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August 21, 2004

Prospectus Today

Just a Slump

by Joe Sheehan

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For the third time in as many nights, Eric Gagne's appearance was accompanied not just by the sounds of Guns N' Roses, but by the sight of runners crossing home plate. Gagne coughed up one run to the Braves in the top of the ninth on Friday, then was rescued when Adrian Beltre got it back in the bottom of the inning with an opposite-field home run to tie the game. (Beltre, who might be the NL MVP, mortals division, would later hit another home run to win the game.)

Ever since the Dodgers dealt set-up man Guillermo Mota to Florida on July 30, there has been considerable concern that by weakening what was a big part of their success, the Dodgers would find themselves having trouble late in games. As it turns out, that is exactly what has happened. Darren Dreifort blew two games before his season ended with a torn knee ligament, and Gagne has three losses and a blown save in the three weeks since Mota went east.

Correlation is not causation. Gagne's slump, while shocking in the context of his three-season romp through the National League, does not indicate that any added burdens left on his shoulders by the absence of Mota are damaging him. The three outings followed a comparatively low-usage period by Gagne, in which he threw two innings, tallying 23 pitches, in a seven-day stretch. The slump is also not--as Steve Lyons informed us today on Fox--a sign that Gagne misses Paul Lo Duca's leadership.

Are the three bad outings, then, indicative of a larger problem? Well, they're certainly unusual for him. Before Thursday, Gagne had not allowed runs in back-to-back games since the middle of April. The last time he allowed runs in three straight outings, he was a struggling starter in August of 2001. This is his longest stretch of ineffectiveness since he was converted to relief at the start of 2002, so it's hard to know, just from his record, whether he's in trouble.

When a top closer has a stretch like this, does it mean he's done? I dug through some game logs for the pitchers in Gagne's peer group over the past three years, just to find out how often this kind of thing happens and whether it had significance. This isn't entirely scientific; you could define "peer group" in all kinds of ways, but I was looking for pitchers who have been closers for the past three years and who were effective pitchers throughout that span. (Sorry, Jose Mesa.)

I searched through the following pitchers' records: Mariano Rivera, Armando Benitez, Jason Isringhausen, John Smoltz, Trevor Hoffman, Ugueth Urbina, Keith Foulke, Eddie Guardado, and Billy Wagner.

The following members of that group had stretches in which they allowed runs in at least three straight games. The chart below shows their innings and RA/9 before, during, and after stats for the season in which they slumped:


Pitcher    Year          Before         During          After
                        IP     RA      IP     RA      IP     RA

Rivera        2003    45.1   1.59     2.1  17.14    23.0   1.17
Benitez       2003    53.0   3.06     2.1  11.59    17.2   3.06
Benitez       2002    12.0   3.00     3.0   9.00    52.1   2.41
Isringhausen  2004     3.0   0.00     3.0  15.00    54.0   2.67
Smoltz        2004     0.0     NA     3.0  12.00    61.2   1.61
Urbina        2003    29.1   3.07     3.1  18.90    44.1   1.62
Foulke        2002    14.2   3.07     3.2   9.82    59.1   2.58
Guardado      2002    19.0   1.89     3.2   9.82    45.0   2.80
It's rare for a top-tier reliever to give up runs in three straight outings. Of course, there's a selection bias: Relievers who do so tend to not be called "top-tier" and tend to not get a lot of chances to be a closer. Just from going through the game logs, it seems like the best relievers in baseball tend to blow up "vertically"--having an outing in which they give up four, five or more runs--than "horizontally"--giving up a couple of runs every time they go to the mound for a week.

Of the guys who have gone through a week like Gagne has, though, there hasn't appeared to be much in the way of lasting effects. Five of the six pitchers with substantial time both before and after the slump pitched as well or better than they had previously.

Just to scare Dodger fans, I'll mention that the list is missing one line. Guardado allowed runs in three straight outings a month ago. I didn't include him because he hasn't pitched since, and won't: He's out for the year with a torn rotator cuff.

With no reason to suspect that Gagne is hiding a devastating injury, I think Dodger fans can come in off of the ledge. He's not suffering frrom anything other than a slump, and like those who came before him, he can expect to return to form over the rest of the season.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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