March 16, 2000
The Daily Prospectus
Some Relief From HypeTuesday evening, the Braves' John Rocker pitched for the first time this year, tossing a 1-2-3 inning against the Detroit Tigers. As you might have heard or read somewhere, Mr. Rocker got a late start to his spring, part of his punishment for saying some not-so-nice things about...well, just about everyone. Originally suspended for a month and barred from spring training, his sentence was cut roughly in half by an arbitrator.
Rocker's ignorance and the subsequent ruckus have been picked apart by minds greater than mine, so I'll spare you any dime-store psychology. The whole issue has been talked to death, and I, like the Braves, would just as soon see the focus go back to the game, where it belongs.
From a baseball standpoint, though, this is all a tempest in a teapot. The Braves have done as much as any team this decade to prove that relief pitchers are fungible, and Rocker's presence or effectiveness in 2000 doesn't affect their chances of repeating as NL East champions much at all. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at what they've done for the past decade:
In 1991, the Braves weren't expected to do much of anything, but rode a surprising rotation and a good defense to the World Series. Through August of that year, the legendary Juan Berenguer was their closer. When an injury put him out of commission, the Braves picked up another ex-Met, Alejandro Pena, and plugged him into the role. Both pitchers were effective.
Off that strong performance, Pena started 1992 as the Braves' closer and gave them five good months. He suffered his own elbow injury in August, and the Braves grabbed Jeff Reardon from the Red Sox. Reardon, of course, suffered a notable failure in the World Series, giving up a key home run to Ed Sprague as the Braves lost in six games.
Neither Reardon nor Pena began the 1993 season with Atlanta, as the team looked in-house for a solution. Mike Stanton, who had picked up 15 saves in 1991 and 1992 as a part-time closer, started the year like a house on fire, but fell apart at mid-season. The Braves barely flinched, turning the job over to Greg McMichael, who posted 19 saves down the stretch as Atlanta caught San Francisco in The Last Great Pennant Race.
That's three division titles, and yet no closer lasting more than five months in the role.
1994 saw a change, or more accurately, a lack of change, as McMichael--whose best pitch was a change--picked up 21 saves in the strike-shortened season, although he was less effective. Because he didn't throw hard, McMichael was prone to losing the job, which happened in 1995. Mark Wohlers finally harnessed his big fastball, cutting his walk rate by 40% and seizing the closer role. It appeared that the Braves finally had established a full-time, permanent closer.
For two years, it worked. Wohlers saved 97 games from 1995-97 ad helped the Braves to two pennants and a World Championship. Then he blew a gasket in early 1998, walking 33 batters in 20 innings before going on the disabled list. It didn't faze the Braves at all: they plugged Northern League refugee Kerry Ligtenberg into the closer role, and all he did was post a 2.79 ERA and 30 saves.
When the Braves opened camp in 1999, there was the chance of a controversy, with two qualified closers on the roster. Of course, it didn't work out that way: Ligtenberg needed elbow surgery and Wohlers had problems with finding the target that NASA would envy. The two combined for 2/3 of an inning in 2000. Once again, no problem. The Braves took a converted starter with 28 lifetime innings in the majors and watched him put up 38 saves.
Which brings us full circle. Is it still possible to look at the Braves and believe that their fortunes depend at all on who pitches the ninth inning? If Rocker is ineffective, or elsewhere, the job can revert to Kerry Ligtenberg. Or Rudy Seanez can move into the role. Or perhaps Luis Rivera can jump from the Carolina League to Atlanta. There is no shortage of options for a team whose bullpen was an unrecognized strength last year.
John Rocker is an interchangeable part who was in the right place at the right time in 1999 and took advantage. His misguided words will cost him a lot of money and will probably shadow him for the rest of his life. What they won't do is hurt the Atlanta Braves on the field in 2000.