Under The Knife: Closer Update
by Will Carroll
I hate closers.
The word itself isn't even one that I use. I've adopted Lee Sinins' term of "Show up in the Ninth" pitcher and abbreviate it to SUN, both out of accuracy and derision. Still, to many teams the psychological advantage of having that "dominant closer" appears to leap past logic. In fact, in a recent USA Today article about Bill James and the Red Sox, both Tony LaRussa and Dusty Baker sing the praises of having a 'true' closer.
For LaRussa, this should be interesting, since his Cardinals will start the season without their SUN pitcher, Jason Isringhausen. Also in the National League, the Padres will be without Trevor Hoffman for at least a portion of the season and potentially for the full season.
The latest reports out of Padres camp indicated that Hoffman is headed for a Weaver-Dunn procedure, a more complicated version of an arthroscopic Mumford. In both cases, the distal (end nearest the arm) portion of the clavicle (collarbone) is shaved down. It is usually is done by making a two-inch incision over the joint, removing the end of the collarbone, and transferring the ligament from the underside of the acromion into the cut end of the clavicle to replace the ligaments torn during dislocation. The Mumford procedure can be done arthroscopically, where the Weaver-Dunn is an open procedure, albeit with a small incision. Having such a procedure is relatively common in rotator cuff impingements or tears, but there is little track record for the surgery in baseball. Jaret Wright, now also of the Padres, had a Mumford as part of his series of surgeries. Few would point to him as a successful return, though any return after what he's gone through is a medical marvel.
I spoke with a source within the Padres and was told that Hoffman wants to avoid surgery, and has elected to try and pitch through the injury, opting to try and strengthen and stretch instead of letting a surgeon cut and drill. He'll have about two weeks to show that he can return relatively pain-free or he'll need to have the surgery so that he can be ready for 2004. In either case, Hoffman goes from being a near automatic to a big question for the Padres. My best guess is that he will need to have the surgery and that his 2003 will be lost.
While a blow to the Padres, it will open up slots in the bullpen and allow the team to test some young arms in preparation for their move to Petco Park next year. It is a major lesson that Hoffman was allowed to pitch through pain to reach 40 saves. Forty saves is an illusory plateau based on a flawed statistic; if Hoffman's motivation was pride, well, shame on him. If it was a bonus clause--or, worse, Bruce Bochy--the Padres need to take a hard look in the mirror. The Padres will likely turn to Brandon Villafuerte or one of their young power pitchers in a late-inning role.
In St. Louis, the Cards situation isn't quite as dire, but Jason Isringhausen will likely start the season on the List. He pitched at least the last month of the season with a torn labrum and lost massive amounts of velocity, going from the low- to mid-90s to maxing out at 88. Isringhausen has enough savvy to get by without max velocity, but a torn labrum is a difficult injury to return from. The latest operation was Izzy's eighth in a five year career. Even upon his return, he will need a babying that Dave Duncan and LaRussa have never shown an ability to give. He'll need to have at least one day between outings, a limited warm up, and getting him up and down during a game will be near impossible. There are also reports that Isringhausen is limited in where he can slot his arm, restricting the deception in his delivery.
The prognosis for Isringhausen is better than Hoffman, but not by much. If Izzy is unable to attain his previous velocity, he'll need to rely more on breaking pitches--putting more stress on a surgically repaired elbow that flared up on him midway through 2002. The severe limitations on his arm use will necessitate the use of the Cardinals other relievers, such as Steve Kline or Mike Crudale.
Where there is loss there is opportunity, and many relievers for both teams will get the chance to get the shiny tag of "closer" on their resume. By overvaluing the tag, the Cardinals and Padres put themselves at something of a disadvantage, first by limiting the use of one of their best pitchers, then by using them in such a way that they injured themselves. For both Hoffman and Isringhausen, the next door they slam may be the one at the end of their careers.
Will Carroll is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.