Sports Nut

The Borowski Ultimatum

The Indians are four wins away from the World Series. Do they have the guts to dump their closer?

Joe Borowski of the Cleveland Indians

This year’s four Division Series lasted just one game beyond the collective minimum, but the rest of “Actober” should be competitive. Boston and Cleveland had identical regular-season records, while Arizona and Colorado finished a half-game apart. All four clubs are well-rested, with rotations lined up to get the most out of their best starters. Expect close games decided in the late innings, where each team’s fate rests on how well its relievers perform. Cleveland’s bullpen, which just held the majors’ best offense to two earned runs in 13 Division Series innings, is probably the best of the group. That is, until you get to the last man. No one would be shocked if Indians closer Joe Borowski, he of the 5.07 ERA, costs the team the World Series. Why does one of the best teams in baseball pin its ninth-inning hopes on its third- or fourth-best reliever?

For any team, putting together a bullpen is a vexing problem. Identifying good relievers is a lot harder than simply choosing who pitched well last year. One reason is small sample size: Relievers throw so few innings per season that conventional statistics are often misleading. Arizona ace Brandon Webb, for example, threw almost four times as many innings as closer Jose Valverde this year. Clubs also seem less adept at monitoring relievers’ attrition. Even dilettante fans care about a starter’s pitch count, but teams set similar limits for relievers only in special cases. (Even then, the limits tend to be crude and malleable; to wit, the Yankees’ so-called “Joba Rules” expired when the playoffs began.) Consequently, each winter several teams invest heavily in veteran relievers who promptly regress to their mean performance. Last winter’s disappointments included Danys Baez, Guillermo Mota, and Scott Schoeneweis. More will follow next year.

Clubs can reduce their risk of crushing bullpen failures by stockpiling young or undervalued arms and relying on whoever happens to be hot that year. Of course, this tack requires some fortitude. Leaving the late innings to a bunch of no-names almost dares the fans and local media to read you the riot act the instant something goes wrong.

The Red Sox, Indians, Diamondbacks, and Rockies have boldly and rightly chanced that public criticism. Arizona traded its two highest-paid relievers before the 2007 season, relying on Valverde—who earned a demotion to AAA in 2006 but figured to regress positively to his mean this year—and a mix of young, inexpensive relievers. Not only did the remade bullpen perform well, but castoffs Jorge Julio and Luis Vizcaino struggled with their new clubs. Julio, in fact, almost cost Colorado a playoff berth. On a happier note, the Rockies courageously installed an unproven pitcher, Manny Corpas, in the closer role at midseason, notwithstanding that the incumbent, Brian Fuentes, earned his third straight All-Star selection shortly before struggling in late June. And while baseball writers continue to obsess over Boston’s aborted conversion of closer Jon Papelbon to the starting rotation, the Red Sox showed greater foresight in entrusting crucial innings to talented but obscure relievers (Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Hideki Okajima) at the expense of struggling, high-priced veterans (Joel Pineiro and J.C. Romero, both cast off in midseason).

Cleveland’s bullpen, though, might be at once baseball’s best and most anonymous. Rafael Betancourt’s strikeouts exceeded his combined hits, runs, home runs, and walks allowed. Rookies Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis pitched almost as well. The team’s relief corps is just one of the Indians’ many performance-evaluation successes. This is not surprising, given that Cleveland is the apple of the industry’s eye. Led by general manager Mark Shapiro and a front office with an impressive academic and baseball pedigree, the Indians are widely—and at times explicitly—considered the best available model for success among small- to mid-market clubs. That they astutely signed young stars like Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, and Travis Hafner to affordable long-term contracts gives hope to every team that’s lagging far behind the Yankees and Red Sox in payroll.

The Indians, however esteemed, are also the League Championship Series club most likely to be second-guessed if the bullpen fails this month. No other team will be scrutinized for using the wrong closer—Papelbon, Valverde, and Corpas have dominated for virtually the entire season. But Borowski, despite leading the American League in saves, is arguably no better than the Indians’ third- or fourth-best reliever. His aforementioned 5.07 ERA is by far the worst in major league history among 40-save relievers.

So, what is Cleveland thinking? Given the conventional presumption that the ninth inning carries special anxiety, Borowski gives the Indians a defense to the criticism they received late last year for lacking an “established” closer—i.e., a reliever who has saved a lot of games in prior seasons, irrespective of his qualitative performance. But the Indians have succeeded elsewhere by bucking unenlightened orthodoxy even in the face of public pressure. In 2002, the team traded fan favorite Bartolo Colon for a package of prospects that included Sizemore. And unlike many of its better-heeled rivals, Cleveland has smartly resisted the perennially inflated market for veteran free agents. Given this track record, the continued employment of Joe Borowski seems atypical.

It’s possible to conjure substantive reasons for Borowski’s job security. Decisive game situations often occur before the ninth inning, and there the Indians will rely on a better reliever. Perhaps it’s better to reserve Borowski for the end of the game than to hold back a superior pitcher when a bases-loaded jam arises in the seventh inning. If Betancourt and Perez put out the fires in the seventh and the eighth, Borowski gets to start fresh in the ninth. He may get hit hard, but if he survives more often than not, perhaps it’s more knack than luck.

Boston, however, will solve the same substantive problem by bringing in Papelbon, its closer and best reliever, as early as the eighth inning. Remember, too, that assigning relievers well-defined, predictable roles helps a club maintain bullpen stability through the marathon regular season, whereas the high stakes of playoff baseball will tempt any club to sell its soul for a win that night. And don’t worry about hurting Borowski’s feelings—he’s only signed through the end of this season.

All may end well for the Indians. It did in Game 4 of the Division Series, when Borowski gave up one home run (and nearly a second) with a three-run ninth-inning lead after Betancourt breezed through the eighth. But what if the ALCS comes down to this: Cleveland nursing a one-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 7, with David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez getting set to bat. Do the Indians stay with Rafael Betancourt, risking the pennant on a guy who’s not used to pitching the ninth, or do they pull him in favor of their established closer, risking the pennant on a substandard pitcher? I’m guessing the Red Sox, at least, want the Indians to stick with baseball convention. That means sticking with Joe Borowski.