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Lights Out
MICHAEL FARBER
July 23, 2007
It's after midnight on the East Coast: Do you know where baseball's best closer is? J.J. Putz is in Seattle, saving games with near-historic efficiency
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July 23, 2007

Lights Out

It's after midnight on the East Coast: Do you know where baseball's best closer is? J.J. Putz is in Seattle, saving games with near-historic efficiency

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Unlike the other lights-out West Coast closers--career saves leader Trevor Hoffman of the San Diego Padres (changeup), the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez (slurve), the Dodgers' Takashi Saito (slider)--Putz still works off his fastball, but the splitter turned this horse into a two-trick pony.

"When he warmed up [at the All-Star Game], I was like 'Wow,' " says Tigers' bullpen coach Jeff Jones, who was part of AL manager Jim Leyland's staff in San Francisco. "[Boston's Jonathan] Papelbon had a tremendous split, but J.J.'s was phenomenal. I'd seen him throw it in a game and thought it was a great pitch, but I hadn't been that up close. It's the best I've ever seen. Starts at mid-thigh and ends up in the dirt every time. A lot of guys' splits will tail or cut but his is straight down."

(Alas, Leyland gave him the hook after Putz allowed a two-run homer and a walk that brought the winning run to the plate in the ninth. "We won," Putz said after the 5-4 AL victory. "The [AL's winning] streak's alive. Leave it at that.")

This is the baseball continuum, what Guardado calls "the merry-go-round." Just as Guardado learned from Rick Aguilera in Minnesota and Putz learned from Guardado in Seattle, Putz has taken it upon himself to help school a Mariners bullpen greener than Live Earth. This explains, in a way, the pink My Little Pony backpack in rookie setup man Brandon Morrow's locker. During an April trip to Oakland, Putz and pitcher Chris Reitsma enlisted a clubhouse attendant to locate a pink roller bag to help the young Seattle relievers cart gum, sunflower seeds and PowerBars to the bullpen. The clubbie came back with the My Little Pony model, which was even sweeter. The backpack is passed among Morrow, Eric O'Flaherty and Ryan Rowland-Smith, depending who is on a hot streak, but it carries symbolic weight more than bullpen supplies. "One day I hope Brandon or somebody takes my job," Putz says, "and he does great things with it."

"You see what he's doing with the kids, trying to teach them, being a leader," McLaren says. "J.J.'s a special guy. He doesn't dwell on his own success as much as he wants to help the team."

No dim bulb, this lights-out closer.

Better Late Than Ever?

With a little more help from the Mariners' rotation, J.J. Putz could set a single-season standard for relief pitchers

THE FANTASTIC season of J.J. Putz, who at week's end had yielded just one run in a save situation, could end up as the finest ever. Although he will be hard-pressed to match Bobby Thigpen's record of 57 saves, set in 1990, the Mariners' closer stands a chance of becoming the standard-bearer in Win Expectation Above Replacement, or WXRL, a Baseball Prospectus statistic that measures the number of wins a relief pitcher contributes versus what a replacement-level alternative would have achieved. The formula is weighted so that a reliever earns extra credit for stranding runners on base, for pitching against tougher lineups and for closing out a one-run game rather than a three-run snoozer.

Through Sunday, Putz's WXRL of 5.03 was easily the best in baseball; the Dodgers' Takashi Saito was next, at 3.62. That put Putz on pace for a 9.26 WXRL, which would rate as the second-best year ever (below). Putz could have an even better finish if Seattle makes a deal to fortify its starting pitching (its 5.09 ERA is the fifth worst in baseball), which would provide him more high-leverage opportunities.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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