ve waited to see him do it again, wondering if it was a fluke. The Mets invested in Dickey and he agreed to it. For him to complain about the contract he signed with such silly statements as the $5 million club option for 2013 setting a “bad dynamic” and threatening to leave after the 2013 season as a free agent were things better left unsaid considering all the variables.

If the Mets were truly interested in wringing every last drop out of Dickey and seeing if he could repeat his 2012 season while placating the ignorant fans complaining about this brilliant trade, they would’ve kept Dickey on the cheap as a drawing card and worried about later later—just as they did with Jose Reyes.

Rather than repeat that mistake, they dangled Dickey to pitcher-hungry teams and when they didn’t get the offers they deemed acceptable, they waited until the big names (Zack Greinke, James Shields) and medium names (Ryan Dempster, Anibal Sanchez) came off the market and struck. That it was simultaneous to the holiday party “controversy” is a matter of timing convenient for conspiracy theories. Delving deeper into the reality of the situation and there’s no substance to the “Dickey Must Go” perception.

This is a cold, calculating decision on the part of the Mets for the future, not to send a message. If you think Alderson was influenced by Dickey’s comments, you’re misjudging Alderson badly. It’s amazing that he’s been able to convince the Wilpons to make deals for the long-term that won’t be popular with a large segment of the fanbase and will provide kindling for the members of the media to light another fire to burn the embattled owners at the stake, but he did it. Personalities didn’t enter into it. Alderson, as the A’s GM, had Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson. While they were productive, he kept them and tolerated their mouths and controversies, then discarded them. As CEO of the Padres, he acquired Heath Bell knowing his reputation. It’s not personal until the personal is affecting the professional. Dickey’s situation hadn’t reached that tipping point.

It’s a childhood fantasy to believe that every player in a major league clubhouse is a close friend to every other player in a major league clubhouse. Like any workplace, there’s conflict, clashes and little habits that get on the nerves of others. Did Dickey’s sudden fame grate people in the Mets clubhouse? Were they jealous? Probably, especially since there’s a prevailing perception that a knuckleballer is comparable to a placekicker in football and isn’t really getting hitters out as much as he’s tricking them with a pitch they rarely see. Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant. As we saw in the Cy Young Award voting, no one’s giving credit based on how they got their results. Dickey was among the top pitchers in the National League and garnered enough votes to win the award. The Cy Young Award, like Reyes’s batting championship is a title based on so many factors that it shouldn’t enter into the equation as to whether or not a player stays or goes.

How many players are there about whom teammates, on-field management, front office people and opponents don’t roll their eyes and whisper to media members of how annoying they are? In today’s game, there’s Mariano Rivera. 30 years ago, there was Dale Murphy. Apart from that, who?

Even Goose Gossage, who has replaced Bob Feller as the Hall of Fame’s grumpy old man in residence, doesn’t criticize Rivera personally when going into one of his rants about closers of today that should begin with a fist pounded on the desk and, “In my day…” and end with, “Get off my lawn!!!”

On the opposite end, there are players universally reviled like Barry Bonds. Most are in the middle. People can still do their jobs without loving the person they work with.

The trade of Dickey was baseball related and nothing more. It was the right call.

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Rafael Soriano’s Inevitable Opt-Out

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By now there’s no denying that Rafael Soriano’s brilliant work in taking over as Yankees’ closer for the injured Mariano Rivera has taken a bite out of Rivera’s irreplaceable status. Whether it’s a significant bite or a nibble will be determined in the coming weeks.

The designation of “greatest closer in history” is based more on Rivera’s post-season success, his durability, and that he’s accumulated more saves than anyone else. In breaking that down, it’s easy to make a case that it’s not as huge an accomplishment as it appears on the surface. Rivera has had more opportunities to rack up those saves because for his entire career, he’s never played for a club that’s won fewer than 87 games. He’s been in the post-season every single year except one. And he didn’t have to handle the workload that the closers of the 1970s and 80s did.

