A-Rod, Ibanez, and Changing the Culture at Closer

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Watching for the reaction from Alex Rodriguez fits neatly into a narrative of the player’s struggles. Would he accept the unprecedented maneuver to pinch-hit for him with Raul Ibanez, or would he pull a Scottie Pippen and throw a public tantrum? Would A-Rod have negative things to say in spite of the move working? Would it be all about him?

This aspect is a non-story. A-Rod hasn’t acted like a diva since his opt-out in 2007 and subsequent return to the Yankees. He’s eager to help his younger teammates and contemporaries and is smart and self-aware enough to know that he’s not getting the job done. While he would have liked to have gotten a shot to do what Ibanez did? Yes, but logic and current reality dictates that had it been A-Rod at the plate against Orioles’ closer Jim Johnson, he would have failed. He’s still smart and savvy as a player (evidenced by his run-saving deke of J.J. Hardy in game 2), and while the traps he once set for pitchers by looking intentionally awful at a pitch just so the pitcher would throw it again when the situation called for it and A-Rod could crush it, he knew Joe Girardi did the reasonable—and gutsy—thing before Ibanez’s heroics.

On that same theme of game-knowledge, I find offensive the implication that managers as smart and experienced as Buck Showalter and Jim Leyland are unaware of the faults that lie within the concept of the one-inning closer who’s inserted into the game simply because it’s a save chance regardless of the hitters scheduled to bat or possibilities on the bench.

They know.

Johnson has been brilliant this whole season, but prior to 2012 he had zero experience pitching for a contender and zero experience in the playoffs. He’s blown two of the three games this series. Did Showalter have a better option than him? No. And it’s irrelevant to this argument that Johnson’s numbers are very good against both righties and lefties. It’s the era that’s the problem.

In order to change the culture of the “closer,” there has to be a team that does what Tony LaRussa did when he implemented the one-inning save with Dennis Eckersley. What LaRussa did was innovative and based on what he had; what others have done in years since is simply copying LaRussa so they don’t have to think on their own and risk being criticized. “I had my closer in the game,” is an excuse, not a reason. It’s a shield against reasonable questioning as to why a manager does what he does.  

LaRussa’s idea was bastardized and has evolved into the unrecognizable and mindless zombie it is today when that wasn’t LaRussa’s intent at all. LaRussa defined the roles for his relievers because he had the relievers to fill those roles effectively; Eckersley was more durable and effective in his mid-30s when he didn’t have to pitch more than one inning. It was cold-blooded analysis rather than an effort to reinvent the game.

The most ludicrous thing about the one-inning closer pitching against all comers is that prior to the ninth inning, the managers engage in a duel from the sixth inning to the eighth, mixing and matching their pitchers to specifically face certain hitters based on numbers, stuff, history, and other factors; then when the ninth comes around, for the Tigers, it’s Jose Valverde; for the Orioles, it’s Johnson, and no one dare interfere with the closer’s realm whether it’s the smart baseball move or not.

To think that Leyland is comfortable with Valverde on the mound and that some guy with a website or column on ESPN has the knowledge and nerve to make a change in the hierarchy, possibly upsetting the entire applecart, is the height of arrogance and cluelessness of how a baseball team is handled off the field. Johnson is effective against both righties and lefties, but if it was the seventh inning, would a righty have been pitching to Ibanez? Or would Showalter have brought in a lefty to face him?

The idea of an “ace” reliever is similar to the “ace” starting the first game of a playoff series. You want to have your best out there on the mound when it’s most important and, in the case of the Orioles, Johnson is the best they have. But in other cases, such as Valverde, is he the “best” choice or the choice to keep the peace among the pitchers by having it known, “You’ll pitch here; you’ll pitch there; you’ll pitch against X; you’ll pitch against Y.” During the regular season, if the team is good enough, it makes the manager’s life easier because the closer designate is likely going to convert his save opportunities, but in the playoffs, as we’re seeing now, it’s not a guarantee.

Mariano Rivera is considered the “greatest” closer in history because he’s gotten the big outs in the post-season, not because he’s accumulated the highest save total. Amid the saves he’s racked up in the playoffs—the vast number of them due to the opportunities accorded by pitching for a team in the playoffs just about every year—have been three high-profile gacks that cost his team a shot at the World Series title. In 1997, he allowed a game-losing homer to Sandy Alomar Jr.; in 2001, he blew game 7 of the World Series; and in game 4, it was a Dave Roberts stolen base that undid him and the Yankees. If Rivera hadn’t accrued the capital from the games he’s closed out, these would be defining moments in his career just as blown saves are for Trevor Hoffman, Neftali Feliz, and others.

