There are two types of people in this world: those who believe that certain relief pitchers possess some sort of extra-special moxie that allows them to preserve leads of up to three runs in the ninth inning, and those who don't.
Mets manager Jerry Manuel is clearly among the former, as evidenced by how he has used closer Francisco Rodriguez over the past two seasons. At no time was this more evident than on the Mets' most recent road trip. The club went 2-9 in that stretch and lost five one-run games.
K-Rod did not pitch in any of those five contests, yet Oliver Perez, who the Mets have done everything in their power to keep off their roster this season, pitched in two extra-inning games, giving up a walk-off homer to Dodgers first baseman James Loney in one of them.
Now, the Mets began a six-game road trip Monday night that takes them to Atlanta and Philly. At the risk of hyperbole, this trip will make or break their season. It's time for Manuel to stop being so stubborn about the way he uses his ace reliever.
The Mets have 12 walk-off losses this season, the most in baseball. If you're Manuel, shouldn't all those be a hint that maybe you're mismanaging your bullpen in close games on the road? Manuel wants to save Rodriguez for the save, sure, but what if that save situation doesn't come? As my mother always says, most of us waste our time worrying about things that never happen.
The most outrageous part is that while Manuel refuses to use Rodriguez in tied games on the road in extra innings (aka extremely high-leverage situations), he continues to let him close out five and six-run leads (aka extremely low-leverage situations). This practice is made more laughable when you consider that K-Rod's contract has a 2012 vesting option worth $17.5 million, and one of the thresholds for triggering it is 55 games finished in 2011. So by using him to close out a game that any of their other relievers could handle, the Mets are making it more likely they will have to pay a one-inning reliever $17.5 million in two years.
After a recent walk-off loss in extra innings, Manuel had this to say about his strategy: "All the walk-off losses on the road is indicative of an eighth-inning guy. That's where an eighth-inning guy pitches. It's basically that simple. If that eighth-inning guy is the guy, he pitches the tie game on the road. At home, the closer pitches the tie game because you get a chance to bat. That's just the way that works. I mean, that's baseball."
I'm trying to figure this quote out because it's not exactly clear, but basically because the Mets lack an "eighth-inning guy," Manuel refuses to adjust his closer's role even as the season is falling apart and he could be fired. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then Manuel is making a good case to be committed.
To be fair, the Mets aren't the only team that's stubborn about its bullpen roles, and it's clear that Manuel isn't the only person in the organization who believes that certain relievers possess special closing abilities. Since Omar Minaya became GM before the 2005 season, he has dropped $80 million on free agent-closers (Billy Wagner and Rodriguez), and that figure could jump to $97.5 million if K-Rod's option vests. And if any team should know that closers are made, and not born, it's the Mets.
For years they refused to give Heath Bell a chance despite his outstanding Triple-A stats, and after they traded him away for basically nothing he blossomed into one of the best closers in the game. Still don't believe that closers are made and not born? Here is a list of pitchers who have a higher save percentage than K-Rod in 2010: John Axford, Alfredo Simon, Jon Rauch and Matt Capps. Are they better pitchers than Rodriguez? No. It's just not that hard to protect a two-or-three run lead in the ninth inning.
The Mets' obsession with closers hurts them in two ways. First, it limits how they can utilize their best reliever. With a mediocre bullpen and the season falling apart, stubbornly adhering to the closer mentality is futile.
Second, pouring so much money on a pitcher who throws roughly 65 innings per season is a poor use of resources. Let's say that the Mets decided to use $80 million on their entire bullpen, and not just two closers. They might actually have some depth. (Just this past offseason, Capps, Octavio Dotel and Darren Oliver signed for a combined $10.5 million, which is $1 million less than what K-Rod is making this year.)
Heck, they could forgo spending all that cash on relievers entirely and instead invest it in Latin America. For $80 million, the Mets could buy 80 elite Latin American prospects. (Odds are a few of them will become good relievers, and you might get some stars as well!) If Minaya was feeling charitable, he could have used that $80 million to purchase 12.8 million Citi Field Shake Shack burgers and give them to the homeless. Or, at $20 a seat, he could buy Cow Bell Man (and Cow Bell Man spawn) a season ticket for the next 50,000 years.
But that's enough Monday morning quarterbacking. Those dollars are spent and it's time focus on what the Mets need to do going forward. In order maximize the value of K-Rod, Manuel needs to change the way he uses him. If that means bringing him into a tie game in the eighth inning against the heart of the Braves' lineup, so be it. The Mets' .364 winning percentage in one-run games is the third-worst in baseball, and they continue to lose close games on the road with their best reliever on the bench. It's time for Manuel to eat some crow and admit that maybe his bullpen usage is incorrect. If not, his adherence to the closer canard is going to cost him a chance to manage in the postseason, not to mention his job.
Matt Meyers is an associate editor for ESPN The Magazine.