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Closer Conversion: K-Rod Really Is Doing Something Pretty Special

by Wendy Thurm on August 16, 2011

Last Friday, I wrote about the success Francisco Rodriguez is having as the new set-up guy for the Milwaukee Brewers. Since breaking into the majors with the Los Angeles Angels in 2002, Rodriguez has pitched exclusively out of the bullpen. By 2005, Rodriguez was the Angels’ closer, and an elite one that. Rodriguez closed for the Angels until the end of 2008, when he became a free agent and signed with the New York Mets.  With the Mets, K-Rod wasn’t nearly as proficient or dominant but he still recorded 35 saves in 2009 and 25 saves in 2010.

The Mets traded Rodriguez to the Brewers on July 12. But the Brewers already had a very good closer in John Axford. So K-Rod is now the 8th inning guy for Milwaukee. He’s been very good in that role. His stats through August 11 are in Friday’s post. Since then, K-Rod’s pitched 1.1 innings, giving up 1 hit, issuing no walks and getting 2 strikeouts.

That got me thinking.

Over the last 25 years, have there been any other closers who were traded mid-season and then converted to another role by his new team–either set-up guy, middle relief, or starting pitcher?

The answer: very few.  And none were as successful as K-Rod has been so far for the Brewers.

Roberto Hernandez

Hernandez debuted in the majors with the Chicago White Sox in 1991, starting some games and relieving in others. The next season, Hernandez pitched only in relief, mostly in the middle innings. By 1993, Hernandez was the White Sox closer, garnering 38 saves along with a 2.29 ERA.  Hernandez continued as the White Sox closer in 1994, 1995 and 1996. That last year, he again saved 38 games, this time with a 1.91 ERA. He also was named an All-Star and finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting. After only six years in the majors, Hernandez had earned 134 career saves.

Hernandez continued to shine as the White Sox’s closer in 1997.  In 46 appearances, Hernandez earned 27 saves, posting a 2.77 ERA. But as the trade deadline neared, the White Sox fell behind in the AL Central and decided to sell.  The Sox traded Hernandez and fellow pitchers Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin to the San Francisco Giants for six minor leaguers (one of which was eventual A’s and Red Sox closer Keith Foulke).

Like the Brewers with John Axford, the 1997 Giants had a very good closer in Rod Beck. Like the Brewers with K-Rod, the Giants slotted Hernandez into the set-up role. Through the remainder of the regular season, Hernandez posted a 5-2 record and a 2.48 ERA with 4 saves and 9 holds. The Giants won the NL West.

But Hernandez did not pitch well in the NLDS against the Florida Marlins.

In Game 1, Hernandez pitched the 9th inning in a tie game, but only after Julian Tavares had put two runners on. Hernandez gave up the game winning hit and Marlins won the game. In Game 2, Hernandez again pitched the 9th inning in a tie game. He gave up a lead-off single, a walk and the game-winning single, and took the loss. In Game 3, Hernandez came into the game in the 8th inning with the Giants down 4-2. He got 2 outs but gave up a run, and was charged with another run when his inherited runner scored. The Giants lost the series 3-0.

Hernandez returned to the closer role with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998 and remained a closer with Tampa Bay, and then Kansas City, until 2002, amassing 155 saves.  He then pitched another five years in the majors as a reliever with the Braves, Mets, Phillies, Pirates, Indians and Dodgers.  Hernandez is 12th on the all-time career saves list with 326.

Randy Myers

Myers’ first full season in the majors was 1987 with the New York Mets. He pitched exclusively out of the bullpen that season, but not as the full-time closer. He posted a 3-6 record with a 3.96 ERA and 6 saves. In 1988 and 1989, Myers was the full-time closer for the Mets, totaling 50 saves in those two seasons. The Mets traded Myers to the Cincinnati Reds for John Franco before the 1990 season. Myers became the Reds’ closer, amassing 31 saves. The Reds then replaced Myers with Rob Dibble in 1991. Myers pitched mostly out of the ‘pen that season, but also had some spot starts. He went 6-13 with a 3.55 ERA and recorded 6 saves. After the 1991 season, the Reds traded Myers to the San Diego Padres.

