Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 25, 2005
BASEBALL: The Taste of Defeat

Bill Simmons asks:

Just throwing it out there to sidetrack the Baseball Crank's day, but after Brad Lidge's second demoralizing walkoff homer, is there any way to figure out the ratio of "Closer eventually bouncing back and becoming effective again" to "Closer who was never the same"? For instance, Calvin Schiraldi was probably the best pitching prospect in the Boston farm system before the '86 playoffs - look at his regular-season stats in 1986 compared to everything that followed in his career. And what about Byung Hyun-Kim, Donnie Moore, Mitch Williams, Mark Wohlers, Tom Niedenfuer ... really, the only guy I can remember who kept chugging along was Dennis Eckersley after the '88 World Series. Anyway, let's see what the Crank can dig up on this.

Well, I can't well turn down that challenge, can I? So, I decided to walk through every example I could find of a relief pitcher blowing the big game in the postseason, and see how they fared the next few years. A few observations:

*I limited myself to the postseason and season-ending playoffs rather than the regular season.

*I limited myself to relievers. That knocks out both starters who blew the big one (think: Mike Torrez), and starters pitching in relief, which eliminated Ralph Branca in 1951, Ralph Terry in 1960 (Mazeroski's homer), Bob Moose in 1972 (the wild pitch that ended Game 5 and the NLCS), Pat Darcy in Game 6 of the 1975 WS (the Bernie Carbo Carlton Fisk homer; Darcy never pitched effectively again), Jack McDowell in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS, Kenny Rogers in Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, Derek Lowe and Rich Harden in Games 1 and 3 of the 2003 ALDS, Tim Wakefield (the Aaron Boone homer), Jeff Weaver (2003 WS Game 4), and Esteban Loaiza (2004 ALCS Game 5). I also left off Aurelio Lopez (1986 NLCS Game 6), an aging veteran who was just the last guy left on a staff.

*I ended up limiting the study to 1972-present. Before that period, there just weren't enough examples of relievers blowing the big game; starters tended to stay in longer, and before 1969 the postseason was a lot shorter. The only one that came to mind was Johnny Miljus throwing the wild pitch that ended the 1927 World Series; while Miljus struggled the next season and was swiftly put on waivers, I have a hard time thinking a guy who contributed to his team being swept by the 1927 Yankees was much of a goat.

*I noticed that the combination of more relievers, longer playoffs, more scoring in general and more home runs in particular has led to a massive upswing in recent years of huge game-breaking reversals of fortune in the postseason. Just in 2003-04 I counted 17 pitchers, counting guys who collaborated in big collapses including three in the 2003 Red Sox-A's ALDS and four apiece in the 2004 NLCS and ALCS.

Here we go. I broke the pitchers into three categories: guys who survived, guys who were ruined, and guys who came away in some sense damaged but not destroyed.

Dave Giusti, 1972 NLCS Game 5:

Moose threw the wild pitch, but it was Giusti, the Pirates' veteran closer, who blew the 3-2 lead in the ninth inning of game 5 of a best-of-5 series. Mitigating factor: the Pirates were already the defending champs. Giusti was just-y (hah!) fine the next season. Survived.

(Side note: Pittsburgh's Game 5 starter, 19-game winner Steve Blass, mysteriously lost the strike zone the next season).

Rawly Eastwick, 1975 WS Game 6:

The 24-year-old Eastwick served up Fisk's Bernie Carbo's home run. (UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that I went through the box score for this one too quickly and mixed up Eastwick and Darcy - it was Eastwick who gave up the big blow, the 3-run homer to Carbo that tied up the game in the 8th when the Reds were just four outs away from their first World Championship in 35 years). Mitigating factors: It was a tie game, and the Reds came back and won the next day. He was just as effective the next year. Survived.

Mark Littell, 1976 ALCS Game 5, 1977 ALCS Game 5:

Our first serial offender, Littell gave up Chris Chambliss' home run and the following year participated with four other pitchers in blowing a 3-1 lead in Game 5. Mitigating factor: Littell wasn't mainly responsible for the 1977 disaster. He was traded after 1977, but pitched effectively for two more years. Survived.

Rich Gossage: 1980 ALCS Game 3:

Gave up George Brett's massive game-breaking homer to cement a humiliating ALCS sweep. Mitigating factors: the series was a sweep, and the Goose already had the 1978 playoff game and championship under his belt. Gossage would also allow a famous but less crushing home run to Kirk Gibson in the 1984 WS. Posted an 0.77 ERA the next season, and kept on cruisin'. Survived.

Dave Stewart, 1981 NLDS Games 1 & 2:

A few mitigating factors: these weren't notably crushing losses, and the Dodgers won the series and went on to win the World Series. Stewart, a rookie reliever, pitched decently the next two years before the struggles that would land him in Oakland, but took years to establish himself as a star. We can count him as Damaged.

