The Borowski Ultimatum
The Indians are four wins away from the World Series. Do they have the guts to dump their closer?
This year's four Division Series lasted just one game beyond the collective minimum, but the rest of "Actober" should be competitive. Boston and Cleveland had identical regular-season records, while Arizona and Colorado finished a half-game apart. All four clubs are well-rested, with rotations lined up to get the most out of their best starters. Expect close games decided in the late innings, where each team's fate rests on how well its relievers perform. Cleveland's bullpen, which just held the majors' best offense to two earned runs in 13 Division Series innings, is probably the best of the group. That is, until you get to the last man. No one would be shocked if Indians closer Joe Borowski, he of the 5.07 ERA, costs the team the World Series. Why does one of the best teams in baseball pin its ninth-inning hopes on its third- or fourth-best reliever?
For any team, putting together a bullpen is a vexing problem. Identifying good relievers is a lot harder than simply choosing who pitched well last year. One reason is small sample size: Relievers throw so few innings per season that conventional statistics are often misleading. Arizona ace Brandon Webb, for example, threw almost four times as many innings as closer Jose Valverde this year. Clubs also seem less adept at monitoring relievers' attrition. Even dilettante fans care about a starter's pitch count, but teams set similar limits for relievers only in special cases. (Even then, the limits tend to be crude and malleable; to wit, the Yankees' so-called "Joba Rules" expired when the playoffs began.) Consequently, each winter several teams invest heavily in veteran relievers who promptly regress to their mean performance. Last winter's disappointments included Danys Baez, Guillermo Mota, and Scott Schoeneweis. More will follow next year.
Clubs can reduce their risk of crushing bullpen failures by stockpiling young or undervalued arms and relying on whoever happens to be hot that year. Of course, this tack requires some fortitude. Leaving the late innings to a bunch of no-names almost dares the fans and local media to read you the riot act the instant something goes wrong.
The Red Sox, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have boldly and rightly chanced that public criticism. Arizona traded its two highest-paid relievers before the 2007 season, relying on Valverde—who earned a demotion to AAA in 2006 but figured to regress positively to his mean this year—and a mix of young, inexpensive relievers. Not only did the remade bullpen perform well, but castoffs Jorge Julio and Luis Vizcaino struggled with their new clubs. Julio, in fact, almost cost Colorado a playoff berth. On a happier note, the Rockies courageously installed an unproven pitcher, Manny Corpas, in the closer role at midseason, notwithstanding that the incumbent, Brian Fuentes, earned his third straight All-Star selection shortly before struggling in late June. And while baseball writers continue to obsess over Boston's aborted conversion of closer Jon Papelbon to the starting rotation, the Red Sox showed greater foresight in entrusting crucial innings to talented but obscure relievers (Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Hideki Okajima) at the expense of struggling, high-priced veterans (Joel Pineiro and J.C. Romero, both cast off in midseason).
Cleveland's bullpen, though, might be at once baseball's best and most anonymous. Rafael Betancourt's strikeouts exceeded his combined hits, runs, home runs, and walks allowed. Rookies Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis pitched almost as well. The team's relief corps is just one of the Indians' many performance-evaluation successes. This is not surprising, given that Cleveland is the apple of the industry's eye. Led by general manager Mark Shapiro and a front office with an impressive academic and baseball pedigree, the Indians are widely—and at times explicitly—considered the best available model for success among small- to mid-market clubs. That they astutely signed young stars like Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, and Travis Hafner to affordable long-term contracts gives hope to every team that's lagging far behind the Yankees and Red Sox in payroll.