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October 6, 2005

Playoff Prospectus

Props for the Ozzeroo

by Rany Jazayerli

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In the interest of full disclosure, I must preface what I'm about to say with the admission that I do not like the Chicago White Sox.

No, let's try that again. I loathe the White Sox. Despise them. Can't stand them. It's a hatred that was forged in the late '80s and early '90s, when Hawk Harrelson divided the baseball world into good guys and bad guys (and I rooted for the bad guys), when a team named for the color of snow decided to make their dominant color the color of pitch. Everyone needs a rival to hate, and for me that was the team in Chicago that played in a ballpark named after a skinflint, a ballpark they replaced with a new one that was hopelessly outdated barely a year after it opened.

If it was possible to hate them any more than I already did, I hate them even more in the Ozzie Guillen era. They now have a manager even more annoying than their TV announcer, a manager who seems to perpetually be one pointed question away from starting a fistfight in a press conference. During this season, a local sports-radio station started challenging its listeners to identify an audio clip they would run. Listeners would have to determine the voice in the clip: Guillen, or Tony Montana from "Scarface".

Let's put it this way: I can envision an ALCS scenario in which I wind up rooting for the Yankees...and then take a nice, long Clorox shower.

I do not like the White Sox, but I respect them. Guillen might give me hives, but he sure knows how to run a pitching staff.

For proof, look no further than yesterday's ALDS Game Two. On the basis of one big inning and one horrible defensive gaffe, the White Sox entered the eighth inning clinging to a 5-4 lead. Guillen had a number of options to choose from as the Red Sox came to the plate. He could stick with Mark Buehrle, who had thrown just 95 pitches and had retired 14 of the last 16 batters. Or he could turn to arguably the deepest bullpen in baseball, mixing and matching his way through the last six outs, knowing that with an off-day coming up, he could empty out his bullpen if need be.

Instead, he used a tactic straight out of a bygone era, an era more associated with Winning Ugly than Moneyball. He didn't bring the game to a screeching halt while shuffling through half a dozen relievers to get the platoon edge three times. He brought in his closer in the eighth inning, and he rode his closer for six outs, two scoreless innings...and one win.

That was admirable enough in itself, although not wholly unprecedented in modern postseason history, thanks to Joe Torre and his intrepid use of Mariano Rivera in October. The truly noteworthy aspect of Guillen's decision was his choice of closer in the first place.

At the end of the 2004 season, Bobby Jenks was a career minor-league starter who was considered one of the greatest wastes of a good arm in recent memory. The man could throw 100 miles an hour, but his fastball--and his life--were veering out of control: Jenks had dropped out of high school when he was drafted in 2000 out of the backwoods of Idaho, had endured highly-publicized battles with alcohol since then, and oh-by-the-way had walked 270 batters in 391 minor-league innings. Along the way, he suffered three stress fractures in his elbow in two seasons, finally necessitating surgery to put a screw in place that caused him to miss the last half of 2004. Last winter, he was waived by the Angels. Suffice it to say that Jenks was not expected to contribute at the major-league level this season, let alone on a contending team, let alone in the playoffs, let alone in the ninth inning of a one-run game in the ALDS.

But Guillen is nothing if not fearless, and he had absolutely no fear in making Jenks--with barely two months of major league experience to his name--his closer down the stretch when Dustin Hermanson's back gave out. Last night, with a chance to go up two games to zero on the line, Guillen rode his rookie closer once again.

One of these years the notion that closers are born and not made will finally be exposed as the silly canard that it is. Bobby Jenks was not born a closer. His ability to nail down a one-run lead in October was not forged by years of experience. He did not bring the White Sox within a game of their first playoff series win in 88 years because he wears a magical "C" on his back.

Bobby Jenks isn't a good closer because he has that special fire in his stomach that allows him to pitch the ninth inning when men of lesser fortitude would fail. He's a good closer because he's a good reliever, and because he has a manager who decided he should pitch the ninth inning. And last night, the eighth.

Eric Gagne was a failed major-league starter. Brad Lidge was a broken-down minor-league starter. B.J. Ryan and Eddie Guardado were faceless middle relievers for years. Trevor Hoffman was a shortstop, for God's sake. Jason Isringhausen, Robb Nen, Keith Foulke…the list could go on forever. Like Jenks, none of these guys became brand-name closers out of some master plan that identified them as closer material from the start. Some of the best closers in history, from Gagne to Mariano Rivera to Dan Quisenberry, became closers essentially by accident.

Even some of the closers who we think of as indelibly linked to the notion of the closer as a unique entity were themselves questioned at one time as to whether they had the requisite moral fiber for the job. You can't name a pitcher who has benefited more from the magical aura surrounding closers than Troy Percival, who signed a two-year, $12-million contract with the Tigers last winter primarily for his ability to rack up enormous save totals with ridiculously low workloads; from 1999 to 2004, Percival saved more than 30 games each season while pitching under 60 innings every year. Yet as a rookie, during a season in which he allowed just 37 hits in 74 innings while striking out 94, Percival worked as a set-up man for Lee Smith, himself a member of the Closer Country Club, and when Smith departed the Angels the following year the whispers were there that Percival would crumble at the pressures of his new job.

He didn't. Jeff Shaw didn't crumble when he went from the middle innings to the last inning. Neither did Foulke, or Rivera or Francisco Cordero, or a million other guys who weren't groomed, Todd Marinovich-style, to be closers from birth. Bobby Jenks didn't crumble last night. If you're good enough to pitch, you're good enough to pitch the ninth inning. Ozzie Guillen is smart enough to understand that, which is one reason why the White Sox went 35-19 in one-run games this season--and are 1-0 in one-run games this postseason.

So give the Ozzeroo his props. Unless you want to, ahem, say hello to his little friend.

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

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