What I would like to see is a team that is willing to try something different, has a manager willing to stand up to the scrutiny from the media and the complaints of the pitchers, and a front office that backs him to say, “Enough of this,” with the designated closer. Not in the way the Red Sox did, to disastrous results, in the 2003 season, but by having a group of pitchers—sidearming righties and lefties; specialists with numbers or a pitch that is effective for matchups—and use these pitchers in a similar way in the ninth inning as they do in the earlier innings.

A team that could experiment with this is the Rockies. Already trying a different tack with their starting pitchers and relievers rotating with a set number of pitches and the management unconcerned about stats; with an atmosphere not conducive to starting pitchers being successful; and a closer, Rafael Betancourt, that is in the role just because he’s there and not because he’s got a long history of doing the job, they could alter their relief configuration in the same way they’re trying to do it with starters. If it works, other clubs will copy it.

The save stat is ravaged as meaningless. In and of itself, it is meaningless. But until the mentality is changed from the top of an organization all the way through the entire system, there will still be calls for the “closer” even when a sidearming lefty who can’t get anyone out but lefties would be preferable to the guy who’s “supposed” to be out there because it’s “his” inning.

It’s not “his” anything. It’s the team’s thing. That’s what A-Rod proved by being a professional and an adult, and that’s what managers should strive to prove in the future with their bullpens.

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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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Heath Bell’s Blameworthy Disaster

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Before he became a “genius” and a “future Hall of Fame executive”, John Schuerholz was the well-liked and competent GM of the Kansas City Royals. He’d won a World Series in 1985 and was not, under any circumstances, expected to one day be feted as the “architect” of a Braves team that would win 14 straight division titles.

In truth he wasn’t an architect of anything. The pieces to that team were in place when he arrived. Already present were Chipper Jones, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Sid Bream, David Justice and Ron Gant. He made some great, prescient acquisitions such as Greg Maddux, Terry Pendleton and Fred McGriff; had mediocre overall drafts; and was aggressive in making trades on the fly to improve the team.

But he wasn’t a genius.

After a 92-70 season by the Royals in 1989 Schuerholz went on a spending spree that included signing the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, closer Mark Davis, away from the San Diego Padres to a 4-year, $13 million contract. (It was akin to the Jonathan Papelbon deal of today.)

The Royals had a young closer with Jeff Montgomery and didn’t need Davis.

Amid injuries and underperformance, the team finished at 75-86, 27 1/2 games behind the division winning A’s.

Following the season, Schuerholz left the Royals to take over for Bobby Cox as the Braves’ GM with Cox staying on as manager.

I mention the Davis signing because his nightmare from 1990 echoes what’s happening to Marlins’ closer Heath Bell now.

Bell just isn’t as likable as Davis was.

Yesterday was another atrocious outing for Bell and the unusual step (which is becoming more and more usual for him) of yanking him from a save situation occurred for the second day in a row. Manager Ozzie Guillen’s demeanor in the dugout when Bell is on the mound is becoming increasingly overt with frustration and anger. It’s the exacerbated human nature of the athlete that Bell’s teammates are publicly supporting him and privately saying that it’s enough and he needs to get the job done or it’s time for a change.

Bell’s numbers are bad enough. An 8.47 ERA; 24 hits, 14 walks and only 10 strikeouts in 17 innings and the 4 blown saves don’t tell the whole story. He’s not in a slump. He’s been plain awful.

I called this when I wrote my free agency profile of Bell in November but he’s been far worse than anyone could’ve imagined.

In his first few big league seasons as a transient between Triple A and the Mets, Bell didn’t see eye-to-eye with Mets’ pitching coach Rick Peterson and GM Omar Minaya made a rotten trade in sending Bell away to the Padres. The fact that the trade was bad doesn’t make it wrong that they traded him. The Padres were a situation where he was able to resurrect his career first as a the set-up man for Trevor Hoffman and then as the closer.

The Mets did him a favor.

Bell has a massive chip on his shoulder that indicates a need to prove himself. Perhaps the money and expectations are hindering him. That’s not an excuse. He’s a day or two away from being demoted from the closer’s role by the Marlins not for a few days to clear his head, but for the foreseeable future.

