Often times, the difference between a playoff team and a .500 team is how many games each wins and loses in the middle innings.
When the skipper lurches out of the dugout to relieve his starter, it's those six to nine outs to close out games that are the hardest to consistently secure. Playoff teams have guys who can bridge the gap from starter to closer, while average teams often find ways to let other squads back in the game.
Winning the last third of the baseball game is more important than any other singular performance trend across the 162—game season.
The evolution of the save statistic has placed a lot of emphasis and importance on the last three outs of the game. But as any Cubs fan from last year will tell you, Carlos Marmol and his three—to—five outs in the seventh and eighth innings was the glue that held that team together, winning them the NL Central.
Ditto with Philadelphia and Ryan Madson, or Boston and Hideki Okajima.
The problem is, from year to year, it's very hard to predict middle relief success. In fact, it's maybe the most wildly maddening roster dynamic for any general manager to deal with.
Just ask Florida or the Yankees this year: their middle men have had disastrous results of late, and, in turn, their arms on the whole have become overused. Upsetting the balance in the middle innings is something that, more times than not, will derail any team hoping to play into October.
With that, let us take a look at ten middle—men who have successfully embraced their late—inning roles and done so with dominant results:
1. Andrew Bailey, Oakland: 2009 Stat Line: 0.71 ERA, 0.39 WHIP, 15K/12IP, 2 Wins
Bailey was not expected to make the A's roster out of Spring Training. However, after an excellent showing in the Arizona Fall League and the returned health of his right arm, Bailey forced his way into the bullpen.
What a blessing that has been for Bob Geren and the Athletics. While Oakland's starters haven't quite fulfilled their end of the bargain in pitching deep into games, Bailey has been lights out in the later innings. He's a hard thrower whose slider/cutter touches 91-92 mph with good lateral break. He throws consistent strikes as well, which is essential to any relief success.
2. Jim Johnson, Baltimore: 2009 Stat Line: 3.00 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 7.00 K/9, 4 Holds
While his statistics don't quite portray a picture of dominance, trust me here. This guy is going to be nasty all year for Dave Trembley and the Birds.
JJ has filthy movement on his fastball, using it anywhere and everywhere with distinct movement down in the zone. He gets excellent run, sink, and tail on his fastball and really can be unhittable when he commands the strike zone and mixes in his breaking stuff. If George Sherrill were to go down or become ineffective, it would not shock me in the least to see Johnson effectively hold down the closer role.
3. David Aardsma, Seattle: 2009 Stat Line: 2.08 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 4 Holds, 3 Saves
Always a hard thrower with a maddening knack for piling up walks, Aardsma has consistently thrown strikes so far this year and (viola!) the results speak for themselves. Aardsma has been crucial for Seattle during their surprising April run, as he's appeared in eight games, holding down the eighth and ninth inning duties with ease.
Aardsma throws a free and easy 98 MPH fastball. When he simply pounds the zone with strikes, he can be dominant. It's not surprising to see a guy, who so many teams have invested in, finally pitch well given his power stuff. If he continues to pitch under control, the M's will continue to hold down late leads and stay in the AL West race.
4. Ramon Ramirez, Boston: 2009 Stat Line: 0.00 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 2 Wins, 3 Holds
Acquired in an exchange for Coco Crisp this offseason, Ram-Ram and his power change-up have been downright dominant for Francona and the Bo Sox in 2009. He has yet to allow an earned run and has thus far been more impressive than Okajima, Saito, or DelCarmen in that very talented Boston 'pen.
Ramirez is a strike—thrower who uses his change-up almost like a fastball—often times starting hitters off with the change and then working backwards, finishing them off with his mid-90's fastball or average slider. Some worried whether this KC/COL hurler could handle the pressure of pitching in Boston. So far, Ramirez has proved more than up to the task.
