Friday, April 20, 2012

Closing the book

Okay, it's time to take a little break for some baseball. Tonight I'll be at the ballpark with my youngest watching the Astros wear their Colt .45 throwbacks for the last time. Since it's a 7:05 start we'll be long gone before the final pitch but I have a feeling we'll enjoy ourselves out there.

The other day Tom Verducci brought up a point that I've made in the past - with all the refinements in the art of pitching, how come so many pitchers end of on the disabled list or on a table under the knife?

When I was growing up starting pitchers would routinely pitch into the eighth inning of games. These beasts would throw well over a hundred pitches on three days rest and would rarely end up missing chunks of the season due to injury. Relief pitchers, for the most part, were former starters who washed out. There were a few monsters out there who would come in when the game was on the line (regardless of what inning it was) and pitch more than an inning in relief on a regular basis.

Just take a look at the stat lines for Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Jeff Reardon to see how much the art of pitching has changed.

Nowadays with year-round training, pitch counts and five-man rotations, pitchers are falling like flies. Even closers are going down at a record clip. And these closers don't even bother coming in until the ninth inning and never have to work their way out of someone else's jam. They are never asked to pitch more than one inning. Managers have all downed the koolaid about having a set-up guy for the set-up guy, a set-up guy and the closer. The save stat is the most worthless stat there is - the save should go to the guy who got out of the jam in the seventh inning - not the guy who walked to the mound to start the ninth.
Managers are motivated by the save statistic, throwing three-out save chances to their closer like bones to a dog. The game universally has embraced this idea that a closer can't come in to a tie game on the road -- better to lose the game with a lesser pitcher than run your closer out there without a save in hand. 
What makes this groupthink so crazy is that the system isn't working. Closers are breaking down or losing effectiveness faster than you can say Joel Zumaya. (Quick, look around baseball: show me the high velocity, high energy closer with the obligatory, goofy closer-hair starter kit who has a long career. The job has a bit of planned obsolescence to it.) 
Clubs can find closers; it's keeping them in the job that is the tough part. Over the previous five seasons, 53 closers saved 25 games at least once. Thirty-three of them, or 62 percent, no longer are closing. Only five pitchers saved 25 games three times in the past five years and are still closing: Jose Valverde, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell and Joe Nathan (with the latter two off to shaky starts). Mostly, closers just come and go, or they break down and virtually disappear (Zumaya, B.J. Ryan, David Aardsma, Brandon Lyon, Kerry Wood, Bobby Jenks, etc.).
I don't know what the problem is. As Mr. Verducci points out, these days there are more problems with the elbow than with the shoulder. Hardly anyone had elbow problems back in the day. There's a reason "Tommy John" surgery is called "Tommy John" surgery - no one had it done until Tommy John had it done in 1974.

Something's seriously wrong when the phenom of all phenoms - Stephen Strasburg - was shut down in his rookie season to have Tommy John surgery. Brian Wilson, the hero for the Giants in their series winning season, is done for 2012 to have his second Tommy John surgery and he's not even thirty. Ditto for Joakim Soria, who just had his second Tommy John surgery.

One thing general managers should take away from this latest wave of broken down pitchers is the folly of spending several million dollars a year on a player who will throw less than 80 innings a year - and then only if the team is winning going into the ninth inning. Relief pitchers are a dime a dozen and baseball types need to get over their wet dreams about fireballing closers.

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