June 20, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
From 1999 through 2001, Keith Foulke was the best reliever in baseball, with a 2.49 ERA in 274 1/3 innings. He led all relievers in Michael Wolverton's Adjusted Runs Prevented in that time, and was an integral part of the White Sox' AL Central title in 2000.
Over the last three weeks, Manuel has treated Foulke like an 11th pitcher just up from Triple-A and on his way back down as soon as the real pitchers come off of the DL. Manuel overreacted badly to one awful inning by Foulke on May 29, when Foulke gave up five runs in the ninth inning to the Yankees, and since then, he's been used in just about every role--except closer--known to man.
Let's back up a second. Because he's a short reliever, Foulke's ERA is prone to wild fluctuations at the start of the season. It is very difficult for a closer's ERA to recover from one ghastly outing. John Smoltz is still paying for coughing up eight runs in 2/3 of an inning on April 6 against the Mets. Antonio Alfonseca's line was never the same after a brutal nine-run inning in 2000.
In Foulke's second outing of the 2002 season, he blew a save in Seattle, allowing four runs and six hits in 2/3 of an inning. He then converted his next eight save opportunities, although it took two months for him to get those opportunities. He allowed five runs in 19 2/3 innings in that time, more or less in line with his established performance, and his peripherals indicated no decline at all. His seasonal ERA was 3.80, but that was all the one outing in Seattle. Outside of that, he was at 2.18.
Then came the Yankee game, in which Foulke was asked to go two innings for just the third time all season. He was fine in the eighth inning, but lost some command in the ninth, and was chased from the game having thrown more pitches than he had in any appearance all season (43).
At that point, Keith Foulke had appeared in 21 games. He had an ERA of 5.56, but just two really bad innings. In 15 of his appearances, he'd allowed no runs. He'd converted eight of 10 save opportunities, and the two blown saves had come against two of the best teams in baseball.
Jerry Manuel panicked. He removed Foulke from the closer role, ostensibly because he wasn't getting enough work. Actually, this was true; Foulke was on pace to throw fewer innings and make fewer appearances than in any season since 1998, mostly because the White Sox hadn't had a lot of high-leverage spots in which to use their best reliever. Of course, the lack of work wasn't really a factor in the Yankee meltdown: Foulke was reasonably sharp in his first inning before losing his command in his second, walking one batter and falling behind three others, and again, the real problems came in his last ten pitches, pitches he hadn't thrown in any outing to date in 2002. Being in uncharted territory against the middle of the Yankee lineup isn't a recipe for success.
Since that day, Foulke has made seven appearances:
When he removed Foulke from the closer role, Manuel may have had some notion of getting Foulke more work to keep him sharp. However, the way in which he's managed Foulke since then indicates that he 1) has no plan for doing so and 2) has no confidence in Foulke's ability to pitch in high-leverage situations. If he's decided that he'd rather have Rocky Biddle closing out a win than Keith Foulke, then there may be nothing that can be done to save this marriage.
Let's make this clear: there is nothing wrong with Keith Foulke. He is the same pitcher he was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. What Manuel is doing with him is a huge mistake, one of the signature managerial failures of the season. If the Sox are going to win anything, they need to get Foulke back into high-leverage situations on a regular basis, and they need to stop jerking him around from the fourth inning to the ninth.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.