10 September 2002

I was on my way into work today, listening to ESPN Radio, when I heard that "Everyday" Eddie Guardado got his AL leading 40th save for the Twinkies last night. This brought to mind two predominant thoughts:

1) "Wow, I didn't know Eddie Guardado was leading the AL in saves, and with 40 of 'em, no less!" And...

2) "Who the hell is Eddie Guardado?"

Or, more accurately, who the hell was Eddie Guardado before he started saving two games a week for the AL Central leading Twins? Eddie was a failed starter, turned relief pitcher in Minnesota's bullpen since 1993. He supplied the team with, on average, 60-70 league average (read: replacable) innings each year during most of that span. He was never very bad, nor very good, just...average. There's nothing wrong with that, as it managed to get him salaries in the neighborhood of $1-2 million, which is more than I'll ever see. But there was nothing to indicate that he would someday become the AL's best relief pitcher either. In fact, there's really no indication that the Twins ever planned that for him, rather that he was thrust into the closer's role for lack of a better option (read: LaTroy Hawkins).

This made me think about all of the other closers who have seemingly come out of nowhere and/or failed careers as a starter to become one of the better bullpen anchormen this year, as well as in recent years. Think of the names: Eric Gagne, John Smoltz, Jason Isringhausen, Bob Wickman, Jeff Zimmerman, Joe Table, Mariano Rivera, Todd Jones, Derek Lowe, Antonio Alfonseca, and going back a little more...John Wetteland, Dave Righetti, Dennis Eckersly, and many more. The list of pitchers who have come from obscurity (Zimmerman), mediocrity (Alfonseca), or failure (Gagne) to be among the league leaders in saves, at least once, is nearly endless. So what does this mean? Well, I don't know exactly, but I'm going to posit this: It must not be that hard.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that I could get up off my fat ass and save 45 games for a team in the Show (or a team in Little League, for that matter). I'm just saying that relative to other jobs at the major league level, I don't think that being a closer is that hard, at least not anymore, and not for one year. When guys like Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers had to pitch 2 or 3 innings a game to get a save, almost always facing the opposing teams' best hitters at least once to do so, it must have been more difficult, because otherwise you would have seen lots of guys doing it, and you didn't. It used to be tough to dominate batters in that role for an extended period of time, as well, as you can see by the extended decline at the end of Goose's career. I'm not saying that Mariano Hasn't been a great closer for the Yankees, or even that he hasn't been a key to their success (witness: both times the Yankees have lost a playoff series since 1996, Mo was on the mound), just that it is ridiculous to say, as some have, that Rivera has been the MVP of the yankees during this run of success. As I said in a previous article, the saves that Rollie and Goose accrued were qualitatively different from those racked up by the likes of Doug Jones and Jeff Montgomery, or even this guy:.

Now the closer has become a stats-driven position, specializing to the point that many managers will not put their best available option in in extra innings, even at home, if the game is tied because it's not a save situation. Or they won't put him in before the ninth for fear of using him for more than one inning, or for lack of the insight to do so. The pitchers themselves often will not pitch as well in a non-save situation, presumably because they know that they have nothing immediately to gain from doing so, as contracts are too often based upon gaudy, obvious statistics and not enough on the history of and potential for real effectiveness. And Rolaids has exacerbated the issue by creating a manufactured award that encourages these pitchers to be used only in save situations. I expect we'd see much the same effect, over time, if Ex-Lax created a "Go-Go-Go Man of the Year Award" for the player with the most late inning stolen bases each year. What sense does it make to establish an award for the Herb Washingtons of the world? (Moonlight Graham's got nothing on Herb: 105 games, zero career at-bats.)

Obviously, the analogy only goes so far, and I don't mean to disparage the accomplishments of (insert your favorite overrated relief pitcher here). I just mean to make the argument that if so many different people can do this, especially those who were on their last legs as a starter or were pitching for Abe Fromann's Sausage Factory Road Team B, then maybe we shouldn't be in such awe when an Eric Gagne comes along. After all, he was supposed to have been a really good starter, remember? Shouldn't we be a little disappointed? John Smoltz won a Cy Young Award (albeit one that should have gone to Kevin Brown), Dave Righetti had a no-hitter once, Dennis Eckersly once won 20 games. I was disappointed when they put Rags in the bullpen, because he was my favorite pitcher and it meant that he would be in a less prominent, less important role. Also because I was eight. But that's beside the point.

So, next time somebody points out that Eddie Guardado "came out of nowhere" to lead the AL with 40something saves or that Eric Gagne may break Bobby Thigpen's record of 57 saves in a season, just say "Big deal." And remind them that "nowhere" is likely to be exactly where Eddie is, everyday, in about five years, while the likes of Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens will live on, at least figuratively, forever in Cooperstown.

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