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the harder they fall

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a few words about felix rodriguez, rumored to be the next addition to the stl bullpen. BozCardsFanSF, who saw rodriguez pitch a lot for the giants, wrote this in yesterday' p.m. thread: "As a SF Giants season ticket holder, I saw him lose his confidence in his off speed stuff and rely solely on his fastball on the outside corner. I saw his movement go to next to nothing and his velocity drop. . . . His confidence is tenuous."

that comment triggered a vivid memory for me: game 6 of the 2002 world series. the giants, leading 3-2 in the series and 5-0 in the game, stood eight outs from their first world championship in half a century. russ ortiz was throwing a shutout, but with one out in the 7th inning he tired and put a couple of baserunners on. dusty baker came out to get him; ortiz had thrown over 100 pitches and was gassed, it was the right move. in came felix rodriguez; moving now to my journal entry from 2002:

this guy throws it 97 mph and has pitched very well for two straight years, strikes out more than a guy per inning and had looked very good all postseason. i thought it was the right thing to do. the hitter was scott spiezio, and he quickly fell behind in the count 1-2 and was late on his swings. rodriguez kept the ball on the outer half and spiezio spoiled a couple of pitches with fouls and worked the count to 3-2. after 7 straight fastballs away, rodriguez came inside, and spiezio pulled a very high fly ball down the line. it looked like it would play, but the outfielder kept drifting back and finally bumped into the wall, still waiting for the ball to come down. it finally did, behind him, and the angels were back in the game at 5-3. the ball wasn't very well hit and probably only traveled about 360 feet; but the way spiezio battled, the homer seemed well-earned and well-deserved anyway. . . .

the angels won game 7 last night, 4-1, and claimed their title. but in my mind it all came down to that scott spiezio at-bat in the 7th inning of game 6, when the angels were in a desperate situation but the batter didn't panic, stayed patient, forced the pitcher to come to him. all spiezio did was stay alive until he got a pitch he could put into play, and as luck would have it the ball carried out. tough luck for rodriguez, who didn't really make a bad pitch; but after that the giants fell apart. . . . .

you might say that rodriguez's career fell apart too. in the three seasons leading up to that at-bat he had been among the league's best setup men, but in the three seasons since, he hasn't been the same pitcher. look (numbers courtesy the day by day database):
era whip k/9 opp avg
2000-2002 2.77 1.16 9.5 .207
2003-2005 3.57 1.45 7.0 .254

which makes the spiezio at-bat a pretty stark dividing line in this guy's career. one can imagine that his inability to put the hitter away after getting two quick strikes on him haunted fe rod all winter and propelled the fear of failure to a too-prominent place in his mind. then again, it may simply be that dusty baker sucked all the life out of his arm. he sent rodriguez to the mound 76 times in 2000, 80 times in 2001, and 71 times in 2002; in the '02 postseason he waved felix in 13 times in the giants' 17 games, including each of the 1st six world series contests. rodriguez had pitched very well in the playoffs before facing spiezio -- 13 innings, 7 hits, 3 runs (2.08 era). he did not pitch in game 7.

rodriguez's list of comparable pitchers at baseball-reference.com includes a bunch of players (scott sullivan, paul shuey, antonio osuna, jay powell, alan mills, xavier hernandez) who burned out at 32 or 33; fe rod is 33 this year . . . . the list does include two players (jeff nelson, doug bair) who pitched at least to age 40. rodriguez's ZIPS projection at baseball think factory: 4.83 era, 1.44 whip, 1.0 hr per 9 innings. . . . . i would say he's a poor man's octavio dotel, except he's likely to cost about as much (1 yr / $2m) as dotel did.