Pen pals, what an appropriate name…no team can be without them and no starting pitcher wishes to be without one. The guys who can enter a game in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and keep victory within grasp or finish the opposition off. An almost impossible assignment, for sure, but necessary in today's age of diminishing returns of starting pitchers.
To discuss this particular subject at this time seems apropos for several reasons. First, just this week, the Phillies acquired Mike Williams from the Pirates, a relief pitcher of "some repute." This writer chooses to use the phrase "of some repute" in fairness to Mike's making it to the All-Star team this year, although his ERA suggests it was more a matter of needing a representative from the Pirates, than his sterling season to date. Nevertheless, he has been a dependable and effective reliever in seasons past and most likely will add more to the Phillies core strength.
Secondly, several of my readers have requested reading my thoughts on the importance of solid relief pitchers, and since this column is reader driven, this writers aims to please.
Finally, relief pitching is an integral part of the Phillies greatest strength this season, along with starting pitching. And it is pitching that will ultimately fuel any Phils' drive that may take them to October.
So, let's examine the advent of the relief specialist, how it came about and why it is so crucial. A look back is in order because the modern reliever is quite different than in days past.
During the days of Carlton, Roberts, Gibson and Koufax, relief pitchers were either failed starters or specialists with one great pitch. Tales of Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball or Jack Baldschun's screwball or Bruce Sutter's split fingered fastball are legendary...and true. Sadly, when that one pitch went, so did the career.
Failed starters also held an appeal for relief hurlers because they could pitch long and often. Former starters like Phil Regan, Pedro Ramos and Steve Bedrosian line the history books with their exploits as relievers, and misdeeds as starters.
However, today's reliever is a new breed, specialists in their own right. We have a long reliever, a short reliever, a sinkerball specialist, a pitcher designed to retire a lefty, a pitcher designed to retire a righty, a closer.
I suspect you are beginning to get the picture and it has become a complicated one. Even the numbers have changed. It is a little known, yet true fact, that as late as the 1977 Phillies, the staff consisted of nine, count ‘em, nine pitchers.... five starters and four relievers. This would be modern day blasphemy as our Phillies is currently built with literally 48% or 12 of the 25-man roster, solely designed for pitchers.
Think about that.... nearly half your traveling squad consists of players who play only one position.... pitch. And yet, a team's destiny is literally intertwined with the success or failure of that group. It is also a baseball truism that starting pitchers may get the glory, and the wins, but without their pen pals, they would have neither glory nor wins.
Let's take a closer look at our Fightin's and see how they stack up in the pen pal department. As currently constructed, our friendly pen pals consist of seven members, to wit and alphabetically: Terry Adams, Rheal Cormier, Jose Mesa, Dan Plesac, Carlos Silva, Turk Wendell and our newest pal, Mike Williams. A veteran crew with lots of mileage, lots of guile...and tons of talent. Indeed, this crew has the second lowest ERA of any bullpen in the NL. Corresponding with these pen pals has been good for the soul and the win column this 2003 season. Let's take a who's who look at our current correspondees.
Terry Adams is a veteran righty who has had bullpen successes with the Dodgers and Cubs. Although he has tried his hand at starting, his talent diminishes after three or four innings so his niche is long relief. He has an arm capable of repeated use, and has served as a valuable setup man for the closer.
Rheal Cormier, is a Joe Kerrigan reclamation project, a lefty with the peculiar ability to be more effective against righties. His skills this season have been mind numbing and Kerrigan has performed a particular magic act on Cormier. Indeed, after his particularly non-descript opening appearance in Florida in April, he has been almost unscored upon the remainder of the season. The phrase "healthy, wealthy and wise" seems very fitting for the team of Cormier and Kerrigan. Let us hope it continues.
Carlos Silva is the young stallion of the group, a pitcher with an electric arm but limited experience in relieving. Indeed, many in the organization still believe his ultimate role will be as a starter. He actually won 15 games as a starter at Reading in 2001, his final year at the minor league level. His main strength is his outstanding sinker, a ball designed to produce double plays at just the proper moment. His work this year has been spotty, though better of late.
Father Time, thy name is Dan Plesac. If there has been a surprise wunderkind out of the bullpen this season, it has been Old Man Rivers, Dan Plesac. Expected to retire after the 2002 season, he came back for one more crack at post-season play. Like Cormier, another lefty specialist, he has done more than contributing to the Phils rise this season by pitching an inning at a time, instead of facing just one batter. The Kerrigan influence has also been strong with Plesac.
It would not have been particularly surprising if any letter sent to resident pen pal, Turk Wendell, had come back stamped "undeliverable". Faced with a bad arm and an iffy future, Wendell has proven to be a pleasant surprise out of the pen this season. A man who used to routinely pitch 70 games a season, his arm needs careful monitoring now. If there is a Phillie pen pal that is potentially nearly out of ink, it may be Wendell. He has struggled for the past few weeks, and it would not be surprising if pen letters addressed...Wendell… becomes less often received. Stay tuned.
The newest member of the pen pal brigade is Mike Williams, former Phillie, former Pirate and now resident Phillie. Williams comes with a particularly impressive resume.... over 100 saves during the past 4 seasons, and nearly 50 last season alone. His greatest strength is his bulldog personality, and his ability to pitch nearly every day. Though the Phils, and Williams, insist he is not here to become a closer, his pedigree suggests he could easily become the last pal out of the pen.
Which leads me to our current closer, Jose Mesa.... last but certainly not least. In the alphabetical pecking order, he stands nearly in the middle but in terms of where he stands in the bullpen, he is our last call, the resident closer. It is safe to say that no man has been more glorified or vilified over the past three seasons than Mr. Mesa...it just comes with the territory. It has been said, and I second it, that there is nothing more painful, more utterly destructive to a team morale, than the blown save. Of this weight Mesa carries on his broad shoulders. Think about it. Our beloved Phils lose 10-2, we go home, pet the dog, eat our dinner and say, we'll get ‘em tomorrow. But, my faithful Phillie friends, lose a two-run lead in the ninth inning and fall 6-5 and...the dog gets kicked, dinner tastes bad, and we all swear off baseball forever. Trust me, it's worse on players, they must live with it. Thus, the burden Mesa carries with him on a daily basis is huge. And though his performance has been a bit inconsistent, he has Bowa and Company's total confidence.....for now!
Nevertheless, it has been surmised by many in the know that the acquisition of Williams, far from just another pal for our pen, is deeply rooted in the belief that should Mesa falter, the mail will still get through. Williams will see to it that neither rain, nor sleet nor snow will keep the Phils from their appointed destination.....NL playoffs in October.
Look, it would be great if Pat Burrell suddenly got hot and carried the Phils for a month. It would be wonderful if Marlon Byrd keeps soaring, and Jim Thome keeps imploring and Bobby Abreu keeps hitting. But, I suspect that when the dust settles on the NL race this 2003 season, the end result will be dictated not by the number of scored runs but by the number of successful pitches delivered by our pen pals, the Phillies relief corps.
Pen pals, oh, what great friends to have!
Columnist's Note: Suggestions, questions and comments welcome. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond! CD