The mere designation of “closer” is indicative of the change from the ace out of the bullpen pitching 2-3 innings in a game to what the job is now and how it’s news if a “closer” is asked to pitch in the eighth inning. Back then it was “fireman” because Rich Gossage, Dan Quisenberry, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers or any of the greats from years ago were asked to put out a fire in the middle of an inning. They were also called “short men” because they pitched briefly, and “briefly” didn’t mean one inning.

There’s no questioning Rivera’s greatness, but it’s watered down to a degree. He couldn’t have done what the aforementioned short relievers did with multiple innings and maintained his effectiveness and health for all these years. Those pitchers didn’t have to pitch in three separate, pressure-packed post-season series. It can’t be denied that Rivera has come up biggest when it counts with a 0.70 post-season ERA and a cold, brutal, fearless dominance that contemporaries—Trevor Hoffman, Joe Nathan, Billy Wagner—didn’t have.

But what happens with Soriano in the coming weeks will determine Rivera’s perception. The Yankees have won six straight games to solidify their position to at least make the playoffs. The Orioles are matching them win-for-win so the division is still in question, but if Soriano is called upon to save a Wild Card play-in game or 2-3 games in the first round and blows it, Rivera’s legacy is solidified further; but if he does what Rivera did and closes the games out without incident, what then?

The Yankees were well-situated to replace Rivera in the event of a catastrophic injury. Initially, they didn’t go to Soriano and decided to use the succession concept to give the job to David Robertson. Robertson didn’t handle it in his opportunities before he got injured and the Yankees, by necessity rather than design, went to Soriano. Soriano has been at least as good as Rivera would’ve been and possibly even better. It’s in the Fall that his value will truly be determined.

The Yankees have to face the reality that Soriano is going to opt-out of his contract and go elsewhere to close in 2013 and beyond. Unless the Yankees again make a drastic overpay as they did when the signed Soriano against the wishes of GM Brian Cashman and promise him he’ll be the closer again in 2014 (if Rivera retires), he’s leaving. The Dodgers are spending wildly and although they have a dominant closer in Kenley Jansen, his heart problems have repeatedly sidelined him and they’ll need someone they can trust to be healthy. Other teams like the Tigers, Angels, Blue Jays, Reds (if they move Aroldis Chapman into the starting rotation), and Giants might be in the market for a closer and be willing to pay for Soriano.

Soriano is guaranteed $14 million from the Yankees in 2013 with a buyout of $1.5 million. He can certainly surpass that on the market if not on an annual basis, but with a longer-term deal. With Scott Boras as his agent, he’s going to opt-out. Will Soriano be happy to take a secondary role to Rivera again after the year he’s had? Extremely doubtful. Can the Yankees risk Rivera not being able to come back from his knee injury at top form? As ageless as Rivera has been, he’s still going to be 43-years-old. It has to end sometime.

Soriano’s going to walk from that contract, but will the Yankees let him walk away from them? And more importantly, can they afford to—not financially, but realistically?

The true answer will come over the next month and in the front office, they’re asking themselves the same question right now.

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Soriano Should Replace Rivera

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Mariano Rivera was likely lost to the Yankees for the season after tearing his knee—NY Times Story.

A decision will have to be made as to whom is going to record the saves for the Yankees.

All things considered, the best bet to take over in the ninth inning is Rafael Soriano.

As great as Rivera has been, his reputation has been built in the post-season and not in the regular season. Any team can find someone to accumulate the negligible save stat. In certain cases, there have been pitchers—Brad Lidge in 2008 with the Phillies—who were the difference for their team making the playoffs or not because of one brilliant year. During the Yankees’ run with Rivera as their closer, they were so deep and talented that if they didn’t have Rivera, they still would’ve been in the playoffs. What they would’ve done when there is in serious debate and it’s unlikely they would’ve won 5 titles without Rivera—he was the main difference between the Yankees and their World Series opponents during that time.