Bell’s locked in with the Marlins for the next 2 ½ years as part of a 3-year, $27 million deal unless they dump him. As of right now, he’s a very expensive mop-up man and the Marlins have every right—even a duty—to use someone else because Bell’s not doing the job. Period.

I seriously doubt they’re going to want to hear his mouth if and when he’s demoted from the closer’s role.

But they will.

Bet on it.

//

The Giants Must Address Their Closer Situation

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The Giants’ loss of Brian Wilson unravels much of their winning strategy.

Santiago Casilla was designated as the replacement closer when it was revealed that Wilson would miss the rest of the season with Tommy John surgery.

That decision was either short-lived or not final-final because when Casilla started the ninth inning of Friday night’s game against the Mets with a 3-2 lead, he had a short leash of one batter. Jason Bay led off with an infield hit and manager Bruce Bochy yanked Casilla in favor of Javier Lopez to pitch to the Mets lefties Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Josh Thole.

Strategically, it was the correct move even though it didn’t work. But if Wilson were available, Wilson would’ve been pitching regardless of lefty or righty bats coming to the plate.

The Mets tied the game and the Giants won the game in the tenth inning, but to do it they had to use Lopez, Sergio Romo and Clay Hensley to finish the game when, under normal circumstances, they would’ve used one pitcher, Wilson.

And that’s the problem.

The Giants have a very strong bullpen as long as they have a legitimate closer to be the linchpin. When there’s such disarray as to the roles and the pitchers don’t know when they’re going to be called on, it turns into anarchy that makes it very hard to win. Bochy has never functioned with a closer by committee; there are managers who can do that. Davey Johnson likes to have more than one short reliever racking up the saves; Buck Showalter and Joe Maddon are capable of doing it. It’s not a strength of Bochy. For his entire managerial career he’s either had Trevor Hoffman and Wilson. The haphazard way in which they’re coping with Wilson’s loss is indicative of Bochy’s need to have that ace in the bullpen.

As much as the Giants’ starting pitching is considered their strength, the problem they now have is that without Wilson, they’re likely to reconsider pulling their starters when they normally would because they might need them to go deeper into the games. As the season winds down, that extra stress and workload due to the absence of Wilson will take its toll on the team—a team that isn’t going to run away with any division. They’re going to make their playoff run in September and have to be healthy and fresh.

Tim Lincecum should be fine; Matt Cain is a workhorse; Madison Bumgarner is a rising star; Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito are still question marks. Zito especially, with his 84 mph fastball, has zero margin for error and, in a larger scope, nor do the Giants.

It’s very hard to compete when relying so desperately on the starting pitching and having an All-Star closer if that closer is no longer there. Their defense has been horrible and they don’t hit. When you combine the sequence of events, it’s going to be a bad ending in San Francisco unless they do something definitive to address one or more of these issues.

They’re going to need someone who can close.

Brett Myers is likely to be available; I’d prefer Carlos Marmol whom the Cubs will absolutely want to unload.

When Wilson went down, so did the Giants blueprint. It has to be dealt with. Soon.

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Life Will Go On Without Mariano Rivera

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The reaction to the inevitable end of Mariano Rivera’s career inspired maudlin whimpering and prognostications of doom as to the Yankees’ fate without the all-time saves leader.

Rivera’s cryptic statements and oft-mentioned reluctance to leave his family every February have led to the belief that this is definitely his final season.

Rivera’s comments saying he knows what his decision will be, that he’s not sharing it with the media yet and that he’d like to go out on top of his game all point to retirement, but if he’s decided to retire at the end of the season, then why not just say it?

Rivera may be leaning a certain way, but because he’s chosen not to state it outright, he’s leaving himself plausible wiggle room to do what he wants.

There’s no reason to go into a depression about it now and contemplate an immediate future without Rivera.

It’s in the post-season where Rivera has become something more than Joe Nathan who, like it or not, for a few years put up regular season stats very comparable to Rivera’s. Had Nathan been able to get the outs in the post-season—outs that Rivera has consistently recorded—won a championship or two with the Twins and been the man on the mound to celebrate when they did it, he might be mentioned as a “Hall of Fame closer” in his own right.

Rivera’s longevity and maintenance of greatness, along with the way he’s gotten batters out all combine to highlight his uniqueness. There’s been no deviation in the strategy from 1996 to now. It’s the cutter, the ice in his veins, and that’s it.

Whereas pitchers like Trevor Hoffman had to adjust from his younger days as a flamethrower to a changeup artists, it’s “here it is, hit it if you can” with Rivera, as it’s always been.