5. Bobby Seay, Detroit: 2009 Stat Line: 0.00 ERA, 0.41 WHIP, 7 Holds
While the AL Central is certainly not a stout division, one big reason Detroit currently stands atop is the effectiveness of Seay in the middle innings.
The Tigers were killed last year in the seventh and eighth frames, often times giving away large leads and extinguishing any momentum or confidence the team had.
Seay was not a part of that problem last year and certainly hasn't been this year. He comes at hitters with an average fastball but a plus slider that he uses effectively down and away to lefties and in on the hands of righties. He's one of many lefties who uses the tilt of his breaking ball with the deception of his arm slot to keep hitters uncomfortable. The results speak for themselves.
6. JJ Putz, NY Mets: 2009 Stat Line: 2.70 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 10 Appearances, 4 Holds
While his stats aren't as dominant as some of these other guys—and certainly not in line with his eye-popping numbers of 2007—Putz has filled a huge void for the 2009 Mets, successfully bridging the gap to Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth. He's appeared in 10 of the Mets' 19 games and has not allowed an inherited runner to score.
As the year progresses, I expect Putz's strikeouts to spike significantly and his effectiveness to become even more pronounced.
7. Rafael Soriano, Atlanta: 2009 Stat Line: 1.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 12K/9IP, 2 Saves, 3 Holds
Soriano has long been derailed by elbow injuries. But this year, the baseball world has gotten a good look at what this guy can do when full health allows him to take the mound consistently.
Soriano used to throw 99 MPH as a youngster in Seattle. While he doesn't light up the radar gun quite like he used to, his fastball has plenty of zip on it and he locates it down in the zone extremely well. He also has a power slider that is downright filthy at times, breaking extremely late in its ball path.
Bobby Cox has started to use Soriano in the ninth because he's been so dominant. That's where he may stay for good if he continues to harness his lightning arm and embrace the late inning role.
8. David Weathers, Cincinnati: 2009 Stat Line: 0.00 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 8.53 K/9, 5 Holds
'Ol Stormy Weathers is out of the closers role for the second straight year, but that doesn't mean he can't be of use to Dusty Baker and the Reds. Weathers has taken the eighth inning and made it his own so far in 2009, dominating lefties and righties alike while utilizing his solid sinker to keep balls in Cincinnati's tiny bandbox of a park.
History would suggest that Weathers will NOT keep this up for the remainder of the season, but through April he's been as effective as anyone. Not coincidentally, the Reds have improved from a year ago and are in the thick of the NL Central.
9. Scott Downs, Toronto: 2009 Stat Line: 0.84 ERA, 0.46 WHIP, 11.81 K/9, 3 Holds, 2 Saves
Much like Soriano, Downs began the year as a primary setup man but has since moved into the closer's role due to the struggles of the incumbent.
Wherever he's pitched, Downs has been downright filthy in '09. His sweeping breaking ball and excellent control, coupled with his deceptive left-handed delivery, are a lot for hitters to handle. Downs keeps the ball low and away from power threats and will work in a lot of favorable counts because of his penchant for throwing strikes. This early start for Downs is no fluke; he was equally effective last season for the Jays.
10. J.P. Howell, Tampa Bay: 2009 Stat Line: 2.16 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 11.88 K/9, 9 Appearances
The Rays have, across the board, not gotten what they expected from several arms so far in 2009. A lot of key contributors from their 2008 World Series team—Grant Balfour, Andy Sonnanstine, Dan Wheeler—have had tough starts. But Howell, who was a surprise lefty in '08, has sustained his success. Howell rarely, if ever, touches 90 MPH on the radar gun, but he thrives using three softer offerings: a sinking two-seam fastball, a big curveball with nasty rotation, and a lolly—pop changeup that is downright unfair to righties.
Logic would say that Howell will get figured out sometime soon. But he's been dominant for over a year now in a tough hitter's division and it looks as though he's here to stay. J.P. is a great example of a guy who doesn't throw very hard but utilizes control, command, deception, and good mixing of his repertoire to keep hitters second guessing.