Myers returned to the closer role with the Padres in 1992, and then closed games for the Chicago Cubs (1993-1995), the Baltimore Orioles (1996-1997) and Toronto Blue Jays (1998).  In those six seasons, he had a combined record of 13-22, with a 3.38 ERA and 254 saves.

In August, 1998, the Blue Jays traded Myers to the San Diego Padres, who were battling for the NL West title. And just like the Brewers this year and the Giants in 1997, the Padres already had an elite closer in 1998–some guy by the name of Trevor Hoffman.  So like K-Rod and Robert Hernandez, Myers pitched the 8th inning, for the most part, with Hoffman coming in for saves. Myers went 1-3 for the Padres with a 6.28 ERA and 8 holds.

The Padres did win the NL West title and met the Yankees in the World Series after knocking off the Houston Astros in the NLDS and the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. Myers didn’t pitch in the NLDS. In the NLCS, he pitched 1/3 of an inning in Game 3, with Hoffman getting the save. In Game 4, Myers pitched the 7th inning, inheriting a runner from Joey Hamilton and giving up the eventual game-winning hit. Myers got the last out in the 9th inning in Game 5, but the Padres were already down and eventually lost that game.

In the World Series against the Yankees, Myers pitched in Games 1, 3 and 4 and pitched well, but played no role in the decisions. The Yankees beat the Padres 4-0.

Myers retired after the 1998 season.

Armando Benitez

Benitez pitched three seasons (1995-1997) out of the bullpen for the Baltimore Orioles before becoming their full-time closer in 1998.  That year, Benitez went 5-6 with a 3.82 ERA and 22 saves. After the season, the Orioles traded Benitez to the Mets where he served as the full-time closer from 1999 through mid-2003. With the Mets, Benitez went 18-15 with a 2.72 ERA and 160 saves but he had the reputation of faltering in big, important games.

In July 2003, the Mets traded Benitez to the cross-town Yankees, who then traded Benitez a month later to the Seattle Mariners a month later. Both the Yankees and the Mariners were in division races in 2003 and both used Benitez in relief, but in a non-closer role. The Yankees, of course, had Mariano Rivera to close out games; the Mariners used Shigetoshi Hasegawa.

Benitez pitched well for the Yankees, going 1-1 with 4 holds, but not so well for the Mariners. In 14.1 innings, Benitez gave up 10 hits, 11 walks and runs. He had a blown save and a loss, which were critical down the stretch. The Mariners ended the season 3 games behind the A’s for the AL West title and 2 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card.

Benitez returned as a full-time closer with the Marlins in 2004 and it was his best season. He posted a 2-2 record with a 1.29 ERA and 47 saves, his career high.

It was downhill from there, though, for Benitez. He signed with the Giants in 2005 but was not able to repeat his career-best performance from 2004. He was injured on and off with the Giants between 2005-2007 and, again, had difficulties closing out big games. In 90 games for the Giants, Benitez posted a record of 6-8 with a 4.23 ERA and 45 saves.  The Giants traded Benitez back to the Marlins in mid-2007 but he never recorded another save. He ended his career with 289 career saves, good for 25th on the all-time career saves list.

And that’s it. That’s the list. Over the last 25 years, only three full-time, successful closers were traded mid-season and then asked to play a different role for their new team. Roberto Hernandez pitched the best out of the three in the regular season for the Giants in 1997 but was a big disappointment in the NLDS.

To date, K-Rod has pitched very well for the Brewers. Milwaukee is 22-8 since K-Rod arrived and have extended their lead in the NL Central over the St. Louis Cardinals to 6 games. It will be interesting to see if K-Rod can maintain that kind of performance in the playoffs, if the Brewers ultimately win the NL Central or Wild Card.

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