But this is a situation in which the misinterpreted WAR is a useful stat.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Rivera’s highest WAR was in 1996 at 5.4. That was his one full season in the big leagues when he wasn’t the closer. Setting up for John Wetteland, it was Rivera who did the old-school, heavy lifting the type which the naysayers of the new era of save-collectors have ridiculed as being totally different from what they used to do.

Goose Gossage has been the most vocal in this vein.

And he’s been right.

Without Rivera in 1996, the Yankees weren’t making the playoffs. Much like the Rivera knee injury that may have ended his career, it was an accident of circumstance that led to Rivera’s rise from failed starter to Hall of Fame reliever under Joe Torre. Torre discovered a formula that had been partially used by the 1990 Reds with The Nasty Boys Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton. The Reds’ mediocre starters were asked to get them to the sixth or seventh inning with a lead and the game was handed over to the superlative bullpen.

The 1990 Reds went wire-to-wire and swept the heavily-favored Athletics in the World Series.

The Yankees maintained that template after Wetteland was allowed to leave as a free agent following the 1996 season and brought in several set-up men to do the work Rivera did by himself.

Now, with Rivera gone, the conventional wisdom suggests that the Yankees will simply elevate David Robertson to the closer’s role and everyone else—Soriano, possibly Phil Hughes—will be used in the seventh and eighth innings.

But that’s a mistake.

It’s Robertson who’s doing the heavy lifting now. Rivera was a devastating weapon in the ninth inning, but Robertson might have become more valuable with his ridiculous strikeout numbers (12.2 per 9 innings) and an ability to magically get out of trouble that’s resulted in him being nicknamed “Houdini”.

For him to enter in the ninth inning as if by rote would render his skills relatively useless.

I suppose they could leave the current configuration as is and do something outside-the-box (that would probably work) and use Hughes as the closer, but the Yankees have shown no evidence of going so completely against the grain and their own misguided organizational rules and regulations for their pitchers to think that they’d do that.

Soriano has successfully closed before and has never gotten comfortable with pitching in the earlier innings. Perhaps giving him the ninth inning will revert him back to what he was with the Rays in 2010 when he saved 45 games, made the All-Star team and was eighth in the Cy Young Award voting.

Soriano can’t handle post-season pressure and has been disturbingly susceptible to the home run ball. That would lean me in the direction of Hughes as the closer. Either way, the heavy lifting should be left to Robertson without the onus of the save stat hanging over their heads and dictating strategy in lieu of doing what’s right to win the game in the now.

Worrying about what happens in the post-season isn’t as great a concern as getting there. Without Rivera, the stiffer competition in the American League and the resulting shifting of the pieces due to his loss, a playoff berth is no longer a guarantee for the Yankees.

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The Negative Validation of Bobby V

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In his first opportunity to show that he’s learned from his mistakes, all Bobby Valentine proved was that he hasn’t changed.

He’s a great manager and a self-destructive force who will insist on going down his way.

That’s not a good thing.

Last season, when Terry Collins took over the Mets after a 10-year absence from managing in the big leagues, many who knew him and his intense, overbearing ways didn’t think there would be a “new” Terry. At the first sign of trouble, he’d revert to the raving maniac that polarized two talented clubhouses and labeled him as an impossible person to deal with.

Collins is still intense and fiery, but has toned down his act to discipline his clubhouse while not alienating it.

The Red Sox veterans viewed the hiring of Valentine with, at best, trepidation.

Throughout spring training the media tried to stoke the fires of controversy with everything Valentine did. From bunting to his lineup and bullpen decisions to the supposed “rift” between him and GM Ben Cherington, the traps were set for the “old” Bobby V—condescending, abrasive, uncontrollably arrogant, vindictive—to appear.

For the most part he kept himself in check.

But on opening day he reverted to the old Bobby V in one of the worst ways imaginable.

