Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Precarious Life of the Lefty Reliever

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Yankee lefty specialist Boone Logan has the kind of job security that would make most of us jealous. That's because his bosses say so few pitchers can do what he does.

To counter the powerful left-handed hitters in the Boston lineup, the Yankees signed left-handed reliever Pedro Feliciano in the winter for two years and $8 million. But now Feliciano is out for perhaps the entire season with an ailing shoulder. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman would like to replace him, but says there are no good replacements to be found, leaving Logan as the lone lefty in the Yankee bullpen.

[NYLEFTIES]European Pressphoto Agency

With Pedro Feliciano out, Boone Logan, above in the 2010 ALCS, is the lone lefty in the Yankee bullpen.

"Yeah, I'll look,'' Cashman said, "but I'm not going to find too easily."

But why?

With fewer left-handers in the population, pitching-wise and baseball-wise, it makes sense that premier lefties who can handle right-handed and left-handed hitters would be snatched up quickly, as Scott Downs and Brian Fuentes were this winter. Yet why are there so few good lefty specialists, when their sole job is to get out lefty hitters?

"We've always been hard to find—the good ones," said Logan, who held lefties to a .190 batting average last season, but can be prone to periods of ineffectiveness.

Part of the problem is that no team trains specialists, known as LOOGYs (Lefty One Out Guys). Instead, they are created through a confluence of circumstances, where the primary ingredient is often failure.

"Really, guys aren't given that much of an opportunity just to be lefty-lefty guys," said Atlanta Braves lefty George Sherrill. "Teams are more looking for full-inning guys.''

Usually, lefty specialists come up through the minors able to get batters out from both sides of the plate. When they reach the majors, they find that the right-handed hitters they could beat in the minors are now beating them. But they can still dominate left-handers.

To stick in the majors, they specialize. Sometimes, pitchers change their deliveries, dropping their arm angle to give more of a sidearm look. This makes them more susceptible to righties, but better against lefties.

The way lefty specialists are used also means that it's rare to see a young one break into the majors. Specialists are, by definition, brought in to face only the best lefty bats on the opposing teams, usually in big situations. That can be a tough way to introduce a young pitcher to the majors, said veteran Mets lefty Tim Byrdak.

[NYLEFTIES]Associated Press

Mets lefty specialist Tim Byrdak at work in spring training.

Their ranks are winnowed down by success, as well. If a pitcher succeeds at getting lefties out, his manager will usually try to squeeze a few righty batters out of him.

In that sense, being a good LOOGY is like being a good pinch-hitter: If you really are good enough, you'll graduate to a bigger job—which is what they all want anyway. The specialists seem to have a chip on their shoulders—they know their role is what keeps them in the majors, but it's tough on the ego to come in for one batter, succeed, and then be yanked.

"You get the guy out and then they come get you and it's like, well, why can't I face the next guy?" Sherrill said. There's a tangible sense that these pitchers fear being pigeonholed as specialists.

Byrdak said that the title of lefty specialist actually hurt him this winter as he tried to sign a new contract. Because he had been used that way in Houston, other teams were wary of him, believing he might only be suited for a specialized role—despite pitching 61.1 innings in a broader role in 2009.

"I got labeled...and nobody wants to pay money for a guy who in their mind can only come in there and get one guy out," Byrdak said.

Most teams don't. The Yankees do. In recent years, they have committed significant money to questionable lefty relievers—Feliciano joins fellow $4 million lefty specialist Damaso Marte on the Yankee books and on the disabled list.

To commit that kind of money and multiple years to relievers goes against the philosophies Cashman and other GMs normally espouse. Yet Cashman ignores that when it comes to lefties.

"The problem with that is that left-handers aren't as plentiful," Cashman said. "You look at our system, and you have Manny Banuelos coming, but other than that, it's thin.''

The Yankees believe in the value of the best lefty specialists come playoff time. So Logan soldiers on for the Yankees, told that he's essential in his role, but like all specialists, wanting more.

"I'd love to have my own inning one day. But right now, I've got to prove it still, and they need a lefty guy to get lefties out," Logan said. "So that's what I do."

—Brian Costa contributed to this article.

Powered By | Full Text RSS Feed | Amazon Plugin | Hud Settlement Statement

View the original article here


Post a Comment