October 11, 2007
EVERY MAN A CLOSER:
The Borowski Ultimatum: The Indians are four wins away from the World Series. Do they have the guts to dump their closer? (Chris Park, Oct. 11, 2007, Slate)
Clubs can reduce their risk of crushing bullpen failures by stockpiling young or undervalued arms and relying on whoever happens to be hot that year. Of course, this tack requires some fortitude. Leaving the late innings to a bunch of no-names almost dares the fans and local media to read you the riot act the instant something goes wrong.
The Red Sox, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have boldly and rightly chanced that public criticism. Arizona traded its two highest-paid relievers before the 2007 season, relying on Valverde—who earned a demotion to AAA in 2006 but figured to regress positively to his mean this year—and a mix of young, inexpensive relievers. Not only did the remade bullpen perform well, but castoffs Jorge Julio and Luis Vizcaino struggled with their new clubs. Julio, in fact, almost cost Colorado a playoff berth. On a happier note, the Rockies courageously installed an unproven pitcher, Manny Corpas, in the closer role at midseason, notwithstanding that the incumbent, Brian Fuentes, earned his third straight All-Star selection shortly before struggling in late June. And while baseball writers continue to obsess over Boston's aborted conversion of closer Jon Papelbon to the starting rotation, the Red Sox showed greater foresight in entrusting crucial innings to talented but obscure relievers (Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Hideki Okajima) at the expense of struggling, high-priced veterans (Joel Pineiro and J.C. Romero, both cast off in midseason).
Cleveland's bullpen, though, might be at once baseball's best and most anonymous. Rafael Betancourt's strikeouts exceeded his combined hits, runs, home runs, and walks allowed. Rookies Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis pitched almost as well. The team's relief corps is just one of the Indians' many performance-evaluation successes. This is not surprising, given that Cleveland is the apple of the industry's eye. Led by general manager Mark Shapiro and a front office with an impressive academic and baseball pedigree, the Indians are widely—and at times explicitly—considered the best available model for success among small- to mid-market clubs. That they astutely signed young stars like Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, and Travis Hafner to affordable long-term contracts gives hope to every team that's lagging far behind the Yankees and Red Sox in payroll.
The Indians, however esteemed, are also the League Championship Series club most likely to be second-guessed if the bullpen fails this month. No other team will be scrutinized for using the wrong closer—Papelbon, Valverde, and Corpas have dominated for virtually the entire season. But Borowski, despite leading the American League in saves, is arguably no better than the Indians' third- or fourth-best reliever. His aforementioned 5.07 ERA is by far the worst in major league history among 40-save relievers.
Joe Borowski illustrates nearly all of the basic truths about closing: (1) saves are just a function of save opportunities--nearly any pitcher who's having a decent year could get you 30 if you gave him the chances; (2) however, most pitchers --especially middle relievers--aren't consistently decent from year to year; so, (3) the guys who get 400 chances over the course of their careers are the ones who are most consistent year in and year out and they tend to be pretty good pitchers. The lesson is that while you don't need a big time closer in any given year, if you have one you can save yourself the trouble of finding that season's (or month's) hot hand. Borowski isn't particularly good and he's having an off year even within that limit, so go with the hotter hand. Of course, Terry Francona refuses to accept that Manny Delcarmen is his best set-up guy right now, so the Sox are as likely to blow games in the 8th as the Indians are in the 9th... Posted by Orrin Judd at October 11, 2007 3:07 PM