- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
If a starting pitcher has a couple of bad starts, Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin mused Tuesday, he can always work on some stuff in side sessions in the bullpen. There is time for process, and progress.
If a hitter struggles, he can come out for early batting practice, tinker with his mechanics. There is time for process, for progress.
"But when closers go into slumps," Melvin said, "how do they practice to get better?"
There is no way to replicate the specific conditions that a closer faces, standing on the ledge at the end of each game, and relievers can't throw a lot on the side because of the daily possibility that the bullpen phone could ring for them. Mostly, closers have to work through their problems in games, not an easy thing to do.
This is why Melvin believes that closers are like hockey goalies and kickers -- they get hot and they run cold, and every team needs to have alternatives available. There have been extended periods of time over the past few seasons in which John Axford has been among the most effective closers in the majors, with big-time swing-and-miss stuff, and yet the other day, Axford was temporarily dropped out of the closer role and replaced by Jim Henderson. Axford has allowed nine hits and nine runs in 3 1/3 innings to start this season.
"I hate to say somebody lost their job as closer," said Melvin, "because some of them are going to get it back."
Welcome to the volatile world of the short reliever. Ten days into the 2013 season, about a third of the closers are on shaky ground. The Chicago Cubs switched Carlos Marmol out of that role and replaced him with Kyuji Fujikawa. Greg Holland has the title of closer with the Kansas City Royals, although Aaron Crow got the save the other day. The Detroit Tigers are open to suggestions, having sent Bruce Rondon to the minors for more work and signed Jose Valverde after declining opportunities to re-sign him during the winter. Fernando Rodney is the Tampa Bay Rays' closer, although the team is concerned because he pitched eight times in 13 days in the World Baseball Classic and is off to a rough start: He allowed five earned runs all of last season, and already has allowed three this season.
Closers typically rely on one or two pitches, rather than the three or four developed by starters, and so when one goes bad, they don't have safety nets in place. The toughest thing with slumping closers, Melvin said, "is to get their confidence back. If their breaking pitches aren't working, if their secondary pitches aren't working, they can't give up on it. They have to keep trying to make it work."
Yep. Brad Lidge was among the most dominant relievers in 2004 and 2005, then lost his slider for a time and, eventually, his role. He later rebounded to serve as the closer for the 2008 World Series champion Phillies. He later lost his spot, then came back, then lost it again. Trevor Hoffman ranks No. 2 all-time in saves behind Mariano Rivera, and Melvin says that one of the two toughest conversations he has had in baseball was that meeting in Minnesota when the slumping Hoffman was told that somebody else -- Axford -- would get the ball in save chances.
The view of some statistical analysts is that there isn't a lot of value in closers because most anybody can do that job of getting three outs in an inning effectively. Melvin has been among the more progressive general managers in the use of statistics, but he posed an interesting thought. "Maybe everybody can do it," he said, "because nobody can [consistently] do it."
More and more, Melvin says, teams have to build closer alternatives into their plans, just in case. When the Brewers went to the playoffs in 2008, seven relievers registered saves, from Salomon Torres to Brian Shouse to David Riske to Eric Gagne. Now, in 2013, the Brewers will turn to Henderson, who doesn't exactly have the pedigree of a big-time closer: After the 2010 season, Henderson -- then 27 years old, and without a day of experience in the big leagues -- became a six-year free agent. Forty-five days later, the Brewers re-signed him to fill out the roster of one of their minor league teams, without any thought that he would be have an impact in the big leagues.
But the hard-throwing Henderson suddenly ascended in 2012, like a hockey goalie who gets hot, and now he'll be the guy standing on the ledge in the ninth inning.
Until he's not.
Axford had another tough night Tuesday in the Brewers' loss to Chicago, but hey, at least he's healthy. The Cardinals' Jason Motte may need reconstructive elbow surgery. There will be no easy answer for the bullpen hole, writes Joe Strauss.