Luis Sanchez, 1982 ALCS Game 5:

Blew a 3-2 lead in the 7th inning of the deciding Game 5. A solid setup man rather than a closer, Sanchez continued in the same vein for two more years. Survived.

Lee Smith, 1984 NLCS Game 4:

The backbreaking Steve Garvey homer. Smith was fine. Survived.

Dan Quisenberry, 1985 ALCS Games 2, 4:

These were fairly routine losses. The Quiz had some decent years thereafter, but dropped from 37 saves in 1985 to 12 and never recovered as a big-time closer. May have been his age and workload, but the postseason shot to his confidence may have contributed. Damaged.

Tom Niedenfeur, 1985 NLCS Games 5 & 6:

The Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark homers; Niedenfeur, a successful closer through 1985, is the best comp for what has happened to Brad Lidge. Fell off sharply in 1987 and, while he had a few effective moments, was never the same again. Ruined.

Todd Worrell, 1985 World Series Game 6:

Major mitigating factor here - everyone blamed 1B umpire Don Denkinger, not the rookie closer. Worrell Survived.

Dave Smith, 1986 NLCS Game 3:

Gave up the walkoff homer to Lenny Dykstra. Survived. Teammate Charlie Kerfeld didn't handle postseason failure that well, though.

Donnie Moore, 1986 ALCS Game 5:

The Dave Henderson, one-strike-from-the-World-Series homer. Moore was mostly hurt in 1987, but never recovered as a pitcher and eventually shot himself. Ruined.

Calvin Schiraldi, 1986 ALCS Game 4, 1986 World Series Games 6 & 7:

Schiraldi had only a half-season of good pitching under his belt before beaning in the tying run in the 9th in Game 4; Games 6 and 7, you know about. Ruined.

Bob Stanley, 1986 World Series Game 6:

The Steamah was running out of steam by 1986 anyway, and the Sawx converted him back to a starter the next year with disastrous results. He did pitch OK in 1988, but was done as an effective year-in-year-out pitcher. We can count him as Damaged.

Dennis Eckersley, 1988 World Series Game 1:

The Kirk Gibson homer. Eck, with a long and checkered career already behind him (a no-hitter, living through the 1978 collapse, battle with the bottle), shrugged it off and got even tougher. Survived.

UPDATE: An emailer also calls attention to Eck allowing a 2-run homer to Roberto Alomar to blow Game 4 of the 1992 ALCS.

Alejandro Pena: 1991 World Series Game 7:

Pena wound up losing the classic Morris-Smoltz duel. This brought an end to his string of effective years. He pitched OK in 1995, including in the NLDS and NLCS, before losing Game 3 of the 1995 WS in extra innings. We can count him as Damaged.

Stan Belinda, 1992 NLCS Game 7:

The Francisco Cabrera/Sid Bream game, which the Pirates led 2-0 when Belinda entered the game. Belinda was sent packing the following season, but his overall effectiveness in 1993-95 was about the same as in the prior three years. Survived.

Mitch Williams, 1993 World Series Games 4 & 6:

Before the Joe Carter game was Game 4, a raucous 15-14 affair where the Phils had a 4-run lead when Williams entered the game in the 8th. Williams was utterly Ruined and threw less than 40 more major league innings.

Mark Wohlers, 1996 World Series Game 4:

The Jim Leyritz home run. Wohlers actually saved 33 games the next year before falling apart, so we'll list him as Damaged, but he was never quite the same.

Mariano Rivera, 1997 ALDS Game 4, 2001 World Series Game 7, 2004 ALCS Game 4:

Rivera survived blowing three huge season-killing postseason games, beginning with the Sandy Alomar home run, for the same reason Bill Gates survives losing $10 million in a bad day for Microsoft stock. Survived.

Armando Benitez, 1997 ALCS Game 6, 1999 NLCS Game 6, 2000 World Series Game 1:

This is the abridged version of Benitez' regular- and postseason rap sheet of big game disasters. Let's list him as Damaged; he's never let the big ones stop him from being an effective closer, but you have to think the long series of big-game implosions are more than just a coincidence and have fed off each other.

Jose Mesa, 1997 World Series Game 7:

Two outs away in the bottom of the ninth, and Mesa couldn't shut the door. He has had successes since then, but 1998-2000 was a stretch in the wilderness. We'll list him as Damaged.

Tom Gordon, 1998 ALDS Game 4, 2004 ALCS Game 5:

The 2004 debacle was partly mitigated by the fact that four pitchers (including the revered Rivera) participated in it, and the 1998 game wasn't a really unusual loss, nor a particularly close series. Gordon has Survived untouched.

Matt Mantei, 1999 NLDS Game 4:

The Todd Pratt walk-off series-ending homer. I'll list Mantei as having Survived, since his on-and-off effectiveness before and after the homer were the results of injuries; he remained the same pitcher he was before.