In the past, one issue he constantly had was the way he ran his clubs in a self-interested, paranoid, cold-hearted fashion.

The players didn’t trust him because he didn’t trust them.

The list of players with whom Valentine had public dust-ups included Todd Hundley, Pete Harnisch, Darryl Hamilton, Bobby Bonilla, Goose Gossage and David Wells.

Wells never actually played for Valentine.

Yesterday Valentine contradicted himself, the organizational strategy based on stats and told the players that he didn’t trust them to do their defined jobs.

One argument that stat people constantly use is to adhere to the percentages. That’s evolved into the rote maneuver of never using the “closer” in a tie game on the road unless they have no choice. Valentine had a choice.

Of course it’s ridiculous to cling to an ironclad strategy to be used in the face of reason, experience and situation, but the one thing Valentine did not want to do—on opening day!!!—is to give the veteran players a reason to start bashing him behind his back more than they already are.

By using Mark Melancon in the tie game and then panicking by yanking Melancon after, with one out, the next two Tigers’ hitters in the tenth inning got on base with balls that were conveniently placed and not hit hard, he told the players something they already suspected and were presumably whispering about from the time he was hired: he’s a mircomanager who won’t put the game in our hands.

Contrast that with Charlie Manuel—a manager the players love and run to play for.

Manuel was criticized in recent years because he stuck with Brad Lidge too long as closer when Lidge couldn’t get anyone out; for letting Jimmy Rollins run wild with his outrageous statements; for letting Ryan Howard swing on a 3-0 count in the NLDS last season with his team down a run and Howard in a horrific slump.

But for all of his perceived strategic lapses, the players know what they’re getting from Cholly privately because that’s what they get publicly.

Cholly’s got their backs because his actions are in the front.

He gives his players rope and if they hang themselves and the team with it, so be it.

Can Valentine say that?

Right off the bat, he’s telling Melancon, the entire roster and upper management that he doesn’t think much of a pitcher he’s going to need to do well if the Red Sox are going to contend.

This is not a defense of Melancon, who I think is mediocre, it’s a statement that even if they’d lost with Melancon (which they wound up doing anyway with “closer” Alfredo Aceves), it would’ve been a better conclusion because Valentine wouldn’t have immediately validated the players’ fears about him.

If the players believe the manager is out for himself—trying not to be criticized; always holding his finger over the panic button; nitpicking—they’re going to tune out and quickly look at their own situations superceding team goals.

With most managers it would be judged as one game in a 162 game season. With Valentine it’s a signal that he hasn’t changed; that he’s still going to ignore his mandate; that he’ll shun long-term harmony for one game desperation.

The Red Sox had better start winning games fast or by early May the ticking time bomb that is Valentine in that mercurial clubhouse will be set to detonate.

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Ryan Leads The Way For The Pennant-Winning Rangers

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As affable as he is in interviews, Nolan Ryan is neither subdued nor calm; he’s a relentless competitor who was an ornery and conservative cuss as a pitcher and has transferred that competitiveness to the front office while still putting forth that veneer of someone you’d like to have a beer with…provided you don’t mess with him.

In contrast to the way the Yankees babied their young pitchers to middling/poor results (and presumably will continue to do so with Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances), the Rangers pushed their starters to go deeper into games as they did during Ryan’s day. It’s not as extreme as Ryan having thrown 200 pitches in a start, but they’re not automatically removed when they reach an arbitrary number of pitches. And if one happens to get hurt, the coaches can explain to Ryan exactly what happened and why and not worry about being fired to keep up appearances to the general public.

This belief—that pitchers can and should be made to do more than was considered “optimal”—is permeating the organization; the Rangers haven’t had the spate of arm injuries other clubs have had. Any perceived connection would have to be studied in depth, but they’re doing something different because Ryan has allowed them to do something different.

