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Grow Some Saves of Your Own, Ideally

Saturday afternoon…we were never in that. Mike Pelfrey briefly masqueraded as Washington managerial superhero Wriggle Man, wriggling in and out of trouble until he could wriggle no longer. Jose Reyes grimaced while fielding a grounder in the hole and became, in that instant, a non-playing All-Star [1]. Tim Hudson threw a river of unhittable pitches. Jason Bay made another ocean of outs. I don’t want to talk about Saturday afternoon on Fox very much. Kevin Millar did all the talking any human could possibly do regarding this 4-0 debacle [2].

Friday night, even if it was by merely a two-run margin [3], also felt like one of those Games You’re Gonna Lose [4] from start to finish — particularly at the finish.

You can’t say the Mets beat themselves very often in 2010, but they sort of did Friday, and it started in the year when they were beating themselves constantly, 2009. This wasn’t about base-missing, down-falling or one-handing. This was about taking care of business and, technically, their obligations.

Billy Wagner was under contract to the New York Mets during the 2009 season. As such, the Mets were obligated to provide rehabilitation facilities and counsel for him. It would almost certainly contain no benefit for them, but Wagner was technically a Met and the Mets had to help him.

It worked too well, apparently. I heard Billy, in chats with Wayne Hagin and Kevin Burkhardt, praising to the high heavens the Mets and  for helping him regain his strength in his left elbow. Yup, he never could have made it out of Tommy John surgery and all those arduous days in St. Lucie without the Mets’ training staff.

Now he pays us back by throwing harder and more effectively than Tommy John ever dreamed of throwing.

We saw it for ourselves in the series opener when Alex Cora, Rod Barajas and Angel Pagan came up and went down most noneventfully in the ninth inning. Actually, it was an event for Wagner — a most recurring event.

Billy the former Met required just nine pitches to retire three batters and register his 20th save Friday (whereas Saturday he needed ten pitches, but it wasn’t a save opportunity). He was so brutally efficient that I couldn’t help but think, “How come he never did that for us?” Turns out he did, though not nearly as often as he does it for the Braves.

Let’s invent a save-based statistic because we all love saves so much [5]. Let’s call this one the IS, or Ideal Save, in deference to what is we really want out of our closer.

What is it we really want out of our closer anyway?

We want an Ideal Save: Enter to whatever music tickles your innards but exit quickly and triumphantly. Ideally, that’s three up, three down, no more than nine pitches.

Why nine? As they say on MLB Network’s Prime 9, because that’s baseball: nine players, nine innings. More saliently, it’s how many pitches Wagner required to retire Cora, Barajas and Pagan. It was just so quick. Any more would have been…not so quick. It would have been double-digits. Nine, however, is idea. It’s conceivably three Gas House Gorillas [6] strikeouts:

One. Two. Three strikes, you’re out!
One. Two. Three strikes, you’re out!
One. Two. Three strikes, you’re out!

Of course to achieve an Ideal Save, you’re probably not striking out three batters. You’re enticing the opposition to swing, yes, but you’re also you’re using your fielders. The swings find your guys.

A simple grounder to first, like Wagner got out of Cora.
A harmless grounder to second, like Wagner got out of Barajas.
A gentle popup to second, like Wagner got out of Pagan.

Nine pitches. Seven strikes.

One. Two. Three Mets, they’re out.

Wagner’s Friday ninth caught my attention because it was so unusually methodical. Or unusual if you’re used to watching Met closers and their Met-thodical ways. Yet it wasn’t so unusual for Wagner the Brave to produce, I’ve learned. This was his fifth IS — Ideal Save — of this season, his first on the road, as if had been saving it just for us. Four previous times in 2010, the disinterested onlookers at Turner Field got what we’re convinced we never, ever get: the no-sweat, no-doubt save.

But we have gotten it a handful of time over the past decade or so. We even got it from Wagner. But boy, is it rare, and we’ve never, since 1999 — the first year from which fairly complete pitch count totals are available — gotten it five times in one year before the All-Star break.

In three seasons as Mets closer of record, Billy Wagner gave us nine Ideal Saves. That means he entered a game at the beginning of the ninth inning in a save situation (lead of one, two or three runs) and retired three consecutive batters on no more than nine pitches. No muss, no fuss, no stress, no storm. That’s not the Billy Wagner who resides in the collective Met memory, I’ll bet, but it did happen once in 2006, thrice in 2007 and five times in 2008.

It’s true: sometimes Billy Wagner didn’t drive us crazy. Sometime he let us drive (or take the train) home sane.

You know that sense of dread that’s seemingly innate as a Mets fan at a Mets game in the ninth inning with a slight lead? Wagner didn’t cash it in for us four times at Shea. No kidding. On April 11, 2008, for shiningest example, he threw seven pitches for seven strikes to three Milwaukee Brewers and recorded three outs for an Ideal Save.