Kevin McGlinchy, 1999 NLCS Game 5:

McGlinchy, a promising rookie, had the lead entering the bottom of the 15th of the Robin Ventura "grand slam single" game. I guess we can label him Ruined since he has pitched just 8.1 innings since then, although this was due to injury.

Aaron Fultz, 2000 NLDS Game 3:

As a rookie, surrendered Benny Agbayani's walk-off 13th inning homer in a tie game, which turned the series. Fultz was the same mediocrity he'd been before for the next four years, before finding himself in 2005. Survived.

Arthur Rhodes, 2000 ALCS Game 6, 2001 ALCS Game 4:

The main one is the 2000 David Justice homer, but the game-tying Bernie homer in 2001 hurt too. The Colossus went on to the best years of his career in 2001-02, so he Survived. (Jose Paniagua, the losing pitcher in the Justice game, didn't fare so well).

Steve Kline, 2001 NLDS Game 5:

The great Morris-Schilling duel was a tie game when Kline took over in the 9th. He has Survived allowing Tony Womack's series-winning single.

Billy Wagner, 2001 NLDS Game 1:

Allowing a back-breaking homer to Chipper Jones in a tie game was actually the last of Wagner's postseason failures; we'll list him as Damaged, as his record is a smaller version of Benitez' and he has kept blowing big regular-season games. Personally, I expect Lidge to follow the Benitez-Wagner career path.

Kaz Sasaki, 2001 ALCS Game 4:

Walk-off 2-run homer to Soriano in a tie game effectvely finished a 116-win team that was down 2-1 in the ALCS. Sasaki Survived, though he quit the majors two years later.

Byung-Hyun Kim, 2001 World Series Games 4 & 5:

Kim had a great 2002 and solid 2003 but hasn't been the same since, and can't pitch in the postseason or against the Yankees. Damaged.

Tim Worrell, 2002 World Series Game 6, 2003 NLDS Game 3:

Worrell was the chief culprit in the Game 6 fiasco, bounced back with 38 saves in 2003, then blew a 1-run lead in the 11th inning in the 2003 game. Survived.

Robb Nen, 2002 World Series Game 6:

Nen's arm gave out over thr course of the last half of 2002, culminating with the Troy Glaus double that sealed the Giants' fate, and he hasn't pitched since. We'll list him as Damaged, since this wasn't really a psychological thing but he did see his career end.

Felix Rodriguez, 2002 World Series Game 6, 2003 NLDS Game 4:

Rodriguez was already in decline by 2002, and has Survived since his role in these two late-inning collapses.

Keith Foulke, 2003 ALDS Game Four:

Foulke found the best way to get over David Ortiz' 2-run double that blew a 1-run lead in the 8th: join Ortiz' team. His 2004 performance showed he Survived.

Kyle Farnsworth, 2003 NLCS Game 6:

The real goat of the 2003 Cubs' demise was Farnsworth, not Steve Bartman or a tired Mark Prior. The mercurial Farsnworth recovered this year after a lousy 2004; while he'd always been inconsistent, we'll label him Damaged.

UPDATE: An emailer points out that Farnsworth's damage assessment should also include Game 4 of this year's NLDS.

Francisco Rodriguez, 2004 ALDS Game 3:

Another David Ortiz victim. K-Rod had a rough postseason again this year, but I'll count him among those who Survived.

(UPDATE: A commenter notes that I remembered wrong - it was Washburn who surrendered the Ortiz homer. K-Rod, of course, had also been the losing pitcher in Game 2. So you can discount him from the list if you like).

Dan Miceli, 2004 NLDS Game 1 2, 2004 NLCS Games 2 & 6:

The Edmonds homer was the final straw in a horrific postseason for Miceli, who was ineffective in brief action this season after being exiled to Colorado. For now, we can mark him Ruined.

Paul Quantrill, 2004 ALCS Game 4:

An overworked Quantrill ran off the rails in the middle of 2004, so his ALCS meltdown was just part of an ongoing process on his way from 2003 star to 2005 batting practice pitcher. We'll mark him Damaged.

Jason Isringhausen, 2004 NLCS Game 5:

The Jeff Kent homer. Izzy's team lived to win the series, and he had a career year in 2005. Survived.

Conclusion: Even using a fairly broad definition of "Damaged," and understanding that in any season a certain number of successful relievers will fall off, we come up with a list of 22 relief pitchers (55%) who Survived a major postseason disaster, 12 (30%) who came away in some sense Damaged, and just 6 (15%) who were thoroughly Ruined by the experience, those being a mixture of young guys (Schiraldi) and established veterans (Niedenfeur, Williams).

UPDATE: Comments closed on this post.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:16 AM | Baseball 2005 • | Baseball Studies | Comments (1) | TrackBack (1)

Danno, take K-Rod off the list. He left the game with 2 outs and a man on first, having thrown 2.2 innings of shutout relief. Washburn came on to throw the last pitch of the season.

Posted by: little murph at October 25, 2005 12:34 PM
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