For O's Ray, youth may serve well as a closer

February 19, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

The fan's intuition says few scenarios could be more tense than the ninth inning of a tight ballgame. That's when you want the known commodity -- that grizzled chap with the Fu Manchu -- striding out of your club's bullpen to the peels of a gnashing rock anthem.

But when the Orioles face that crucible this season, they'll turn to fresh-faced, second-year man Chris Ray to extricate them.

It's a plan that isn't as loony as one might think, according to baseball history. Plenty of rookies and second-year pitchers have thrived as closers.

In 1986, Todd Worrell stepped in for defending the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals and saved 36 games to win Rookie of the Year.

The Atlanta Braves under Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone made a regular practice of handing their closing job to largely untested pitchers. Greg McMichael, Kerry Ligtenberg and John Rocker all thrived in the role as Atlanta posted league-best ERAs season after season.

The Oakland Athletics' Huston Street was American League Rookie of the Year last season, compiling a 1.72 ERA and converting 23 of 27 save chances.

Orioles fans got to watch one of the great rookie closers of all time in Gregg Olson. "The Otter" left Auburn in 1988 and by the next season was a lynch pin in the Orioles' surprise pennant chase.

He delivered a signature moment that season when he whiffed Oakland bashers Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Dave Parker in succession. Olson's curve floated to the plate but seemed to disappear just as their violent cuts unwound.

He produced four more fine seasons for the club before injuries derailed him.

Mazzone, now the Orioles' pitching coach, said he puts little stock in the idea that a young pitcher can't close.

"The philosophy on it is to not try to make it such a big deal," he said. "If you have pitches that you can make, then you only have to get three outs. Let's not make it a big deal."

Scouts believe Ray has the talent to produce such rapid success.

"Ray has the stuff and attitude to be a closer," Baseball America said in rating him the team's fifth-best prospect. "His heavy fastball sits in the mid-90s and touches 96-97 with good movement."

Ray throws a slider and a split-finger fastball to complete a classic power repertoire.

Statistical analysts also like him.

Nate Silver's PECOTA forecasting system takes a player's last three seasons and searches for similar stretches in the careers of every major league player since World War II. It then projects a player's future based on the experiences of like players from the past.

PECOTA says Ray will make a sound, if not dominant, closer over the next five years, though the top player on his comparable list is -- egads! -- Jorge Julio.

"There's not a big chance that he'll have a Huston Street-type season," said Silver, who studied economics at the University of Chicago. "But there are no real red flags for him either."

Silver's forecasting system doesn't directly account for the mental strain associated with closing games. But he believes some pitchers who are otherwise effective can't handle it.

Take new Oriole LaTroy Hawkins, who thrived in setup roles but struggled to hold the closer's job with the Chicago Cubs. Former Oriole Arthur Rhodes was another who seemed more comfortable as a supporting player.

Ray's career has followed a typical track so far. He began as a starter in the minors, broke into the big leagues as a setup man and will be given his first shot to close in his second season at age 24. As a starter, he showed signs of talent but struggled with command. As a reliever, he improved his strikeout rate and stopped walking batters.

This is remarkably similar to the paths followed by many of the great closers, from Rollie Fingers to Lee Smith to Trevor Hoffman. Most of those elite relievers excelled at the job from Day One.

Which is not to suggest that Ray will pitch as well as them, only that there's little evidence that he'll be ruined by getting the job at his age and experience level.

Fingers, only the second reliever elected to the Hall of Fame, garnered his first save at age 22, during his first full season in the big leagues.

He said that if a youngster seemed to have a durable arm and a resilient mind, he wouldn't hesitate to throw him in as a closer.

"I found it much easier," he said. "I always hated the idea of going in as a starter, getting knocked out after the second or third inning and then waiting four days to get knocked out after the second or third again."

Fingers said he quickly realized his arm could endure pitching five or six days in a row. He also had no problem forgetting about a bad performance.

"If you're a pitcher in the big leagues, you're not going to win every game or save every game," he said. "That's the thing about being up there. You have to forget about the previous day."

Hawkins agreed.

"The difference being a closer is if you lose a game everybody knows," said the veteran reliever, who is expected to set up Ray this season. "They don't know the first eight innings, they only remember the last inning."

"You've got to be able to forget from one night to the next, because you might be in the same situation the next night, so you've got to be able to forget."

A little craziness never hurts, Fingers said.

"Who would enjoy coming in to the game in the ninth, up or down a run?" he said. "You've got to be nuts."

That craziness or ability to forget about yesterday is usually inherent more than learned, Fingers said. "Most of us, me, Sparky Lyle, [Goose] Gossage, were that way before we were ever relief pitchers."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Dan Connolly and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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