Tag Archives: Francisco Rodriguez

Major League Baseball Closers

In my commentary of the recent trade of Francisco Rodriguez to the Brewers, I closed by saying K-Rod’s replacement in New York had a good chance at succeeding. My thought was that capable closers often appear out of nowhere, and it isn’t necessary to spend big money in free agency to acquire a 9th-inning guy. I decided to research this further. Here is what I learned:

Of the 30 current closers in the majors…

  • 17 had experience as a closer in the minor leagues
  • 19 recorded their first major league save with the team they are with now* (of that 19, four were “raised” by a team other than the one they are with now**)
  • 13 are making less than $500,000 this season***
  • eight are making $6.5 million or more
  • nine are in the $1.4-4.2 million range
  • the age range is from 23-41 (average age is 29, compared to 28.5 for all players)

*Yes, this does include Jason Isringhausen, who had just one save with the Mets before becoming a closer with Oakland and, a decade later, returning to New York. However, it does not include Joe Nathan, who had only one save with San Francisco before becoming the closer in Minnesota.

**By this I mean they spent a significant amount of time in another team’s farm system or major league club before going elsewhere and recording their first save. These players are: San Diego’s Heath Bell (who was raised by the Mets), Houston’s Mark Melancon (Yankees), Florida’s Leo Nunez (Pittsburgh), and Kansas City’s Joakim Soria (Dodgers).

***Includes three players—Isringhausen, Javy Guerra, and Fernando Salas—for whom contract information was not available.

The minor league resumes of the 17 “experienced” closers are not identical. Consider Craig Kimbrel (Atlanta), Chris Perez (Cleveland), and Drew Storen (Washington), who never started a game. Their paths to the big league closer role were far different from the routes taken by Javy Guerra (Dodgers), Leo Nunez (Florida), and Jordan Walden (Angels), whose starts-to-saves ratio in the minors were 2:1, 5:1, and 7:1, respectively. Therefore, while 13 of today’s closers had no minor league closer experience, 18 started more games than they finished, all at a 2:1 or higher ratio.

This should not be surprising. Teams want to develop starting pitchers. They don’t draft a pitcher or advance him through their system because they think he can be a good 7th-inning guy. Perhaps your dad told you this when you first started following baseball: relievers are pitchers who are not good enough to be starters.

That is obviously an oversimplification, but the fact remains that a lot of closers fall into the role for various reasons outside of being groomed for it. That being said, in May of 2006, only 10 closers had experience as closers in the minors, according to research by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus. The 2011 numbers suggest the trend is to develop players specifically for that role, and perhaps going forward we will see more players like Kimbrel and Storen, who were drafted as closers—in other words, they were saving games in the minors as soon as they signed and became major league closers relatively quickly after their promotion.

There is no right way to come about a closer, especially when the data for those groomed for the role in the minor leagues is sparse. Save conversion percentage, for what it’s worth, has increased two points (from 66 percent to 68) since 2006.**** We’ll know more in few years when the closers groomed in the minors have had longer major league service time and more teams have had the opportunity to employ this method.

After trading their closer during the All Star break, the Mets turned to Jason Isringhausen. Izzy had all of eight career relief appearances (and the aforementioned one save) when Oakland traded for him and decided to make him their closer. From 2000-2007 he averaged 34 saves a season. Given his experience, he was a logical choice to replace Rodriguez.

I’m confident the Mets could have also turned to Bobby Parnell to close. Parnell, a 2005 draft pick, has five minor league saves compared to 93 starts. When the Mets were long out of the race in 2009, Parnell started eight games (and earned a save for pitching three scoreless innings to end a game), but other than that he’s been strictly a middle reliever. But who’s to say he can’t be the next Heath Bell, or at least the next Leo Nunez?

All he needs is a chance.

****Update: As is stated above, save conversion percentage has been very steady the past several years. In fact, it has been steady since 1975. However, this number refers to team save percentages, and in this article I intended to focus more on closers specifically. Therefore, a better number is the save conversion percentage of closers, defined here as the player who recorded the most saves for their team at season’s end. That percentage has been about 86 since 2006, with the difference between the best year (2009) and worst (2006) being a minuscule .017 percent. In other words, the closer conversion rate is, as expected, much higher than the overall team rate, but just as steady over that time period.

Francisco Rodriguez Traded to Milwaukee Brewers

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.

New York Mets 2010 Season Review

The New York Mets had a forgettable 2010. Not since the 2006 Mets have fans felt good about the team at season’s end, and even that year ended in heartbreak. The key difference in ’06, of course, was that there was hope.

