After the Bullpen Report posted last night, Fernando Rodney blew a save against the Dodgers. Given that he allowed four runs and six base runners in his previous outing on Sunday, my baseball writer-heavy Twitter feed was awash with the names Danny Farquhar and Yoervis Medina with the pseudo-hipsters of the group bringing up Carson Smith’s name.
Some seem to think Rodney has already lost the closer’s job or will imminently, while others simply think he won’t last the year with the job. Given that he has 133 saves in the last three years and saved 48 games last year while blowing just two, I’m not as convinced that his job is in much danger. But to get a better idea, I want to take a look at Lloyd McClendon’s history dealing with struggling closers.
Last year was McLendon’s first with the Mariners, and Rodney didn’t really present McClendon with a situation similar to what he’s done in his last two outings. As mentioned, Rodney blew just two saves last year, and I can’t even finagle an example from last year that is analogous to the situation at hand. We’ll have to go back to McClendon’s tenure with the Pirates from 2001-2005 to see how he has handled these situations.
Before we do that, yes, I understand that McClendon was with the Pirates over a decade ago. The way managers think can change in that period of time. Likewise, I realize that ideas about using relievers more efficiently have become more prevalent in the last decade. But closer usage seems to be one of the things that has not changed much (to our outrage), and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if McClendon will be just as quick with the hook or just as loyal to his closer as he was when he was with the Pirates. Ultimately, we don’t know what McClendon is going to do until he does it, but looking at his history seems potentially more predictive to me than naked speculation. And if he’s quoted on what he’s doing with Rodney by the time you read this, forgive me.
OK, 2002 Pittsburgh Pirates. 72-89. The incumbent closer was someone named Mike Williams who I have never heard of. He saved 22 games for the Pirates in 2001 before being dealt to Houston at the deadline. He re-signed with Pittsburgh in the offseason and resumed his role as closer. According to Wikipedia, Williams set the record for being the pitcher with the highest ERA while making the All-Star team when he was selected in 2003. His 2003 selection was probably influenced by his 46 saves in 2002 (his K-BB% that year was 8.1 percent).
The example that most closely resembles the current Rodney situation from the 2002 season happened in August of that year. By that time, Williams had been closing for the Pirates for three years (minus two months in Houston) and for McClendon for the better part of two seasons. He was also in the midst of a 46 save campaign, so he had a track record of saves, as Rodney does now.
On August 15, 2002, Williams entered in the top of the ninth of a 5-5 game against St. Louis. He allowed six baserunners and six runs (two earned) and took the loss. The next save opportunity for the Pirates came on the 18th which Williams converted. Williams’ next appearance was on the 22nd when he entered in the ninth with a 4-2 lead, again against the Cardinals. He recorded just one out and blew the save by allowing four base runners and three runs. The next day the Pirates had a save opportunity and Williams received it and converted it. About a month later Williams blew another save by allowing four runs but also got the next save opportunity which he converted.
Williams remained the closer in 2003, his final season. Williams threw 63 innings that year and finished with an ERA of 6.14. Despite being absolutely atrocious, Williams continued to save games regularly until the middle of July when he finally ceded the role to ugly Julian Tavarez. On the day Williams earned his last regular save of 2003, his ERA was 6.88 in 34 innings. If McClendon’s loyalty to Williams is any indication, Rodney has plenty of rope left.
After Williams left town, Jose Mesa took over as the closer in McClendon’s last two seasons managing the Pirates. Mesa didn’t present McClendon with much of an issue until August of 2004 after he had already racked up 33 saves. Again, Mesa had recently performed well for McClendon before blowing up as is the case here with Rodney. In the span of four appearances, Mesa blew two saves with another four run disaster thrown in there. Looking back at the box score, the four run game also looks to me like it should have been classified as a blown as Mesa blew a four run lead in the ninth. After that stretch from Mesa, the Pirates lost five in a row before having their next save opportunity which Mesa received and converted.
In 2005, Mesa basically pulled a Mike Williams and was horrendous for four months before finally being removed from the closer’s role. Mesa saved games regularly until early August despite a 4.76 ERA for the year.
The thing that’s definitely different this time around is the options available to McClendon. He’s got good options now as Farquhar posted a 2.66 ERA last year that was backed up by the underlying numbers. Medina had a similar ERA though his was a bit softer. Smith has only faced 50 major league batters, but he’s generated some strikeouts already. But in his stretch with the Pirates, McClendon did not have a good right-hander to which he could turn. Michael Gonzalez and Scott Sauerbeck were producing both in terms or run prevention and strikeouts, but they were both left-handers.
When Williams was floundering in 2003, McClendon could have turned to Salomon Torres who had a 16.2 percent strikeout rate (18.1 percent was league average for relievers) along with a 3.20 ERA. But in 2005 when Mesa was struggling, McClendon did not have a good right-hander to which he could have turned. Then again, Mesa was awful, so he only needed a less awful option, which he did have.
The other difference here is that Williams’ and Mesa’s struggles in 2002 and 2004 came toward the end of the season. I’ve been drawing a comparison between their record of success early in the year to what Rodney did last year, but it’s possible that McClendon could treat early season struggles differently than struggles in August. It wouldn’t really make sense to do so, but since when does the way managers handle closers make sense?
And ultimately, that’s the point here. What McClendon is going to do is tough to predict. But there are at least some indications in his history that he’ll stick with Rodney despite Twitter’s predilection for turnover. As for Farquhar, Medina and Smith, they should probably be picked up in that order if you’re speculating. Farquhar is probably the only one worth adding in shallow mixers, Medina in deeper mixers and Smith in AL-only.