Earlier this season my friend Jon, a Mets fan, shared with me his theory on closers: “Every fan hates their closer except Yankee fans.” The basis behind the theory is that no blown save is a good thing, since by definition it prevents your team from winning a game. Some sting more than others, but whether you’re going for a series sweep or trying to stop a three-game losing streak, a blown save is a terrible way to end a game, especially if you invested the full three hours and change into watching it unfold.
Therefore, Jon suggests, only the greatest closer in the history of baseball gets the benefit of the doubt when he blows a save. Everyone else? Well, when all you have to do, generally, is record three outs without giving up the lead, fans expect you to do it.
Francisco Rodriguez, traded last night from the New York Mets to the Milwaukee Brewers, did this much more often than not in his two and a half seasons with the Mets, saving 83 games and blowing 15 for an 85 percent conversion rate, just about the league average for closers over that span.
Memories of games he failed to close—the first Subway Series game of 2009, though it certainly wasn’t his fault; the July 3rd game in Washington last year; the final game in Atlanta earlier this season—are far more vivid than important games he did finish, but that is largely because there weren’t that many important Mets games the last few years.<
No, “K-Rod” was not traded because of poor performance. He was traded because, in the aftermath of 2008, a year in which a shaky Mets bullpen frittered away a playoff spot, Omar Minaya gave Rodriguez a three-year, $37-million contract.* And, in case that wasn’t enough, he threw in a $17.5-million option for next year that kicked in if Rodriguez finished 55 games this year.
*“Shaky” in the same way an 8.7 earthquake is “shaky.”
Having already closed out 34 games this season, the Mets had to deal their closer if they aim to slash payroll next year and re-sign Jose Reyes (the Mets owe $55 million total to David Wright, Jason Bay, and Johan Santana next year).
What exactly the Brewers are getting with Rodriguez, 29, is debatable. His velocity started to decline during his record-setting season with the Angels, and his fastball now tops out around 90 miles per hour. Watching him this year is like watching the relief pitcher version of Tom Glavine (in his Mets years), a guy no longer as confident in his stuff so he nibbles and nibbles and refuses to give in to the hitter. I suppose a pitcher can be effective this way, but Rodriguez’s WHIP this season is an unsightly 1.41, third worst among closers and the highest of his career.
Mets fans know it was never easy with K-Rod, but then again, was it ever easy with Armando Benitez? How about John Franco? Rodriguez made for a better target because of his celebratory antics and off-field altercations, but he was no worse, and in many ways much better, than most of his predecessors.* I’m not saying Rodriguez didn’t underperform in New York, but the team had so many other problems during his tenure that most of the time his performance didn’t matter all that much.
*There was also the huge wad of chewing tobacco that ballooned his cheeks to a cartoonish size, the nearly full water bottle he chucked before exiting the bullpen, and the violent pitching motion that prevented him from fielding anything but a weak tapper to first base side, but those are things that may have bothered me more than other people.
So if, like many Mets fans, you were happy to hear about the trade, the top reason had to be that ugly vesting option for 2012. Now it is gone, but of course, so is the Mets’ closer. Who will step in to replace him—Bobby Parnell and his 100-mph fastball? Jason Isringhausen and his…guile? I’d play the match-ups and ride the hot hand, what is often referred to as a closer by committee. It is unlikely manager Terry Collins will do this. Even in last night’s All Star Game we saw Bruce Bochy manage to the save statistic, and Collins will likely tab one of his relievers as the 9th-inning guy, at least to start.
Whoever takes the reins won’t have his own intro music or paychecks with as many zeros, but there’s no reason he can’t be just as effective as Rodriguez was these past few years.