The organization continues to preach that it won’t accept mediocrity, but actions speak louder than words. Ownership needs to commit to this winning culture it keeps talking about. It needs a plan. The Yankees have a plan, the Red Sox have one, the Rays have one, and that’s just the American League East. The Mets need not model themselves after any other team, but they sure better come up with a model and stick to it.

It was not all bad for this year’s team, however. In order from best to not quite as awesome, the five good things that came out of this disappointing season:

1. Angel Pagan
Pagan was this season’s most valuable Met if you like the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stat. Many everyday observers, even those who don’t subscribe to advanced metrics, would say the same. David Wright is the only other Met you could make an argument for, but I think Pagan gets the edge because of his defense and perhaps because less was expected of him.

With Carlos Beltran missing the entire first half, Pagan was relied upon to fill the void. Through September 28, Pagan had appeared in 145 of New York’s 156 games, nearly all as a starter. He played mostly in center field, but when Beltran returned he moved to either of the corners, playing Gold Glove-caliber defense no matter where he was positioned.

He probably caught this. (Credit: eviltomthai)

Pagan hit in the first or second spot in the batting order the majority of the season but also hit third and sixth at times. When Jose Reyes was injured at various points, Pagan was counted on to jump start the offense. He is hitting .289 with 11 home runs, 69 RBI, and a .341 OBP.

The fact that Gary Matthews Jr., not Pagan, was the Opening Day center fielder is Exhibit A in the case against Jerry Manuel managing this team in 2011.

2. R.A. Dickey
The pitching of Robert Allen Dickey was nothing short of unbelievable this season. I say that because hardly anyone could believe it. Dickey was 6-0 in his first seven starts with the Mets but fans, media, and anyone else paying attention called it a mirage. They waited for him to fall apart. Except he never did.

Like the rest of the Mets staff this season, Dickey didn’t get much run support, so while he wasn’t piling up the wins he did carry a 2.32 ERA (through 14 starts) into August. I’ll admit, I didn’t believe it was real. His career stats screamed “Triple-A stud,” someone whose knuckleball clearly fooled minor leaguers but was futile against the big boys. But when Dickey pitched a complete game one-hit shutout against the Phillies on August 13, everyone took notice.

He has struggled a bit in September, but his ERA still has him in the top-10 in the league, ahead of Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Carpenter, Tim Linecum, and teammate Johan Santana. The terrifying look on his face when he releases a pitch, his 12 hits and five RBI in 50 at-bats, and his eloquent post-game quotes are a few of the things I’ll pleasantly remember from this disappointing season.

3. The Kids
Whether it was done out of necessity or with an eye towards the future is debatable, but one thing is certain: The 2010 Mets season was a bonafide youth movement. Jon Niese (23 years old) will make 30 starts this year. Ike Davis took over first base in late April and has started there ever since. Baby-faced middle infielder Ruben Tejada (21) has appeared in 71 games. Left-handed hitting Josh Thole (23) became the everyday catcher in July. Pitchers Jennry Mejia (20) and Dillon Gee (24) and outfielder Lucas Duda (24) have also seen action with the big league club.

I remember watching the first game that featured Niese pitching to Thole with Davis, Tejada, Wright, and Reyes behind him in the infield—an entire infield of homegrown players. It was refreshing to see. Davis has gone through slumps (but has 18 homers). Tejada has hovered around the Mendoza Line but has shown promise of late, hitting nearly .300 in September. Niese has struggled recently (his ERA has risen to 3.95 and he sports a 1.41 WHIP), but generally speaking the results have been very encouraging.

4. Mike Pelfrey
A 3.75 ERA and 1.40 WHIP are nothing to celebrate, but Pelfrey was a legitimate ace in the first half. He was 9-1 with a 2.39 ERA at one point, but pitched to a 10 ERA in July. He has turned it around down the stretch and has won 15 games, the most of his career.

After the great start, many thought Big Pelf had taken the next step towards becoming a stud. The poor stretch was reminiscent of old Pelfrey, as his body language was terrible and he seemed clueless on the mound. But I’ve been impressed with his resiliency in 2010 and think 2011 will be a true breakout season for the Mets’ 2005 first round draft pick.

5. The Winning Streaks
If you were being honest with yourself, it was clear from Opening Day that this year’s Mets team was a .500 club. That opinion, again, if you were being honest with yourself, should not have changed at any point this season. But it was hard not to get caught up in the two eight-game winning streaks.

The Mets closed out April by winning eight in a row against the Cubs, Braves, and Dodgers, all at home (if the Mets could play every game at Citi Field, they’d be a playoff team). Sweeping Atlanta and taking both games of a double header against LA was exciting.