Ryan has the cachet to tell his baseball people to loosen up on the pitch counts; his baseball people are stat savvy and scouting-oriented to find players who are either going to make it in Texas as Rangers or be trade bait. Stats have met old-school. Ryan is in a unique position that Billy Beane—née “genius” in name and creative non-fiction only—isn’t. Ryan can say, “I’ve been here before so don’t try that big league stuff on me”, but can add the addendum that he was actually good at it, unlike Beane. In fact, Ryan was one of the best and most durable pitchers ever.

Ryan’s station as president of the club lays the blame or credit at his desk if it doesn’t work or if one of the pitchers get hurt. Part of the reason teams like the Nationals are so protective of Stephen Strasburg isn’t due to any random, layman silliness like “The Verducci Effect” by that noted pitching expert Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, but because they don’t want to be held responsible if and when an injury does occur due to deviating from the preconceived “norms”.

This is why you’re likely to see Neftali Feliz, currently one of the game’s best closers, shifted into the starting rotation once and for all in 2012 as they sign or trade for a relatively inexpensive and established closer along the lines of Heath Bell or take a chance on Francisco Rodriguez. They’ll do it because they can do it and because it makes sense to have an arm like Feliz starting rather than relieving; and now, after closing in big games, he won’t have the “deer in the headlights” gaze when he runs into trouble in the third inning of a game in June.

Ryan was an innovator with his proper use of mechanics; as one of the first pitchers to integrate weight training into his regimen; and was borderline vicious on the mound. If the man running the team understands what’s being done and will comprehend why an injury occurs, there won’t be any fear of trying something different as if some lower level staffer’s job is on the line.

The Red Sox circumstances are different from the Yankees, but would’ve been handled by Ryan as well. Their pitchers don’t generally suffer arm injuries if they follow the Red Sox prescriptions, but their off-field behavior was tolerated by the club and led to the rampant dysfunction and infighting that are now coming out as part of the collapse that prevented them from making the playoffs.

In the waning years of his career, Ryan himself had a special arrangement with the Rangers that he wouldn’t accompany the club on certain road trips when he wasn’t pitching; this led to friction between manager Bobby Valentine and other old-school veterans like Goose Gossage who chafed at the preferential treatment and said so. Pitchers like Steve Carlton were known to go into the clubhouse and sleep on days they weren’t pitching. Had the Red Sox been doing “man stuff” like messing around with groupies or simply napping, no one would’ve complained; instead, there was a shadow government feel to the starting rotation and a sense they could do things that could be deemed as blatantly disrespectful to the organization and tore at the fabric of clubhouse harmony by drinking beer, playing video games and eating fried chicken.

One would be a “boys will be boys” activity of chasing girls and keeping that within the realm of the man’s world of baseball clubhouses; the other is simply childish and destructive. Ryan would absolutely have put a stop to that nonsense, presumably by removing the video game apparatus and beer from the clubhouse. The disconnect between on-field management and ownership was as responsible for the Red Sox disaster and any individual.

When he was pitching, Ryan was the intimidator who stalked the mound and would throw at anyone for impropriety. (Bunting on Ryan and making him run were ill-advised.) That has incorporated itself into the way he’s run the Rangers.

There’s a continuity with the Rangers because of Ryan and they’re able to withstand such controversies off the field as Josh Hamilton falling off the wagon and drinking before the 2009 season and manager Ron Washington having failed a drug test in 2009. It may or may not be subservient to authority figures to say, “if Nolan says it’s okay, then it’s okay”, but it’s working. They’ve been aggressive in their trades to beef up the bullpen; they built up the farm system and signed players who fit into what they’ve tried to construct rather than the biggest names out there; and they’re doing it with a $92 million payroll.

They’ve won back-to-back pennants and beaten the Yankees and Red Sox at their own game by using techniques and strategies implemented and allowed by the president and CEO of the club (and also a Hall of Fame pitcher), Nolan Ryan.

