The Fernando Rodney Experience has already stirred a debate, barely a week into the season, about whether the Mariners should switch closers.
Nothing sucks the soul out of a baseball team — or I should say, a fan base — quicker than a ninth-inning closer meltdown.
Except two of them, I guess.
But nothing ruins the natural rhythm and pace of a baseball season more than knee-jerk overreaction. If you jettisoned every player who had a horrid game or two, well, you’d run out of players. And you’d keep yourself from reaping the benefits when the player broke through, which is what good players do.
Which brings us, of course, to the Fernando Rodney Experience, and the fine line between riding out the storm and cutting your losses (a phrase that Rodney detractors would take quite literally).
It’s not surprising there was a communal freakout on Tuesday night when Rodney blew a 5-4 lead against the Dodgers, after blowing a 7-3 lead against the A’s two games earlier. The Mariners eventually pulled out that previous game in extra innings; not so on Tuesday, a 6-5 loss that preceded another dispiriting clunker on Wednesday.
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Foremost among the variety of concerns surrounding the Mariners’ rocky start, there’s now a raging existential debate, barely a week into the season, about whether or not it’s time already to change closers.
Manager Lloyd McClendon comes from the “riding out the storm” school, and he’s already pushing back, with visible irritation, against those who want to yank Rodney from his role.
“Everybody flies off the handle when a guy blows a game, but I can’t do that,’’ he said Sunday, after Rodney had given up four runs in the ninth to let the A’s tie the score. “Somebody has to keep their head. I choose to keep mine.”
I happen to agree with that stance … up to a point. And it’s a point that hasn’t been reached yet. But it’s in plain sight.
While they were in the process of missing the playoffs by one game last year, the Mariners proved the value of a single victory, and conversely, the damage of a single loss. I think that’s a big part of the reason fans are feeling these late-game breakdowns so keenly. And it’s why the leash on Rodney needs to be shorter than McClendon may intend.
All those who fired their shoe at the TV, or fired off vitriolic tweets as soon as Howie Kendrick’s single hit the turf on Tuesday, may not see this the same way; but Rodney has earned the right to work out of this early-season malaise. Particularly in light of the two non-dramatic saves with which he started this season.
Rodney earned it with a 2014 season that was exceptional. There’s this mythology that Rodney last year was a constant roller coaster of disaster and triumph. Actually, he blew a mere three saves out 51 attempts, the second-highest percentage in the American League and third-highest in the majors.
Yes, Rodney typically made you sweat a little in the process. He allowed at least one base runner in 47 of 69 appearances, including 34 of his 51 save chances. But that’s what the Fernando Rodney Experience is all about. Far more often than not, Rodney made it work out in the end.
But that said, every win opportunity is too precious to just let a struggling closer work out his problems indefinitely. Rodney is 38 years old, and throughout his career has interspersed seasons of unmitigated brilliance (37 of 38 saves in 2009, a major-league record 0.60 ERA in 2012) with seasons of maddening inconsistency.
I’ve never bought that old line, supposedly from Albert Einstein, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That doesn’t seem very scientifically sound to me. But it could be the textbook definition of stubbornness, which can be damaging to a baseball team when taken to the extreme.
McClendon is loyal to a fault, which is part of what makes him a good manager. But there comes a time when digging in one’s heels is counterproductive – and the volatility of the closer’s job is where that notion is tested most often for a manager.
Already this year, the Blue Jays removed Brett Cecil as their closer after just two rocky games, installing rookie Miguel Castro. Last year, the A’s pulled Jim Johnson – whom they were paying $10 million – as their closer after just five games and replaced him with Sean Doolittle, who made the All-Star team.
McClendon has some options at his disposal. Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen (currently on the disabled list) have closing experience, and youngster Carson Smith has closer’s stuff. So, it seemed last year, did Dominic Leone.
Rodney has shown he has closer’s stuff, and a closer’s mentality. With his tilted hat and arrow-shooting celebration, he’s one of the most compelling figures on the team. And now he’s become the most polarizing.
The best solution for the Mariners would be for Rodney to work himself out of his troubles, and do so by the time his next save opportunity arrives. If not, McClendon’s sense of loyalty, and fans’ sanity, will be severely tested.
A baseball season has only so much soul to go around.