Saturday, April 10, 2010

Welcome To Billy Wagner, Atlanta

  • Closer blow-o-rama:

It's not as if the Braves weren't warned what Billy Wagner is and what he does.

For the most part, he'll convert his save opportunities with a gack-job sprinkled in here-and-there; but the threat is always there of a blow-up at any moment; and just wait until September when he's guaranteed to blow at least 2-3 imperative games that will cost the Braves a playoff spot.

Such was the case yesterday when a superlative performance by Tim Hudson was wasted as Wagner came in to close the victory for the Braves over the Giants in San Francisco and allowed a game-tying 2-run homer to Edgar Renteria with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The Giants later won the game in the bottom of the 13th on an infield hit by Aaron Rowand.

Welcome to Billy Wagner, Atlanta.

The Wagner failure was just one of three games lost in the late innings by a good idea gone wrong. That good idea is the "one-inning closer".

Tony La Russa is widely blamed for the practice with his deployment of Dennis Eckersley in the late-80s and 90s; but the truth is that the use of Eckersley was little more than a cold-blooded and well-reasoned determination on the part of La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan that one-inning was the best possible use for Eckersley; it wasn't a cookie-cutter decision designed to remove responsibility from the manager or to have an explanation to reporters of why he did what he did.

Such a baseline and intractable template is the type of thing perpetrated by a manager who has neither the competence nor the courage to do what's right rather than what's safe. That is definitely not Tony La Russa.

Because of the success La Russa had with Eckersley, of course others copied the misunderstood practice. This is another case of forcing players into roles they may not be best suited for. The one thing that La Russa did that should be copied is the defined roles for relievers. Since being a designated closer is now worth big money, pitchers like Wagner want the job; want the gaudy save stat; and want to be the man coming into games at the end.

But is that the best way to win games?

I don't think Yankee fans truly appreciate Mariano Rivera even with the accolades he receives. His value is beyond comprehension because he's not going to be afraid; he doesn't give up many homers; he throws strikes; and he remains calm in the most dire circumstances.

The same goes for the Red Sox with Jonathan Papelbon. For the most part, Rivera and Papelbon are going to convert their saves; but because the closer is now such a high-profile position and is so lucratively compensated, they're not going to sign in a venue that doesn't give them the ninth inning regardless of circumstances.

Yesterday, both Mike Gonzalez of the Orioles and Trevor Hoffman of the Brewers blew ninth inning leads. Gonzalez's was the second blown save in his first week with the Orioles; Hoffman allowed a 2-out; 2-strike homer to Cardinals pinch hitter Nick Stavinoha to lose the game.

Gonzalez's resume isn't as impressive as Hoffman's, but Hoffman's had his vast share of big game stumbles throughout his career lending credence to the implication that he doesn't belong in a category with Rivera despite an accummulation of saves. Hoffman has always been more of a John Franco, Billy Wagner and Lee Smith-type than a true "Hall of Fame" closer as he's often described.

I'm waiting for a team with nothing to lose and some good arms----the Blue Jays?----to take the tack of using the proper pitcher in the situation rather than the designated "ninth inning ace" to close the game. I'm not talking about the Red Sox disastrous attempts at a "bullpen-by-committee" in 2003 when none of the pitchers they used were any good; I'm talking about a team making the conscious decision to do what's strategically correct rather than what's safe.

For most teams, the closer-by-committee won't work because they can't take the criticism for trying it; nor do they have the pitchers to do the job. The actual designated closer isn't working either and they can't make the change because of big money being paid to the "ace" in the bullpen. I'd like to see someone try it. Just because the Athletics altered the way the game is played in the 90s doesn't mean a manager with guts and a front office who supports him can't change things again.

It's called evolution and I'm waiting for it to kick in.

I think I'll be waiting awhile.

  • No reason to panic; reason to be concerned:

It didn't take long for Yankee fans to have a PTSD-style flashback to 2004 with Javier Vazquez in last night's 9-3 loss to the Rays in Tampa.