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Mariano Rivera Didn’t Make The Rules

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After Mariano Rivera recorded his 601st save to tie Trevor Hoffman as the career leader in saves, the debate began again as to whether Rivera has a claim on the “greatest” reliever in history as if it was a title held by Hoffman that he wrested away with that save.

Presumably it’s going to amp up when he passes Hoffman.

Hoffman—a very good closer in the same category with the likes of Lee Smith, John Franco, Jeff Reardon and Dennis Eckersley—is not in Rivera’s class in terms of stuff nor results in important games.

But that’s only one of the variables as to why Rivera is the best closer of this era.

You can say that he only managed to accrue that number of saves because he had so many opportunities pitching for the Yankees; that we don’t know how the other pitchers would’ve done had they been pitching for a dominant club that was in the playoffs every single year of his career except for 2008.

This argument, like the oft-repeated Goose Gossage lament of Rivera and the rest of today’s closers having it “easy” because they’re only asked to pitch one inning, is missing the point.

Rivera doesn’t make the rules and didn’t create the save stat; he never issued any usage dictates to be limited to one inning (nor did Eckersley for that matter); he didn’t manipulate his way to the Yankees so he could compile numbers in a “I wanna be great” way.

You can make the case that the lineups in today’s game are more complete top-to-bottom today and that pitchers like Gossage didn’t need to deal with PED users all over the place and bandbox ballparks, that Rivera and his brethren are overall equals of firemen of the past.

Rivera has done his job as he was asked to do it and he’s done it masterfully.

The save stat is what we have. The predominance of pitching one inning is how he’s been utilized. The playoffs and World Series games are where he’s made his name.

He’s been great at it.

If Rivera were asked to do what Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Dan Quisenberry did, would he have been able to do it and maintain this longevity?

There’s no way of knowing, but he wasn’t trained to do that as those pitchers were, so obviously if someone is asked to do something unfamiliar to them after being nurtured on a totally different set of principles, the likelihood is that he’s not going to be effective and he’s going to get hurt.

As of right now, Rivera has the save record; someone’s going to come along and break it. Will that person also have the success rate in the post-season that Rivera has? Will he come through when his team needs him to come through? Will he be trustworthy so it’s a shock when he blows a game and not a shock when he manages to save one as has been the case with most of the closers in today’s game for years and was so with Hoffman in the waning days of his career?

Maybe.

But it will have to be someone pretty talented and mentally tough.

According to stat accumulation, hardware, success and longevity, he’s the best. Comparing him to Hoffman was an insult to Rivera before he broke Hoffman’s record and it’s ludicrous now.

Examining eras and comparing numbers to the aforementioned pitchers is like comparing Tom Seaver to Walter Johnson—you can’t do it.

Accept Rivera for what he is; the other pitchers were great at their jobs and so is he. In the era of the one-inning closer, he’s at the top of the heap.

That’s all that really matters.

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The Inevitable End Of Mariano Rivera?!?

All Star Game, Fantasy/Roto, Games, Hall Of Fame, Management, Media, Players

Of course it’s ridiculous.

After the career he’s had of unprecedented reliability—especially when it’s mattered most—Mariano Rivera has about eight years worth of capital built up to slump for a week or more.

So he’s allowed homers in consecutive appearances; he blew a game against the Red Sox on Sunday and the Angels on Tuesday and almost another one today.

And?

Does that justify the likes of Mike Francesa pulling the word “statistics” without any actual numbers to suggest that Rivera’s “slowing down”?

It sounded as if Francesa was saying to check out Rivera’s stats without, y’konw, looking at them himself or realizing that it’s no longer a nuisance of endless research to find such things.

If you truly look at Rivera’s advanced stats and compare his overall production he’s been around equal or better than his career averages in the meaningful categories.

I’ll leave the stats to others and the posterior talk to Francesa.

What I’ll say is this, Rivera has been so consistent and reliable that he’s perceived as indestructible; a Superman; an automatic.

He’s none of those things.

