Brandon League is an infuriating talent. He has an amazing splitter, truly one of baseball’s finest offerings, which he refuses to use unless he’s ahead in the count. He gives up untimely hits largely because of his predictable pitch ordering, which seems a minute and correctable error. So far it hasn’t been, and perhaps unsurprisingly League struggled to the point where Eric Wedge was forced to pull him from the closer’s role. Replacing League, Wedge said, would be nobody. Nobody! In the ninth inning of a close game, the team would simply send eight men onto the field and “wait and see what happens.” Given League’s wildness, that seemed like an okay alternative.
Okay, so I’m lying. Eric Wedge didn’t announce “nobody” as his closer; rather, he announced “everybody.” Situational closing, or as some would say, “closer by committee.” Since League’s demotion on May 26th, Wedge has stuck to his word and given critical ninth innings to a variety of relievers. This is how those situations have shaken out so far:
5/27, Shawn Kelley comes in with the Mariners down 3-2 to face Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo and The Royal Sir Howard Kendrick, as he now likes to be called. Morales led with a double before Trumbo and Kendrick flew out, the former of which advanced Morales with the latter bringing him home. He then popped Erick Aybar up to get out of the frame. Was Kelley the right man for the job? He faced two switch-hitters, the better of whom gave him trouble. He handled the two righties just fine. The run was unwanted, as they all are, but didn’t matter in the end as Scott Down handled the heart of the Seattle lineup to close it out. Shawn Kelley was as good a choice as Brandon League in this situation.
5/30, Hisashi Iwakuma lets up a run while earning the save in the 21-8 Texas Chainsaw Massacre game. Hisashi Iwakuma came into the game with a fourteen-run lead, allowed a run and got the “save.” Would someone explain to me what exactly was “saved” in this situation? How does this wonky statistic work? Wedge’s choice of ninth inning guy here doesn’t matter, of course, but I mention this game because a) save? and b) the Seattle Mariners offense scored 21 runs against the Texas Rangers pitching. Everybody remembers that, right? Everybody knows about that, right? I don’t think we can ever remember that enough. The Seattle Mariners scored 21 runs in a game against the Texas Rangers. Cherish that nugget of delight.
6/3, Tom Wilhelmsen comes in to face Orlando Hudson, Alejandro De Aza and Gordon Beckham with the M’s and White Sox locked at 8-8. For those keeping count at home that would be a right-handed pitcher facing a switch hitter, left hander and right hander, in that order. However, it doesn’t matter because the right-handed pitcher was Tom Wilhelmsen. Have you been watching Tom Wilhelmsen this season? Tom Wilhelmsen is incredible. He has two pitches, and both are unbelievable. Figuratively unbelievable, not literally. To literally not believe that Wilhelmsen’s pitches exist would be silly, and so many people say “literally” when they mean “not literally.” Wilhelmsen struck out O-Dawg, gave up a weak single to the underrated lefty De Aza, and got Beckham to fly out. De Aza was out on the play because he did foolish things, and Wilhelmsen had preserved the lead.
Wilhelmsen came back to pitch the tenth because Mariners offense. He faced Adam Dunn (lefty), Paul Konerko and Alex Rios, (obviously) striking out Dunn and inducing pop outs from the next two. He came out for the eleventh, too, because Tom Wilhelmsen is incredible. He got a grounder from (lefty) A.J. Pierzynski before striking out Dayan Viciedo and Alexi Ramirez. You know, at this point I’m going to stop going into such detail about Wilhelmsen’s appearances because he could close for any team in baseball, right now, ninth inning pressure and superstitious heebie-jeebies aside. For three straight innings Eric Wedge used Tom Wilhelmsen in a “closer-ish” manor, and for three straight innings Tom Wilhelmsen pitched like one of the best relievers on the planet.
Hisashi Iwakuma came in for the twelfth inning. He struck out Hudson, walked De Aza and got groundouts from Beckham and Dunn. Good process? Yes, since despite Iwakuma’s homers he’s still a live arm with a track record of success that perhaps Eric Wedge is starting to believe in a little more. Good results? You bet. Another piece of heart-shaped candy for Mr. Manager.
6/4, Tom Wilhelmsen comes in to face Kendrys Morales, Tori Hunter and Nobleman Supreme Howardson Kendrickson. He plunked Hunter, struck out Wee Little Howie and blah blah blah, Tom Wilhelmsen’s really good. This post is about determining if Wedge’s process has been good in regards to high-leverage reliever usage as of late, and there is virtually no scenario where using Tom Wilhelmsen is a bad move. Tom Wilhelmsen faced some Angels and did good baseball things. Tom Wilhelmsen.
And, that’s it. At the time of this writing it’s 6-1 Angels and the ninth inning doesn’t look like it’s going to be all that important. So, Wedge hasn’t used a lefty in the ninth yet, but that’s excusable because he hasn’t had to. He hasn’t really needed a specialist, and I kind of understand the mumbo-jumbo about not wanting to switch relievers in the middle of the ninth, so overall I’ll give him a passing grade. Iwakuma, Kelley and Wilhelmsen are some of the team’s better relievers, and I still believe that the unit as a whole is extremely talented and currently underperforming. Especially with Stephen Pryor joining the fold, there’s really no reason to go back to the way things were.
Attacking the final frames with a variety of well-equipped hurlers is almost certainly a better option than simply shouting “B-L-T! Wooooooo!” and grimacing as League throws a fastball, then a fastball, and then a fastball. “Closer by committee” gets an ugly rap around the game. There’s a long-standing myth that an effective ninth inning guy needs to be locked into his role, so as to properly harness the legendary “closer’s mentality” or whatever the kids are calling it these days. It’s a myth. A majority of the M’s bullpen guys can “handle” the ninth inning, it’s just a matter of using them correctly. Thus far, Wedge has used them correctly. Here’s to hoping this continues.