More AL Pitching Notes

On second thought, maybe the Denny Bautista/Jason Grimsley trade wasn't that good.  In addition to the Orioles guaranteeing Grimsley for next year at $2 million, I mixed up Bautista with another pitcher, and completely missed the fact that he was a 21-year old pitching in AA.  I don't think it's a terrible trade because Grimsley should help settle the bullpen situation and allow the O's to develop Cabrera, Riley, Bedard and when he's ready, Maine.  But Bautista does have more upside than I gave him credit for, maybe as much as anyone on the staff.  It should be noted, though, that when he was called up, he pitched like a 21-year old in the majors: 2 IP, 6 hits (including a home run), 2 walks, 1 strikeout and an ERA of 36.00.  So perhaps the O's decided that although he had the stuff to be a top starter, maybe he didn't have the make-up.  If that is the case - only the Orioles front office knows for sure - the appraisal might be a bit premature.  We'll find out in a few years.

Closer in Cleveland
The very day that he was re-anointed closer in Cleveland, David Riske blew a save chance and again muddied the picture as to who would end up closing in Cleveland.  The smart money at the beginning of the season was on Riske, who had closed out 8 games to finish last season and had all the pre-conceived requisites of a start closer - serious heat, good WHIP and a fearlessness when the game was on the line.  However, he didn't fool hitters at all to open the season - in fact they tattooed him for 5 homers in his first 20 innings - and the closer's position was handed to the next guy in line, Rafael Betancourt.  What followed was a dizzying cyclone of blown saves and weekly announcements as to who the team's new closer was that left their bullpen with more blown saves than saves.  For the record, 4 guys now have at least one save for Cleveland and a fifth, Bob Wickman, is expected to get some when he returns from injury.

There are a couple of guys who should get a shot before that happens.  I don't know how well he could do, but Matt Miller certainly seems to be doing a pretty good job of getting hitters out.  Granted, not many guys who's fastball ranges from 86-88 make good closers, especially guys who only have 2 pitches.  But stranger things have happened.  Trevor Hoffman has been throwing his fastball in that range for the past 6 years and has done pretty well.  The difference is that Hoffman has a great change-up and can throw 2 other pitches for strikes.  Miller hasn't shown that kind of versatility.  But manager Eric Wedge has given just about everyone else in the pen a shot, why not Miller?

I don't know how much merit there is to the concept of "the closer's mentality" and frankly, I don't believe anyone else does either.  Our brains are extremely complex computers with 5 different modes of input that are constantly feeding data to be processed and from this we draw our conclusions.  But as science has shown us time and time again what we see, what we think we see and how we explain it don't always coincide. 

So it's probably presumptuous of me to narrow the criteria for success of a closer to just one or two elements, but if I had to, I'd say that it seems to me that the best closers are guys who are unafraid to pitch aggressively and who are able to shed the emotional baggage of a loss fairly easily.  The last part appears to be the key to longevity in the role and should not be underestimated as an attribute.  Professional athletes's lives and livelihoods are predicated on winning, and the ability to turn off that drive is fairly rare among them.  Miller hasn't had much experience closing out games so I don't think anyone really knows how he'd handle the ninth inning.  They certainly will never know unless they give him a try.  One thing is for sure - anyone who gets on a major league mound throwing a fastball as weak as Miller's and consistently dares hitters to hit it has all the intestinal fortitude necessary to close out games.

The other darkhorse candidate to close in Cleveland is Bobby Howry.  There was a time 5 or 6 years ago that he was a pretty decent closer on the South Side of Chicago before a star in the making, Keith Foulke, emerged.  Looking at Folk's 1999 season (105 IP, 123 Ks, 2.22 ERA 0.882 WHIP), is there any doubt why he supplanted Howry?  Anyway, Howry was a set-up man for a couple of years, then got traded, then developed elbow trouble from which he is just now returning.   He's got the standard high-speed repertoire of a closer, has experience and recently pitched well in back-to-back outings.  The Indians may prefer him in a middle role but if the revolving door in the 9th inning continues, he's as good a candidate as they have for the job, possibly better.

The Life of Riley
I don't mean to be dwelling on Matt Riley all the time, but he is an interesting study.  When he doesn't overthrow, he's a dominating strikeout pitcher.  When he does (and he has quite a bit this year), he looks like he's a 21-year old pitcher in his first appearance in the big leagues, despite the fact that's he's 24 and has pitched in the majors in parts of 3 years.  Last night in Philadelphia he was the latter.  First I'd like to note that it was again Javy Lopez behind the plate for him.  Even though Lopez was his catcher for his 7 inning, 1-hit gem in Toronto, Riley's season WHIP and ERA with Javy behind the plate is 2.471 and 9.84 in 7 starts.  With Machado behind the plate (albeit only one start) it's 1.333 and 1.50.  Perhaps it's worth giving Machado a shot at catching him more often... because maybe Machado won't set up outside every time his pitcher has an 0-2 count.  But I digress....

Regardless, there are two things I took away from tonight's game.  The first is that it doesn't take much to unhinge Riley.  The first two batters reached base against him because David Newhan was playing right field.   Newhan is one of those guys who can play every position on the field... poorly.  The first hit dropped about 6 steps in front of him (of which he covered nearly 5) and the second hit went about 4 steps over his head (of which he covered 3).  Both hitters could have been in scoring position had the second one been paying attention to the fact that Newhan's throw into the infield missed the cut-off man and was off-line.  But his bat is hot right now, so the O's pitchers will simply have to endure his miscues. 

The second thing to take away from this game is that once unhinged, Riley is like a run away train of bad mechanics.  He immediately starts overthrowing, falling off to the third base side of the mound and firing pitches all over the batter's box.  You can almost see him thinking, "I must strike everyone out."  What's so amazing is that he can deliver a fastball to all quadrants of the strikezone from 91-94 mph with ease when he's relaxed.  Why he gets so wound up so quickly is anybody's guess.  One Prozac before each start and he could probably become an All-Star.  Because his start last night was so brief and the O's will need another starter for Monday's double-header against Tampa, Riley could be given one of those starts.  And due to it being a double-header, Machado should be behind the plate for one of them.  Hopefully, we'll get another data point along the Riley/Machado line.

Ray Miller was brought in to help all of the O's young starters, but the perceived success of his tenure, rightly or not however long it may last, will likely be tied to that of Matt Riley. 

(editor's note 7:15 PM Eastern, 7/3/04: mere hours after posting this column, the Orioles sent Riley down to AAA to get a few starts)