The Yankees won’t prototypically “replace” him because they can’t. They’ll stick someone in the role and hope.

But that’s not something to worry about now; he hasn’t said anything specific despite the allusions. That’s because he’s not 100% sure yet in spite the suggestion and panicky, borderline sickening reactions to the contrary.

Eventually it’s going to happen. It could be in 2013, 2014 or 2015. We don’t know. But it will happen. In his absence, the Yankees will find someone to accumulate the saves during the regular season even if it’s (uch) Rafael Soriano.

Life will go on.

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Why 602 Is Important

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On one end we have the likes of Michael Kay insinuating himself into the moment—again—with a series of horribly constructed, poorly written and inane metaphors to express its gravity.

On the other we have those who are still hung up on debating the statistical value of the save and choose to denigrate in the guise of “understanding”.

The testimonials are lovestruck, over-the-top, somewhat silly, sickening and distracting.

The criticism and attempts to frame are whiny and self-important.

What truly matters is this, in the simplest terms possible: 602 is a lot.

It’s a lot of saves.

Mariano Rivera has accumulated—through talent, good fortune, longevity and hard work—602 career saves.

He’s had the stomach to close games in big spots under the New York microscope for 15 years; he’s used the same motion; the same pitch; the same approach for that entire time without deviation or alteration of how he does it. Trevor Hoffman—the man whose record Rivera broke—was a flamethrower before he hurt his arm and ended his career with an 83 mph fastball and devastating change-up; with Rivera, it’s been the cutter, cutter, cutter—here it is, hit it if you can.

Most can’t.

Joe Girardi, in a bit of unknowable hyperbole, said that the record will never be broken in our lifetime; in part that may be true because not many pitchers are able to keep their health or effectiveness long enough to compile the saves. Nor are they going to be pitching for a team that will put them in a position to save 40-50 games every single year. Rivera’s been diligent in his work ethic and lucky to pitch for the Yankees.

There are young closers now who would have a chance to break the record if they remain in the role and stay healthy; Neftali Feliz has 70 saves at age 23, but the Rangers are openly looking to move him into the starting rotation and he’s already had arm problems.

It’s not the number that makes the player, it’s how they were accrued.

The concept of diminishing any accomplishment by placing it into a historical or strategic context is missing the point.

Is it Rivera’s fault that the concept of short reliever was bastardized into pitching only one inning in save situations as if the statistic and definition of job were more important than the game?

Rivera couldn’t make it as a starting pitcher. In the 1950s and 60s, he would likely have been a mediocre swingman on a staff—starting, relieving, bouncing from team-to-team because there wasn’t the specialization that there is today. In a similar circumstance, it wasn’t the fault of Edgar Martinez that he was a great hitter and could do little else; there was an avenue available to him—the designated hitter—to continue plying his trade when his inability to play the field would’ve relegated him to being a pinch hitter 50 years ago.

Neither he nor Rivera made the rules.

Greatness shouldn’t be punished for what it can’t do; it should be celebrated for what it did.

This idol worship is fine; the movement to devalue the save stat is self-defeating. Nothing can change the reality that Rivera saved those games; he pitched; he maintained; he did his job as he was asked to do it.

Regardless of those who ruin this achievement through bad writing and ridiculous comparisons, this is one of those rare instances when the man with the glossy statistics is actually the best at what he did.

And that, more than anything, makes 602 important.

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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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Mutually Beneficial

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It’s easy to scoff at Kyle Farnsworth because of the absence of success that is attached to a pitcher with a 100-mph fastball; someone who looks like he should be a star, but has never achieved that status. But Farnsworth still throws hard and because of that there will always be a team willing to take a chance on him.

In 2011, that team is the Rays.

Farnsworth agreed to a 1-year, $3.25 million contract with an option for 2012.

On the surface, it seems like a reach for the Rays; but Farnsworth fits into the template of what the Rays look for in stocking their bullpen. He’s an underachiever who’s considered a failure; he’s not expensive; he throws hard and strikes people out; and he’s not going to demand that his “role” be defined.

You can list the names of pitchers who’d washed out elsewhere and rejuvenated their careers in Tampa. Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate and Lance Cormier pop to mind immediately. The Rays signed them cheaply, used them and discarded them when they grew too expensive. Now they’re on the lookout for other, similar types of pitchers.