Around the league
• Marty Foster called Joe Maddon to say he was sorry about that strike three call the other night. MLB executive vice president Peter Woodfork was on the podcast Tuesday to explain how umpires are evaluated, and he talked about the pitch that is toughest for them to judge.
• The Pirates and Yankees are facing the same kind of early-season challenge, under different circumstances. Pittsburgh finished terribly last season and this season, the Pirates' early-season schedule is a meat grinder: They've just started a stretch of 30 consecutive games against teams regarded as contenders.
If they are close to .500 by May 9, when they come out of this month of hell, it could set them up for a good summer. They put together more runs Tuesday.
The Yankees need to buy time for Curtis Granderson to come back, and Mark Teixeira, and maybe Derek Jeter. They've won three straight games now, stand at 4-4, and have so far avoided an early-season collapse despite some pitching concerns. Robinson Cano is blistering hot in recent days, and he wrecked the Indians Tuesday night.
The return of Granderson will force some changes.
• Some rivals playing the Astros say the games present a special kind of tension, because as the presumed worst team in the American League West, the expectation is that you're going to beat them -- and if you fall behind or don't grab the advantage within the games, there is anxiety that opportunity could be missed. "I think the winner of the division might come down to who wins the most games against the Astros," said a rival evaluator. "If you lose five or six games against them, you'll look back with a lot of regret."
• Mariners catching prospect Mike Zunino is off to a great start, and he clubbed a grand slam Tuesday. Here's the thing: It's pretty clear Seattle could be in play in the AL West, and so while the Mariners will have to sort through all of those service-time questions about Zunino and when the time is right to call him up, there is no doubt he'll be an upgrade defensively over Jesus Montero. He will make the Mariners better when he arrives.
• Jered Weaver will miss about a month with his injury, a tough blow for a team that doesn't have much starting pitching depth to begin with -- and Tuesday, Oakland hammered the Angels' bullpen. Garrett Richards, who had shown a lot of promise as a reliever, now must shift into the rotation to plug the hole created by Weaver's injury.
• Roy Halladay is known as one of the hardest-working players in baseball, and he has always taken care of himself; he has always given himself a chance for success. His precipitous decline at the end of last season and into this season should represent a cautionary tale for teams thinking about investing long-term deals in pitchers, in the eyes of a high-ranked club executive. "This is precisely why the deal with [Justin] Verlander makes no sense," said the evaluator. "The Tigers had two more years to wait before they did anything. So many things can go wrong."
Like Halladay, Verlander has always taken care of himself, always done his work, always given himself a chance to be great -- and like Halladay, he has thrown a ton of innings.
The Phillies remain committed to Halladay, Ruben Amaro tells Jayson Stark. From the story:
Asked how much time the Phillies can afford to give Halladay to straighten himself out, Amaro told ESPN.com: "As much as he needs. He's Roy Halladay. He'll figure it out."
Halladay lasted just four innings Monday against the New York Mets in his second start of the year, allowing seven runs on six hits and three walks and a hit batter.
After an alarming spring training during which he had a 6.06 ERA and allowed 21 hits and nine walks in 16 1/3 innings, Halladay already has permitted 19 baserunners in 7 1/3 innings over his first two regular-season starts.
Halladay has had to throw 194 pitches just to record 22 outs, and his average fastball velocity has dipped below 90 mph for the first time in his career. His manager, Charlie Manuel, has admitted to being "concerned" about Halladay.
But when Amaro was asked how difficult it was to know how much rope his team could give a struggling pitcher of Halladay's stature, the GM said the club wasn't looking at it that way.
"I don't think it's about rope," Amaro said. "I think it's more about him just going back to the basics. He just needs to throw more strikes and be more aggressive in the strike zone. Maybe because his velocity, and the stuff that he has, has backed up on him a little bit, he thinks he needs to do something different.
"But for me, it's about throwing more strikes. And I think he realizes that."
Buster Olney talks to Brewers GM Doug Melvin, who explains why it's so tough to deal with a slumping closer.