July 08, 2008

Middle Relievers Need Love Too

When it comes to baseball's annual All-Star game, middle relievers often get overlooked. And I'm sick of it. With the Blue Jays sending only one player to New York - Doc, who else? - the question I'm left asking is: what about Scott Downs?

Middle relievers need love too, dammit!

Downs has been the model of consistency and efficiency for the Blue Jays. He put together a solid 2007, parlayed it into a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract (which some folks didn't like), and has come back in 2008 as advertised: one of the more reliable arms out of the bullpen.

What makes Downs so special is that, even though he's a southpaw, he's effective against both right-handed and left-handed batters. So far this season Downs has seen more action against righties, 23.2 innings, and held them to a .224 batting average. Against lefties, Downs has pitched 16.1 innings, and held them to an almost identical .226 batting average. For a manager, Downs is money.

Wait, I'm not done selling him. In 25 consecutive appearances from May 2 to June 29 - a remarkable 26 innings of work - Downs did not allow a single run. I know what you're thinking and, yes, that is the longest scoreless innings streak in baseball this year.

Take a look at Downs' numbers over at FanGraphs. I know it's not as cut and dry as I'm about to make it out to be, but his LOB% (left on base percentage) is a phenomenal 89.4%. The league average is just over 70%. Downs, more often than not, gets the job done, and leaves runners on in the process.

Based on his stats and stats alone - 38 games, 5 saves, 40 innings pitched, 33 hits allowed, 8 earned runs allowed, 17 walks, 36 strikeouts, an ERA of 1.80, a WHIP of 1.25, and an opponents batting average of .224 - I truly believe Downs is an all-star. Sure, starting pitchers and closers get all the glory, but middle relievers have a thankless job, and don't get the credit they deserve.

Still don't believe me? Fine. Check out how Downs matches up with Jonathan Papelbon, everyone's favourite Boston Red Sox douchebag closer. The numbers, except the saves of course, are comparable.

In my difficulty to understand why a guy like Downs always gets overlooked, I emailed the sage Tao of Stieb, who has his pulse on all things Blue Jays and baseball related. Lost, scared, and confused, I asked him for his thoughts on Downs and whether he was truly deserving of a spot on the American League squad. Here's what Tao had to say:

Sounds like an interesting take. We hadn't really considered it, but there's a good argument to make that Downs deserves a spot.

Middle relievers often get overlooked because the notion is that if they were that good, they'd actually be the closer. But the occasional guy (like Paul Quantrill in 2001) manages to sneak in if they've done something particularly heroic. Downs might have a chance if people recognize the fact that in addition to holding down the fort over 39.0 innings so far, he's also sewn up five saves along the way, helping to provide stability to a bullpen that has been without its primary closer (Ryan) and its putative set up man (Accardo) for chunks of the season.

It might help Downs was more of a K machine (his 36 in 39 innings is a very-good-not-great number) and he's given up a few too many walks (17) to really bowl the selectors over.

In all likelihood, Roy Halladay gets the call to the Bronx, but we'd love it if someone noticed the great work done by Downs this season.

There you have it. The Tao has spoken. He's right about Doc going to the Bronx, and how Downs' five saves shouldn't go unnoticed. They were big at the time, as the Jays were treading carefully with B.J. Ryan and Jeremy Accardo was busy sucking.

Alas, Downs isn't going to the midsummer classic (I really hate calling it that). But don't worry Tao, someone has noticed the great work by Downs this season. That someone is me.

Big ups to Tao of Stieb for taking the time to share his thoughts. If you don't read/subscribe to Tao of Stieb, do yourself a favour and check it out. It's one of the better Blue Jays blogs out there.

Oh, and congratulations to Roy Halladay on his fifth all-star appearance. No one works harder. No one is more deserving. Cheers, Doc.


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