Since the age of 14, my back has always been a source of pain. Sometimes manageable, sometimes crippling to the point where the only way I can exit an automobile after driving is to lift my left leg out of the vehicle with both hands, then the other leg in the same fashion, then pull myself out of the vehicle while using my legs and back as little as possible.
I’m hardly alone. Surely many of you reading know what it’s like to have a similar injury that lingers quietly, then changes the quality of your life from any of a number of trivial tasks. Coughing. Picking up my dog (who weighs all of 7.5 lb). Leaning forward ever so slightly to place the Brita filter back in the refrigerator. Once the spasms start, that’s it — the next 1-10 days are going to be different, in a very bad way.
Another problem with back flare-ups is you move in a completely different way afterward, trying to compensate for the sharp pain resonating from your lower back to your hip, knee, feet, wherever.
Brian Wilson suffered some back pain early on this spring, and as it often does when afflicting a large man who generates a large degree of torque with every pitch, reports of said pain caused concern. He regained his health relatively quickly and pitched well thus far in games that don’t matter … until he strained his left oblique a couple days ago.
It’s not a tear, and Wilson is hardly one of those pitchers you’d consider as fragile and finicky as a 1980’s Jaguar. But this all started with a back injury, and suddenly Wilson’s oblique starts barking for the first time since his 2006 debut. It’s hard to say Wilson’s the most irreplaceable player on the San Francisco Giants, since he calls Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Buster Posey teammates. However, his skill set is the most unique on the team, and he’s been the full-time closer since the beginning of the 2008 season. And now, there’s a significant chance the Giants will be without their best closer since Robb Nen for at least a few games, if not several times during the season if Wilson’s back either gives him pain or causes changes to his delivery that lead to recurring oblique injuries.
Wilson acts like a superhero whose training regimen and overall beardness will cause this oblique injury to become an afterthought next week. But the Giants have to prepare for several games without Wilson this season, and they’ll probably have to curtail (or at least lessen) all those Wilson outings that start in the 8th inning or stretch into the 10th.
Bruce Bochy’s already thinking about all this because he gets paid a hefty sum to do just that, and he’s already tabbed Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo as the contenders for alternate closer. Here are their respective qualifications to handle the job.
Jeremy Affeldt (Career: 4.16 FIP, 70.6 LOB%, 1.46 WHIP, 22 saves, 15 blown saves)
A year ago, Affeldt would have been the overwhelming choice as secondary closer, after a 2009 where Affeldt blew his career norms out of the water with the help of a .250 BABIP and 65% GB%, both numbers far better than any other season Affeldt’s pitched and coincidentally giving Affeldt the reputation as a double-play inducing machine and a lucrative extension early in the 2010 season.
2010 was a year that was considered an unlucky fluke by those who’ve never paid attention to Affeldt while he was a Royal or a Red. He suffered a tough injury (a torn left oblique, actually), and the double play magic wasn’t there for the majority of the season, although all the bad will his regression-back-to-the-mean caused was erased by 2 perfect innings in relief of Jonathan Sanchez in Game 6 of the NLCS. His so-called disappointing effort in 2010 was bolstered in a negative fashion by a BABIP of .340 (while Affeldt’s WHIP went from 1.17 in 2009 to 1.60 in 2010, his BB/9 actually decreased slightly in 2010 from the year before, from 4.48 to 4.32).
While Affeldt has closer experience, it wasn’t necessarily good closer experience, and he hasn’t taken on the role on a full-time basis since 2004.
Sergio Romo (Career: 2.83 FIP, 74.8 LOB%, 0.96 WHIP, 2 saves, 4 blown saves)
Here’s where I’ll admit I was wrong. When Splashing Pumpkins brought up the question of who’d replace Wilson if he went down (and this was a few days before the oblique injury), my first thoughts were along the lines of the same type of non-statistical “eye-test” thinking that bloggers have spent the last five years pounding into submission.
Romo hardly looks like a closer. When he walked past me on media day, looking like any other 5’9″, 155 lb guy growing facial hair on a bet, it was like seeing an action star for the first time who looks huge on screen but is actually 5’6″ with incredibly short, muscle-packed limbs — can he really be that small? As a result, Romo not only loses the tale of the tape to most elite closers in almost every way, but he has a tough time doing another closer-like thing: throwing a fastball that tops out at 95 mph or faster. And in his first two postseason outings, he gave up 3 hits, a HR and 3 earned runs to the Braves, leading Bochy to shelve Romo until seven days later when Romo pitched a scoreless 8th in Game 2 of the NLCS, a game the Giants lost 6-1.
However, Romo’s numbers since joining reaching the Majors are so impressive, and the idea that guys are born to close games is so nonsensical, and there are so few other options that make sense (Santiago Casilla has the look and stuff of a closer but is fairly erratic; Guillermo Mota can’t be the closer if he’s on the bubble of making the team; Javier Lopez isn’t getting anyone out in Spring Training and hasn’t shown the ability to get right-handed hitters out with consistency throughout his career), Romo has to be the choice, doesn’t he? He at least deserves the opportunity to see if indeed he’s on of those guys who doesn’t have the supposed mental makeup to close, or if he’s a guy who had a couple bad outings to start the postseason portion of his career that should be taken for the small sample size they comprise.
What do you guys think? Would you rather have Romo in there since he’s been the Giants’ best non-Wilson reliever over the past two seasons, or Affeldt for his more extensive closing experience? Or would you rather see a guy like Casilla, Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, Mota or even Marc Kroon, who saved 99 games from 2007-09 in Japan? Because if Wilson’s back and oblique are a little tender entering the season, there’s a good chance Wilson will need replacing once or twice as 2011 rolls along.