Vazquez cruised through the first three innings before giving up 3 runs in the fourth; then the wheels came off in the sixth as he allowed another 5 runs. Vazquez's line was about as repugnant as it was (albeit in a less important game) in his last game in a Yankee uniform, the fateful game 7 of the 2004 ALCS against the Red Sox when Johnny Damon hit a grand slam off Vazquez----pitching in relief----to blow the game open.

I'm on record as saying I wouldn't have brought Vazquez back to the site of his greatest failure. Although supporters cite injuries as the real reason behind Vazquez's atrocious second-half in 2004, there's a widely held whisper-belief throughout baseball (elucidated openly by Ozzie Guillen---who but?) that Vazquez cannot handle pressure.

This isn't going to be a regular-season issue with the way the Yankees hit and Vazquez's durability. He's going to win his 13-15 games; and probably lose his 10-12 games; the innings are the most important thing for the fourth the regular season.

But what's going to happen in the playoffs?

Are the Yankees going to run the risk of Javier Vazquez in a make-or-break game 4 start if they're in Chicago and facing the White Sox down 2 games to 1? With Guillen and A.J. Pierzynski taunting him from the opposing dugout? Can they trust him?

There's no reason to worry now; but that doesn't mean they shouldn't have it in the back of their minds that Vazquez cannot handle New York. It's happened before and it'd be ignoring reality to dismiss the thought entirely now, even after only one start.

  • Viewer Mail 4.10.2010:

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE early season panic:

I think panic is just part of being a fan, no matter what team you root for. Yes, it's silly to freak out after only a few games, but that's what we do. (Well, I guess I should speak for myself.)

I never panic. I explode, but don't panic. Panicking only makes things worse.

Jeff (Street Boss) at Red State Blue State writes RE Nelson Figueroa:

Figueroa? Seriously? If anything deserves a "WTF!?!?!" that move certainly does.

It's not a verifiable and quantifiable aspect, but there are players who I simply do not want around because bad things seem to follow them. Regardless of their possible use (not to imply Nelson Figueroa has use as anything other than filler), they simply have an aura of negativity. Damion Easley was a good guy and power bat off the bench; but he was a member of two teams----the 1995 Angels and 2007 Mets----that utterly collapsed.

There have been "good things" players like Dave Henderson; Lenny Dykstra; Eric Hinske; and Jim Leyritz (on the field anyway) who found themselves in advantageous situations to win and produce in big spots.

You can look at the "bad things" aspect of Figueroa; of Easley; of Vazquez; of Hoffman; and say this is a good enough reason not to keep them around. You could even stick Don Mattingly in there. People will scoff, but I believe it. My advice to the Phillies would be to get rid of Nelson Figueroa as quickly as possible.

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She-Fan said...

I don't think the issue is that Vasquez can't handle New York. I think - if his troubles continue - that he can't handle the AL East. He was cruising through the early innings, as you said, then couldn't pitch out of the stretch when he was afraid guys would steal on him. Maybe he needs a shrink.

Gabriel said...

Don't know if it's a good idea, but Cito Gaston said that when Jason Frasor, the named closer, has a day off (like yesterday), he will see the situation and split the saves amongst Kevin Gregg and Scott Downs. Maybe that's as close as anyone will get to the closer-by-committee evolution for now.

On another topic, what do you think of Vernon Wells? Is he going to be able to keep on his performance? Were his four homers in three days only abuse of the Rangers' pitchers?

theBrooklynTrolleyBlogger said...

Memories..., from the corner of
2004's eyes. Misty watered colored memories of the way Vasquez was.

Wagner? - It's always been a little pet project of mine to look over closers with revisionist history. Examples are Roy Face, Perranoski, Rob Nenn and Henke among others. Wagner kinda keeps the discussion of closers a little watered down in spite of his saves totals. Long live the Fireman.