The Rays have the advantage of being able to run their organization correctly because of the lack of fan interest and scrutiny of everything they do. This is why they were able to trade Scott Kazmir to the Angels in late 2009, dump his salary while getting some useful youngsters; this is why they were able to re-stock their farm system in trading Matt Garza to the Cubs.

A certain freedom comes with a dearth of attention.

The Rays are a team that is truly able to utilize a bullpen by committee. Other clubs aren’t in that position. The Red Sox have tried it, but had to abandon the idea because of pitchers who couldn’t get the job done; whiny veterans who wanted to know they were pitching the seventh, eighth or ninth innings and wanted the glossy and moneymaking save stat; or that the club had resisted finding an available, relatively reliable arm who had the capacity—mentally more than anything else—to record those final three outs.

The fan/media resistance to the idea of the closer by committee and that the manager at the time, Grady Little, wasn’t on board didn’t help either.

The Rays are under no such constraints. No one in that refurbished bullpen is in a position to say a word if the dugout calls and says that anyone and everyone should be ready to pitch at any time. It’s good to have definition in a bullpen if the pitchers prove that they deserve to have that designated role.

Bringing in pitchers who have no right to complain removes this pressure from the Rays. They won’t hear Farnsworth complaining to the media that “saves are where the money’s at”; “I need to know where I stand” because he’s not in a position to say such things.

This also benefits the players because they see how much money a Benoit has gotten from one terrific year in Tampa and know that if they perform similarly, they can do the same. It’s mutually beneficial.

The Rays have made it a habit to grab available and underachieving arms and turn them around.

Given Farnsworth’s repeated failures, pitching coach Jim Hickey has his work cut out for him; but Hickey has managed to turn around the careers of the aforementioned pitchers; if he gets Farnsworth to fulfill his potential, he’ll enter the Dave Duncan realm of reclamation project pitching coaches.

Have the Rays found another gem in Farnsworth who needs a tweak here and there? The initial reaction is probably not; but who knows?

Worst case scenario, they can use Farnsworth’s intimidation factor and reputation to try and frighten B.J. Upton into hustling. That would be worth the contract in and of itself.

  • Viewer Mail 1.13.2011:

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes RE Trevor Hoffman:

If Hoffman is a HOF’er, then Lee Smith has to be. Pandora’s Box? Slippery slope? Only time will tell!

There’s been a profound absence of fingers on the pulse of the voters in recent years. Barry Larkin was seen as a shoo-in and then he didn’t come close in his first year of eligibility. No one knows what they’re going to be thinking five years from now and you’ll also see a bunch of names who’ve been closing start to approach the numbers Hoffman has; with that will be a greater comparison; with that will be more names like Lee Smith, John Franco and Roberto Hernandez who elicit eye rolls when the mere suggestion of Hall of Fame induction is mentioned.

If he was up for election immediately, I’d say he has a better chance; his accumulation of stats is going to look worse as time passes.

Mike Fierman writes RE Trevor Hoffman:

He always seemed to fail in big moments..how about 2007? I’m trying to remember the particulars. was it against the brewers that he blew the save so that they had to play the game 163 against the Rockies that he also blew?

Those were two bad ones. He blew the game on the Saturday against the Brewers (in a weird bit of irony, giving up a game-tying triple to Tony Gwynn Jr. with 2 outs in the ninth); then gacked a 2 run lead in the bottom of the 13th inning in the one-game playoff in Colorado.

These are not small issues for Hoffman to overcome with stat compiling.

Muddled

Hall Of Fame

Trevor Hoffman retired yesterday and the Hall of Fame argument as to his worthiness has already begun.

While he was playing there was a debate in judging his career with some calling him an automatic Hall of Famer and others—some former players among them—scoffing at the notion based on the perceived easiness of what it was Hoffman and the other closers of the era did.

So which is it and are we going to have to listen to the back-and-forth for the next five years? Let’s look at the pros and cons, defenses and indictments of Hoffman’s career.

Should he be punished or rewarded because of strategies?

Tony La Russa has been unfairly blamed for the proliferation of the “one-inning closer”. Naturally, it’s a misapplication of blame. When he was managing the White Sox, La Russa used his closers as closers were used in the late 1970s-early 1980s. They pitched multiple innings and were worked hard.

It was when he got to Oakland and installed Dennis Eckersley that he ushered in the era of the “specialist”; middle-men, set-up men, closers backing up a pitcher who was generally only asked to give 6-7 innings fostered the notion of La Russa altering the game.

