If Sale's not starting, then Foulke him like it's 1999

As James at White Sox Observer pointed out this weekend, Ozzie Guillen's gradual elimination of Chris Sale's starting chances stayed on course during his appearance on The Score's "White Sox Weekly." While telling Chris Rongey he didn't expect Jake Peavy to be ready for Opening Day, Guillen said that he was considering skipping the fifth starter as often as possible until Peavy returned.

So, you can pretty much guess what Guillen has in mind. At this point, it would take a disastrous set of circumstances before Sale could shake Guillen and Kenny Williams, Harrison Ford-style, until somebody gives him back his career.

For those of us concerned with extracting the most value out of his immensely gifted left arm, we're left to retreat one fort back and hope he doesn't get stuck in the closer role.

Mark Gonzales laid out the five most important spring storylines, and the ninth inning took the second spot:

Sale will get a better chance to secure the closer role if the Sox opt for a four-man rotation early in the season. Sale converted all four save chances and held opponents to a .185 batting average.

Left-hander Matt Thornton would like to close, but he became an American League All-Star based largely on his seventh and eighth-inning dominance. Jesse Crain was part of a Twins bullpen that unified nicely after Joe Nathan suffered a season-ending elbow injury in spring training.

"Our strength is that we have good guys who can handle any situation at any time," pitching coach Don Cooper said.

Spring training will be the perfect time to validate those claims.

I've spent many, many words talking about the absurd amount of attention closers receive, compared to the difference they actually make. The arguments I've made can be used both for 1) not paying a proven closer, and 2) keeping the best reliever out of the role.

A quick summary of previous arguments:

  1. Every closer is made, not born.
  2. Most games are won before the ninth inning.
  3. The Twins were just as good in the ninth inning with Jon Rauch as they were with Joe Nathan.
  4. In 2010, Matt Thornton went 8-for-8 in save situations where he was actually expected to finish the game.
  5. The 2005 White Sox won the World Series with their third closer of the season.

But here's another fun one to talk about.

Trivia question: According to WAR, in which year was Keith Foulke the most valuable?

It wasn't when he racked up 42 saves for the White Sox in 2001 (3.7 bWAR). It wasn't when he led the league by closing out 43 games for Oakland in 2003 (3.7 bWAR). Nor was it the following year, when he ended up flipping the ball to Doug Mientkiewicz to reverse Boston's curse in 2004 (3.4).

No, the most valuable season came in 1999, when he contributed 4.1 bWAR and finished 10th in the Cy Young voting.

He saved nine games.

The 1999 season is an easy one to forget, because the Sox only won 75 games. The starters had a cumulative ERA of 5.25, and Mike Sirotka was the only one with an ERA below 5.00. Given the short starts, Foulke was pressed into a lot of extended relief outings, and this is what he gave the Sox:

Year W L ERA G SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP WP ERA+ WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
1999 3 3 2.22 67 9 105.1 72 28 26 11 21 4 123 3 1 222 0.883 6.2 0.9 1.8 10.5 5.86

 

Look at the scant number of hits (in case you're wondering: .188/.235/.320 against)! Look at that WHIP! Look at the strikeout-to-walk ratio! And look at how he finished the season, even with that workload! And Foulke stranded 20 of 23 runners. He was great in just about every situation.

By standards of stuff and results, Foulke should have been the closer. But imagine if Jerry Manuel saved him for the ninth. That would mean that Bob Howry, Bill Simas, Bryan Ward and Carlos Castillo would have to pick up Foulke's innings. All those pitchers had WHIPs at least half a baserunner higher than Foulke's, and that can make a big difference over a bunch of small sample sizes.

This is an extreme example, given the disparity between Foulke's value and the help provided by the rest of the pitching staff. Matt Thornton may turn out to be better than Sale over a full season, and Jesse Crain is no slouch, either. And if the rotation can get games into the seventh and eighth innings on a regular basis, no one reliever will need to carry that burden.

However, Manuel's unusually aggressive usage of Foulke does illustrate the value of advancing a game with zeroes, even if they come in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings instead of the ninth (1999 was also Foulke's best year according to WPA/LI). Foulke did an amazing job of allowing the Sox to win games, and he would have been far less useful if reserved for traditional save situations.

And if Sale's as good as Guillen thinks he is, then the 1999 version of Foulke could prove to be an apt comparison. The Sox should save Sale and Matt Thornton for a game's breaking point, and often times, it doesn't result in a save.

Postscript: If Guillen decides he needs a closer (sigh), Foulke isn't a bad guy to point to, either. He had 12 career saves before Manuel pressed him into full-time duty in May of the 2000 season. He succeeded in 34 of 38 true save situations on the year. In fact, in the Sox's five playoff appearances in the closer era, 2008 was the only time they had their preseason pick for proven closer earning saves at the end of the year. Looking at it that way, maybe it's great that the ninth inning is up in the air.

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