How great is that? And how unusual is that? You know in your blue and orange bones that it’s as rare as a big late-inning hit from Jason Bay. When you think of Wagner as a Met, I’ll bet you don’t think of Billy mowing down Milwaukee in April. You think of Billy not closing out the Yankees in May [7] or the Phillies in July [8] or the Cardinals in October [9]. You remember the blown saves or the saves that took more exertion than you personally could stand. The Ideal Saves aren’t differentiated from the other kind in the boxscore, but somehow you’re convinced they should be.

It would certainly make everybody’s lives easier if they were. Your body wouldn’t clench in dread if you were sure an eventless ninth inning was just ahead. Your mind wouldn’t run away with nightmare scenarios. You would take saves seriously if they were compiled ideally.

Billy’s enjoying an almost All-Star season (he was on the All-Star Final Vote ballot but lost to Joey Votto). Racking up Ideal Saves, particularly being on the shelf for the final third of 2008 and all but a month and change of 2009. has to be helping his cause.

Surely it’s hurting ours.

And speaking of Frankie Rodriguez, he’s got two Ideal Saves in 2010, one at Baltimore (which counts) and one against the Nats at Citi after the six-run Met eighth that made his appearance necessary. He needed only six pitches and an Ike Davis flip that magical night [10]. He had none in 2009. The reason it feels a bit dicey when K-Rod joins a game in progress is because it is literally almost never easy when he pitches. Frankie usually gets the job done, but by the nine-pitch, three-batter IS standard, it is literally almost never ideal.

Before Wagner, there was Braden Looper, the first in our trilogy of storebought closers. Looper was not as glamorous a purchase as Billy or K-Rod and he wasn’t an Ideal Savior either. Two seasons, four Ideal Saves, three at Shea, the best of them a surreal [11] eight-pitch quelling of the Cubs in 2005. Then again, it’s kind of surreal Braden Looper was sought out by a major league team to be its closer.

No discussion of save quality since 1999 would be complete without a look at Armando Benitez’s checkered career. Armando is still the all-time, single-season Met save leader, having piled up 43 in 2001, breaking his own record of 41 from 2000. How many were Ideal?

Surprise — not many.

But there were a few…five, to be precise. In the Home Opener of 2000, for example, Armando had to throw only seven pitches to put down three Padres. We all left Shea thinking nothing but highly of Mr. Benitez. Exactly one year later, chastened from one full season (and postseason) in Closer Benitez’s company, we were bracing for much worse on Opening Night from Atlanta. But he did it again, earning a three-out, six-pitch save. He’d be Ideal twice more in ’01 and once in ’02, two of those three occasions at Shea. He never did it in 1999 or 2003, meaning we got five Ideal Saves out of Armando Benitez in the approximately four-year span that he was our closer, and we only got them three times at home. Hence, that feeling in the pit of your stomach at Shea probably wasn’t from the pretzel.

Since we don’t have full inning-by-inning pitch count information from the 1990s, it would be tough to put John Franco under this “he never makes it easy” microscope, but we can see, during his final days as a closer in the first half of ’99, he did not make it easy. Johnny put together two Ideal Saves that April, one at Wrigley (9 pitches, 7 strikes) and one at Shea (9 pitches, 5 strikes). Then he stopped being ideal clear to July, when a bad finger cost him his spotlight.

That’s 11½ seasons, 5 primary closers and 21 Ideal Saves. Billy Wagner of Atlanta has 5 in a 30-game span. In case you’re wondering, since he’s the guy we all inevitably have in mind as the ideal closer, Mariano Rivera had 9 in 2001, back when his godliness went routinely unquestioned (until Game Seven of the World Series, at any rate).

Perfection’s an order taller than Mike Pelfrey himself. We’re just happy when a win is preserved. But imagine a supremely clean and confident ninth inning occurring more than just now and then.

Better yet, imagine not having to go outside the organization for those ninth innings. Imagine growing a closer of our own. In the same vein that we don’t, in the moment, really care whether a Met reliever needs 9 or 39 pitches to nail down a win, we don’t ask about his pedigree. Still, think how uplifting it might be to someday not have to scour the free agent market to secure a closer with too many miles on his arm, to not have to pay top dollar for a Rodriguez, a Wagner or a Looper…to not have to peel a player off our roster to find a Benitez…or to not have to give up a budding star for an established star as we did when we received Franco in exchange for Randy Myers.