The truth is that La Russa used Eckersley that way because that was how Eckersley was best suited to be used as he made the transition from starter to closer. The truth is, Eckersley pitched more than one inning somewhat regularly during his heyday of the late 1980s; he didn’t pitch 2-3 innings as Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Dan Quisenberry did in the early part of the decade, but no short reliever does that anymore. Brian Wilson does it occasionally and he’s an anomaly.

Managers who don’t have La Russa’s nerve to innovate—the Jeff Torborgs—took the theory to its logical conclusion. Such was evident by Bobby Thigpen‘s 57 save season in 1990 pitching for Torborg with the White Sox. The hollowness of the save stat became highly pronounced just as Hoffman and John Franco were beginning their careers.

Putting it into context—with Gossage’s lament—it’s not the same as it was; you can’t compare what the relievers do today to what they did before.

Just as players like Wade Boggs shouldn’t have been punished for using the Green Monster in Fenway Park for target practice, how do you blame Hoffman for the way he was used? This was the game when he was pitching; he did as he was told and did it well. The save stat has been made less than what it was when it was created and that’s not Hoffman’s fault.

But maybe he shouldn’t be rewarded for it either.

Was it him or was it the song?

This isn’t a joke.

Did the echoing of AC/DC’s Hells Bells influence the thought that, “Oh no, Hoffman’s coming in!”?

Or was his stuff such that opposing teams and fans threw their hands up in the air or packed their belongings when his name was announced as the new pitcher?

Hoffman wasn’t style over substance, but it was a cool thing to hear the tolling of the bell in the song. That his out pitch wasn’t a Gossage 100-mph fastball; a Sutter split-finger; or a Mariano Rivera cutter lends credence to the idea that teams were more fooled than devastated by Hoffman’s money pitch change up.

Again, not his fault; but something to think about.

There was no “moment”.

Hoffman’s case would be made easier if he’d won a World Series. In his one chance in the Fall Classic, the Padres were swept away by the 125-50 Yankees; but the series wasn’t as much of a washout as the four game sweep suggests.

In game 3, the Padres were clinging to a 3-2 lead in the top of the eighth inning when manager Bruce Bochy called on Hoffman with a runner on first and no one out. Bernie Williams flew out to deep right; Paul O’Neill walked; then series MVP Scott Brosius homered to give the Yankees a 5-3 lead. A lead that Mariano Rivera held giving the Yankees a 3-0 series lead.

Had Hoffman saved the game, could the Padres have won the series? Probably not; but the longer it went, the more of a chance they would’ve had; if they’d gotten it to game 7 with an in-his-prime Kevin Brown ready to pitch, who knows?

But Hoffman gave up the big homer rather than getting the big out.

It’s not a small blip for a borderline Hall of Famer.

Accumulation is not the mark of a Hall  of Famer.

Hoffman accrued stats. The one closer of today, Rivera, who’s going to waltz into the Hall of Fame accrued championship rings and the reputation as unflappable because he got the outs in the post-season.

The argument that Rivera had a better team and more opportunities in the playoffs is not without merit, but that has nothing to do with what Hoffman accomplished.

The “woulda, coulda, shoulda” isn’t the same as looking at a Bert Blyleven and examining his career based on the teams he played for and his contemporaries.

I’ve always wondered why the “woulda, coulda, shoulda, argument was enough to get Kirby Puckett into the Hall of Fame when his career ended because of glaucoma, but not good enough for Don Mattingly, who was a far more dangerous hitter than Puckett—was in fact the dominant player in baseball position for five years—but didn’t get the same treatment because his back problems ruined his greatness.

The magic number of 300 wins and 500 homers is being ignored now because the game has changed. Jamie Moyer and David Wells have more wins that some Hall of Famers, but aren’t getting in; members of the 500 club aren’t receiving the honor because of PED allegations. And the save stat has been diminished because of the one-inning save.

You have to put eras into perspective if you’re going to compare them at all.

Will Hoffman get in?

I honestly don’t know.

I’ve gone back-and-forth on the subject myself. Will his numbers be enough when the vote comes around? He’s not going to have the passionate support that Blyleven had from stat zombies; nor is he going to get the old-school support.

If you examine Eckersley—a deserved Hall of Famer—his candidacy was only made viable by the fact that he was a great starter and a great closer. I feel that same thing will push John Smoltz over the top.

Hoffman?

Is he a Hall of Famer?

Right now, I put him in a similar category with Lee Smith, Jeff Reardon and John Franco; based on that, I’d vote no.