The Brewers dropped a heart breaker to the Mets 3-2 on Friday night. Closer Francisco Rodriguez gave up all three runs in the top of the ninth inning and coughed up a lead for just the fourth time in thirty three save attempts this year. His poor inning shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow one of Yovani Gallardo’s best starts of the season, though. He went 7 2/3 shutout innings, striking out eight and walking no one. Yo had the curve working and was locating his pitches well from start to finish. If the Brewers are going to make the playoffs and make any sort of run once there, they’ll need everything Gallardo is capable of giving them.
Of course, the Brewers are also going to need the bullpen to help out a bit more than they have recently. Not that the pen has been a total wasteland of late. Zach Duke hasn’t missed a step and Tom Gorzelanny has yet to allow a run since returning from the disabled list. Both guys could see more late inning action in close games in the near future. On the other hand, both relievers being asked to lock down close games in the eighth and ninth have struggled quite a bit in July, with Rodriguez posting a 7.71 ERA and Will Smith checking in at 12.27.
Before panicking too much about Smith, it should be noted that he’s actually throwing harder now than at any point in the season and still has very solid peripheral numbers (16.0 K/9 IP and 3.25 K:BB ratio) in July. His main problem is that nearly every runner he’s put on this month seems to somehow score, and he’s given up a his first couple homers of the entire season. He could probably use a little more rest than he’s been getting, but overall this looks more like a blip on the radar than anything truly worrisome.
K-Rod is another matter entirely. He’s been as good as always in July from a K/9IP (10.3) and K:BB (8.00) perspective, so it’s not like he’s having trouble missing bats or getting himself into trouble with walks. For the season, he’s 11th in MLB for all relievers in strikeout to walk ratio with 5.70, so this clearly isn’t the issue. Also, as with Smith, he’s throwing just as hard as always in the month of July.
The issue with Rodriguez isn’t about what he’s done recently, it’s the overall seasonal picture that cuts in a couple of different directions. On the one hand, he’s given up far more home runs than one would expect based on the number of fly balls he’s allowed. In fact, he leads all qualified relievers in HR/FB% with a startling 22.0%. That might seem like a bad indicator, but in reality it’s actually a pretty good one, because we shouldn’t expect balls to continue to leave the park at anything like that rate. Chances are pretty good that a few more of those fly balls allowed are going to stay in the park from here on out. That’s not a promise, but 22% is a crazy-high number and it’s more than likely to come down than sustain or go up.
The problem is that he’s also got a couple of things going for him on the positive side that we shouldn’t expect to continue. For starters, he’s been somewhat hit lucky this year, allowing a .223 batting average on balls in play. Compare that with his career .276 mark, and it doesn’t look particularly sustainable for the rest of the year. He’s also getting somewhat fortunate once he’s allowed runners on base. He’s stranded 91.5% of all runners allowed this season. That’s a really high mark, and, as his career 80.8% strand rate would suggest, it is also probably not something we should expect to continue.
Going forward, we should probably expect a few more balls to land safely in play, a few more runners to score and a few more balls to die on the warning track than in the third row. What’s that all add up to? Hard to say, because the margins that relievers work with are so very small. One bad outing can torch an ERA for months, as Will Smith found out on July 10th.
Rodriguez still figures to be a useful reliever, mostly because of the big difference between his strikeout and walk rates. Will he be good enough that people will feel OK with him staying in the ninth inning role he’s held down since opening day? It probably all depends on whether or not he gives up those solo shots with a three-run lead or with a one-run lead. So far he’s been somewhat fortunate on that front, but that can always change in a heartbeat. There is an argument to be made that teams are better off not limiting their best reliever to the role of ninth inning “closer” anyway, instead deploying them earlier when things get hairy.
Given the trade market for relievers right now, it’s going to be hard for the Brewers to go out and land an obvious ninth inning replacement without giving up too much talent. They’ll probably add someone, but probably not a guy that they’ll want to use to upset the late inning order right off the bat. So before we start calling for someone else to take over in the ninth inning, it’s important to remember two timeless truths about relief pitchers: they’re really hard to predict and whether they pitch the seventh, eighth, or ninth makes a lot less difference than the media likes to pretend.