For a night at least, everyone can finally relax.
With pure, unadulterated panic setting in across Red Sox Nation after a weekend of blown saves, by securing last night's win in Toronto Alfredo Aceves took a major step towards proving that he can indeed be the closer for the Boston Red Sox.
Admittedly, the early returns were not good. Aceves went into last night’s matchup with the Toronto Blue Jays sporting an ERA and WHIP of “INF.” He had faced five batters, and all five had reached base. After throwing only 14 pitches in this young season, Aceves had somehow managed to completely erase any memory of his incredible performance in 2011.
Everyone seemed to forget that in his previous four MLB seasons, Aceves had only recorded four saves. While he undoubtedly has the mental makeup to be a closer, he lacks experience in tense late-game situations. As with any inexperienced player, there are going to be bumps along the way.
The notion, then, that Daniel Bard should immediately become the closer is completely preposterous. For one, the team has made a commitment through the offseason and spring training to see if he can be a starter. As General Manager Ben Cherington pointed out to Gordon Edes last week, it is far more valuable for a team to develop its own starting pitching than it is a closer.
Likewise, Bard hasn’t even proven that he would be a good closer. After Aceves’ save in Toronto last night, he and Bard now have the same exact number of career saves (five). With the same experience as Aceves, it’s highly likely Bard would have just as steep a learning curve.
Several writers and commentators have pointed to the similarities between Bard this year and Jonathan Papelbon in 2007. While it’s true they were both relievers being stretched out as starters in spring training, that is where the similarities end.
Papelbon had already experienced great success as a closer the year before (35 saves, 0.92 ERA in 2006), but after he was injured at the end of the season the team felt starting might help preserve his shoulder. Bard, on the other hand, was moved to the rotation because of his prior experience as a starter and the team’s belief that he could immediately be an asset in their big-league rotation.
This, ultimately, brings us back to Aceves. While it was partly a move of necessity, the Sox have openly acknowledged that Aceves has been in contention for the closer’s role long before the injury to Andrew Bailey. In fact, Cherington himself noted to Edes that Aceves was among the long-term options the team considered at closer before they settled on trading for Bailey.
When he tabbed Aceves to replace Bailey last week, manager Bobby Valentine told Peter Abraham, “He loves competition. I think he’s one of the better competitors that I’ve seen.” That ability to go out and battle every single game is what made Aceves so effective last season. He has shown the ability to pitch multiple nights in a row, and does not shy away from hitters.
While sometimes this fearlessness may come back to bite him (as we saw when he challenged Miguel Cabrera with an inside fastball on Sunday), the same could be said of any closer. The truly elite stoppers take the mound with a level of confidence that makes them believe they can blow away any hitter at any time. If they don’t have that confidence, that’s when they get hit.
Aceves wears No. 91 because he grew up idolizing Dennis Rodman. It’s true, you can look it up. While this may seem like just a humorous quirk, in reality it speaks to the new Sox closer’s lack of fear on the field.
Like Rodman, he utilizes every advantage he can find to both physically and psychologically dominate opponents. He backs down from nobody.
To quiet the chatter about his job security Aceves will need to get results on the mound, and quickly. However, after his performance last night and in all of 2011, there is little doubt that he has the mental and physical makeup to succeed in his new role.