Almost, but not quite.

He’s a human being who’s doing a very difficult job against the best talent in the world; he’s 41-years-old; and the image of his greatness has been exacerbated by the rampant unreliability inherent with just about every other team’s closer and that he’s been brilliant when the money is on the line in the post-season.

We can debate forever the “fireman” job description of today in comparison to what closers of yesteryear had to do. Had Rivera been asked to do what Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter did by pitching as early as the 6th inning, there would be a fair side-by-side basis to say who was the “best”.

But you can’t quantify it. You can examine opposition, ballparks and advanced statistics and extrapolate; but the durability questions, number of innings pitched and how hard they had to work will never be accurately judged.

In this era, Rivera is the best.

He’s had a few bad games this week and will be fine in spite of Francesa’s imagination for affect and the Yankees fans’ feigning of stunned disbelief that their Sandman is mortal—as if they didn’t already know.

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Those Last Three Outs

Books, Games, Management, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players

Tony La Russa, when scoffing at the suggestion that “anyone” can close games has said something to the tune of, “those last three outs are different”.

It’s not something that can be equated by stats or stuff. Closing is a mental endeavor more than anything else. It helps to have a power fastball like Goose Gossage; a bat-destroying cutter like Mariano Rivera; or a split-finger fastball like Bruce Sutter, but what all three of these pitchers and the other great closers of past and present have had is that they’ve been able to handle the mental and physical stresses of the job.

This phenomenon is being played out in front of our eyes as we’re seeing another quality arm who should be able to do it, one who I specifically pointed out as a winning choice—White Sox lefty Matt Thornton—imploding in his first week as the full-time closer.

Thornton has a high-90s fastball and good slider; he strikes out tons of hitters; has historically handled righties and lefties; doesn’t allow many homers; and throws strikes. His demeanor is indicates a closer’s mentality with the aura of “gimme the ball”.

But he’s been awful so far this season. So awful that while manager Ozzie Guillen is sticking with him, he’s come out and said he wants to see better results—ESPN Story.

In other words, time’s running out on Thornton’s foray as the White Sox closer.

Can it be explained by dissecting Thornton’s games and finding a reason why he’s gotten off to an atrocious start in his star turn? He’s had three save opportunities this season and blown them all including the April 8th game against the reeling and winless Rays in which he got tattooed for 5 runs. His defense certainly didn’t help him, but that’s no excuse.

Is it a slump? Or is being the designated “closer” in his head?

Some pitchers have been very good as set-up men and, when asked to pitch one inning later, have faltered. LaTroy Hawkins and Guillermo Mota were two solid relievers who simply could not do it.

La Russa always chafes at the implication that he destroyed the game with his specialization and role-based strategies.

The accusation is a misnomer. La Russa was simply doing what was best for his club at the time—the Athletics—and used Dennis Eckersley in a way that was best suited to what Eckersley could and couldn’t do.

The suggestion that “anyone” can get the outs in the ninth inning is contradicted by the qualified pitchers who’ve failed.

It’s not as simple as going out there and recording three outs. It’s an exercise in mental toughness more than a lights out fastball or sharp breaking pitch.

It’s important for one new to the situation and designation as the “ace” out of the bullpen to get off to a good start. Thornton’s already gacked that test. Next is whether he can overcome adversity and regain his bearings—another prerequisite.

Can he recover?

Judging from the statements of his manager, Thornton had better get a move on or he’s going back to the set-up role and Chris Sale will be closing sooner rather than later.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.

I published a full excerpt of my book here (coincidentally, it’s the section about the Mets).

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

It’s out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.

If anyone would like to purchase an autographed copy, leave a comment; Email me; contact me on Facebook or Twitter.

I’ve started a Facebook fan page. Click on the link.

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Hammering

Books, Games, Hall Of Fame, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players, Podcasts

Scott Kazmir‘s precarious position in the Angels starting rotation got me to—again—think about why teams insist on hammering square pegs into round holes.