Randy Myers…now there’s a name. He came up through the Met system a flamethrowing starter, was switched to relieving and became, requisite agita notwithstanding, a flamethrowing closer the likes of which we haven’t had since his 1987-1989 heyday. Randy was coming into his own as a Met, not coming off his peak as something else. He was on the way up. He could have been here for years, improving with age.

Instead, he was traded for the surer thing, Franco. Franco was at his peak in the late ’80s, a great bet to finish games for Pete Rose’s Reds. Then the Mets got him and he became…Franco, and all that implies to Mets fans. Not that he didn’t have a fine Met career, not that he doesn’t have more saves than any Met pitcher, not that he wasn’t Johnny From Bensonhurst, not that the trade didn’t, in its own way, benefit both clubs (Randy’s won the World Series in his first Nasty year)…but there’s just something about one of your own getting the job done that makes it that much sweeter. It’s also less of a chore than finding somebody from somewhere else. Less expensive, too.

Our homegrown infield [12] is in place. Our homegrown catcher Thole may be beginning to take tentative root. Two homegrown starters, Pelfrey and Niese, make up 40% of our rotation. Pagan, one-quarter of our looming semi-regular outfield, is homegrown, even if he grew wayward for a time in Chicago. These are all heartwarming and encouraging trends in the re-emergence of a franchise.

But you know what would give me even more cause to hope long-term? A homegrown closer. We haven’t had one in several baseball generations. We’ve barely had any saves that didn’t come delivered in a battered box rerouted from Cincinnati or Philadelphia or Anaheim or wherever since the Mets traded Randy Myers for John Franco.

Consider that when Randy Myers was The Man and Roger McDowell and Rick Aguilera took turns as his right hand, so to speak, we grew our saves in abundance. In 1989, 36 of 38 Met saves were homegrown. It was 42 of 46 in 1988. The system worked very well.

Since 1990 and the coming of John Franco, can you guess what homegrown Met has recorded the most saves of any homegrown Met? Probably not.

The answer is Anthony Young.

Yes, that Anthony Young. The guy known mostly for losing as a starter (and some as a reliever) wasn’t an altogether awful closer. He was pretty good filling in for Franco during one of Johnny’s extended absences. AY filed 15 saves in 1992 and 3 more in 1993. He was good at closing that they made sure to return him to starting as soon as they could, assigning him the role that he was least suited to fill.

Young’s 18 homegrown saves are twice as many as the homegrown Met with the next most: Aaron Heilman, with 9. In 2005, when Willie Randolph was desperate enough, he gave the ends of games to Aaron and Aaron, who would have preferred to have started, gave us 5 saves. He picked up 1 more in 2007 and 3 in 2008. If he’d been consistent at it, he likely would have kept closing down at least one of those stretches. Last I heard, Aaron was the closer in Arizona, though there hasn’t been much to save for the Diamondbacks lately. I guess we’ll see for ourselves on the next trip.

There have been only 16 other games saved by homegrown Mets since 1990, all of the scattered variety: 5 by early ’90s middle-innings workhorse Jeff Innis; 4 by reigning lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano; 2 by rookie Pete Schourek en route to starting; 1 apiece by future A’s/Cards closer Jason Isringhausen, Grant Roberts, Bobby Parnell, Raul Valdes and, in the 20th inning one very long April Saturday [13], Mike Pelfrey.

That’s 43 in total in 20½ seasons. All other Met saves in the past two decades have been imported. They’ve been nervous, too. We cringe when we see our closer, whoever our closer is, start to warm. We hear excuses about being used too much or being used not enough. We are told whatever’s wrong has been caused by “mechanical flaw,” when we believe in our souls the only mechanical flaw where Met closers are concerned is that the bullpen phone isn’t broken.

Closing’s not an easy gig, but how hard would it be to

1) sign, develop and bring up somebody to close games?


2) watch a final inning unfold without the certainty that the world is about to end?

We refer to horribly memorable blown games by closer. That game in Pittsburgh in 2005 [14] was the Looper Game. That Subway Series game in 2006 where Pedro’s eight innings went to waste was the Wagner Game. What should have been the Strasburg game (as in Dickey beating him) is now the K-Rod Game [15]. There were probably at least a dozen Benitez and Franco Games in their time. The time has come for a closer who is perpetually poised to give a game a name other than his own.

Something like that might be ideal.

Though after having lost three in a row, I’d settle for a ninth-inning lead and taking my chances from there.

Monday, July 12 is AMAZIN’ ALL-STAR MONDAY, with Marty Noble and Howard Megdal. Come out to Two Boots Grand Central [16]at 7 PM. It’s in the Lower Dining Concourse of Grand Central Terminal, 42nd Street and Park Avenue, accessible via Metro-North as well as the 4, 5, 6, Times Square Shuttle and, of course, the 7 train. Phone: 212/557-7992. Full details here [17].