June 1, 2010

The Value of Patience

PITTSBURGH, Pa. / June 1, 2010

Sports fans are always eager to make changes to their team. This is why the backup quarterback is always popular. In baseball, one of the most volatile positions is the closer spot on any team.

For example, Jason Frasor won the Blue Jays closer job in spring training. He got five save opportunities in the team's first seven games, and blew two of them. That was it. Frasor was pushed to a set-up role and Kevin Gregg had the job. Baltimore, Philadelphia and Milwaukee have each employed three different men closers already, in less than a third of a season.

It seems so long ago, but one month ago Octavio Dotel was the worst closer in baseball. At the end of April his ERA stood at 12.27. He had given up runs in six straight appearances during which he walked four and gave up 14 hits, three of them home runs, in 6.1 innings.

Basically it looked like madness to keep Dotel in the closer role. Not only was he the worst reliever on the team in April, but he might have been the worst reliever in baseball. Yet that is exactly what John Russell and the Pirates did.

Well, an underrated way to fix any problem is to do nothing and wait for things to get better. Dotel just completed a month of May in which he appeared in 11 games, an inning each time, and went 1-0 with eight saves and an 0.82 ERA. He also displayed overpowering stuff, striking out at least one batter in every inning he pitched during the month. In May he was the best closer in baseball.

So to a shortsighted observer, Octavio was the worst closer in baseball and is now the best. Of course Dotel is neither. But where many saw a closer with a 12.27 ERA a month ago, the Pirates saw a guy who in an 11 year career had an ERA below 4.00 and 11 strikeouts per nine innings. In short, the same reasons he became a closer are still valid.

Incidentally this was exactly where the Pirates erred with Matt Capps when they non-tendered him this past winter. Capps was a 26 year old reliever with a career ERA of 3.61, 67 saves and a career walk rate of 1.7 per nine innings. That's why more than ten teams wanted to sign him when he hit the free agent market. Yet the Pirates, in letting him leave for no compensation, saw only the guy who had an awful 2009 season.

Of course, making no move is not always best. After the terrible starts of Akinori Iwamura and Charlie Morton, I have advocated, and the Pirates have agreed, that it's best to make a change. The difference is that Iwamura and Morton were league average players in their best years while someone like Dotel or Ryan Doumit is capable of much more. So the next time Dotel blows a save, remember the value of patience.

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