There are certain belief systems that have to change to maximize the talent a club has on their roster. Did anyone ever stop to think that perhaps pitchers like Kazmir and Rich Harden would be better off as relievers?

After getting past the numerical argument that a decent starter is better than a good reliever, what happens if the pitcher isn’t a decent starter anymore; or if he’s good, but can’t stay healthy? Why does there have to be this ironclad set of rules that pitcher A is a starter and he’s going to stay a starter?

Kazmir and Harden can’t stay healthy as starters; Kazmir is no longer effective as a starter—why not see if he can possibly help out of the bullpen?

An onus is placed over a player who can’t do certain things and it’s at the expense of what he can do. One of the things that made Earl Weaver a genius wasn’t his adherence to stats; it wasn’t his discipline; it wasn’t his utter ruthlessness in getting rid of players who could no longer help him win; it was his conscious decision to put his players in the best possible circumstances to succeed.

He did it with Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein—separately they could only be described as average players at best; combined, they were one of the most devastating platoons in memory.

So why can’t Harden be placed in the bullpen to see if he can fire his power fastball and slider for an inning or two, not worry about pacing himself and hope he can stay healthy?

If he continues his downward spiral, why not stick Kazmir in the bullpen as the 7th-8th inning man—or even let him close on occasion—and see if the adrenaline rush from being a reliever and never knowing when he’s going to be needed to pitch blows his fastball back into the mid-90s?

Tony La Russa has forever been blamed for the one-inning closer because of the way he deployed Dennis Eckersley; the truth is that Eckersley pitched more than one inning regularly when he first moved to the bullpen and La Russa’s decision to use his short reliever in that manner was based on Eckersley being better that way; it was not some grand scheme that this is how it should be done.

Does anyone think that Eckersley would’ve been of more use had he stayed in the starting rotation as his career was nearly undone at age 32 because he was no longer an effective starter? He didn’t want to go to the bullpen—he had no choice—now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

With the way relievers—aside from Mariano Rivera—are so inherently unreliable, the entire fabric of how to deploy one’s pitching staff has to be overhauled; it would take a gutty front office and manager to do it, but with the new blood permeating baseball and shoving back at conformity with a flourish, someone’s going to say they’re doing it another way…eventually.

Old-school people who repeatedly reference Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry as closers who were legitimate relief aces tend to forget that those great pitchers blew games too.

George Brett used to lie in wait for a Gossage high fastball because he was one of the few hitters in baseball who was quick enough to get on top of it. Other hitters with whom Gossage had trouble were fastball hitters like Champ Summers* and Richie Zisk.

*Summers was a piece of work. He was a Vietnam vet who loved—not liked—loved to fight.

In fact, when Gossage signed with the Yankees in 1978, he allowed homers in his first three appearances. It wasn’t all “lights out, ballgame over” when these pitchers came into games, selective memory and factional disputes as to eras aside.

From memory, Sutter was the reliever I feared more than any other because he’d come into a game in the sixth inning and close it out. But Sutter’s greatness was proven to be limiting as well when he left the Cardinals, signed a massive free agent contract with the then-woeful Atlanta Braves and his presence didn’t help them at all because they weren’t any good; the Cardinals won the pennant the first year without Sutter.

A team has to be complete; it has to have all the puzzle pieces arranged correctly. We don’t know what would happen with a Kazmir or Harden if they were made into relievers, but we certainly know what they currently are as starters, so why continue the charade? Why not make a career change and see if it works?

They’re not doing much good now, so what’s the difference if they fail as relievers as well?

And it just might work.

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My podcast appearance with SportsFanBuzz previewing the season is posted. You can listen here The SportsFan Buzz: March 30, 2011 or on iTunes.

I was on with Mike at NYBaseballDigest and his preview as well. You can listen here.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available and will be useful for your fantasy leagues all season long.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

It’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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