The next big streak came in mid-June. The Mets took the rubber game against San Diego at home, then travelled to Baltimore and Cleveland and swept both lowly American League clubs. Their eighth consecutive victory came via a shutout at Yankee Stadium, finishing a stretch in which the Mets won 12 of 13.

Meaningful July games, that’s all you can ask for, right?

And now for the five bad things that happened during the 2010 season. Yes, this started as a much longer list and had to be cut considerably. Once again, starting with the really bad and moving to the regular bad:

1. Oliver Perez
I can’t remember which, but one Mets blog I have visited has a countdown clock to when Perez’s contract expires. Sadly, that doesn’t sum up why Perez is No. 1 on this list, because that clock was in place last season. It has only gotten worse.

Despite beginning the season as part of the starting rotation, he only lasted seven starts. Unable to retire hitters—in short, those that didn’t walk got hits—the Mets were essentially forced to remove Perez from the rotation. Refusing a trip to the minor leagues, Perez has rotted away in the bullpen ever since. He has made five appearances since May and has not pitched since September 6 despite the Mets being long out of the playoff race.

The worst part? Perez is still on the books for next season, when he’ll make another $12 million.

2. Luis Castillo
Castillo is to the lineup what Perez is to the pitching staff: a useless financial drain. Castillo only makes half as much, but I think it’s fair to say that $6 million is a tad much for a second baseman with no range or hitting ability.

Castillo turned it on last year and actually finished with a batting average over .300, but has regressed to his 2008 production levels this season, batting .234. Somehow he still draws a decent amount of walks despite slugging .266.

Whoever the Mets’ General Manager is this offseason will have his work cut out for him as he tries to find takers for Castillo and/or Perez.

3. Francisco Rodriguez
I recall when the Mets signed K-Rod (I don’t even like typing that anymore; he has lost the right to have a complimentary nickname), my older brother said how non-Mets fans would hate the Mets even more. His thinking was that people already disliked the celebratory antics displayed by Reyes, and now we were bringing in the biggest showboat on the mound.

What my brother didn’t figure was that the fans who would hate Rodriguez the most would be Mets fans. But after an embarrassing 2010, Rodriguez is right up there with Perez and Castillo, and it doesn’t even have much to do with his on-field performance.

Rodriguez pitched to a 2.20 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, and while he blew the save in New York’s epic 20-inning game with the Cardinals, the Mets eventually won that game. Only twice did the Mets lose a game that Rodriguez blew, none more crushing than his July 3 collapse in Washington.

But again, it was not Rodriguez’s pitching that made him a hated man in his own city. The closer was arrested following an August 11 game for an altercation with his father-in-law, throwing a punch that led to season-ending surgery. He appeared in court earlier this month for violating an order of protection by sending dozens of text messages to his estranged girlfriend.

The Mets suspended Rodriguez without pay. It is unclear how the organization will proceed this offseason. They could try to void the remainder of his lucrative deal or explore a trade. Either way, Rodriguez has been an embarrassment to the organization this season.

4. Carlos Beltran’s Surgery
I was in Ann Arbor in January and thought it was a joke when my friend John texted me to say that Beltran had undergone knee surgery. This sparked a public feud that included the Mets, Beltran, Scott Boras, and several doctors over whether Beltran had been given the green light for the surgery.

Either way, delaying the surgery until 2010 meant Beltran would miss the entire first half. He has not been the same player this season, batting .255 and looking like one of the worst center fielders in baseball. Veteran Torii Hunter made the move to right field this season; will Beltran be willing to do the same in 2011?

5. Johan Santana’s Surgery
This was Santana’s third season with the Mets and the third one that ended with a surgery. In 2008, he pitched on a severely injured left knee in an attempt to carry the Mets into the postseason. He had surgery as soon as the season ended. His 2009 campaign was cut short in late August because of surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.

This season’s injury was perhaps the most troubling, as this time it was his shoulder that required surgery. He last pitched on September 2. The numbers have been stellar all three seasons (2.85 ERA over that span), but you have to wonder whether the Mets will get a full return on their six-year, $137.5 million investment. Will Santana hold up for three more seasons? Mets fans and management can only hope.

Consider that I didn’t include Jason Bay (.259 BA, six home runs before being shut down in late July due to a concussion) on this list, or directly mention Omar Minaya, Manuel, or the Wilpons and you’ll get a feel for how bad this season really was.

The worst part is that while the bright spots return next season, so do the headaches. How Beltran and Santana recover from their surgeries will be critical, as will whether the Mets can find a trade partner for Perez or Castillo. My feeling is that come mid-October, someone other than Minaya and Manuel will be making these decisions.