Being a LOOGY can be a thankless job.
Just ask Toronto Blue Jays reliever Darren Oliver, who, over the past seven seasons, has become baseball's best left-handed, one-out guy (LOOGY).
Though signed primarily to stifle left-handed hitters in the seventh or eighth inning, the wily southpaw has gone above and beyond his job description several times this season. In fact, the veteran hurler has held right-handed hitters to a .157 batting average.
Despite excelling in his role, the 41-year-old Oliver, now in his 19th major-league campaign, has never been selected for an all-star game. And while much has been made about the all-star snub of teammate Edwin Encarnacion -- and rightfully so -- it would have been nice to see Oliver, with his career winding down, acknowledged for his finest big-league season.
So far in 2012, Oliver has posted a career-best 1.53 earned-run average and .92 WHIP (walk/hits per innings pitched). With these numbers, combined with the fact that his former Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington is at the helm of the American League all-star team, this seemed like Oliver's best -- and likely last -- opportunity to pitch in the Midsummer Classic.
The all-star game will take place at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET) and, barring an injury to a selected player, Jose Bautista will be the Blue Jays' sole representative at the festivities.
Don't get me wrong. It doesn't surprise me that Oliver wasn't selected. Middle relievers are seldom chosen for the all-star game and LOOGYs are even more frequently overlooked. The last two left-handed relievers chosen for the American League all-star team were Matt Thornton in 2010 and Mike Stanton in 2001.
All-star pitching staffs tend to be dominated by starting pitchers and closers. And with so many elite starters at their disposal, managers have little use for middle relievers.
Nevertheless, middle relievers and LOOGYs -- and those who shine in these specialties -- shouldn't be disregarded. A middle reliever may not influence a game as much as a starter who tosses six or seven innings, but they serve as an essential bridge to the closer and often record the most important outs in a game.
Unfortunately, most middle relievers fight the perception that they are either a failed starter or not good enough to be a closer.
Over the years, baseball pundits have had difficulty measuring the effectiveness of middle relievers. Saves, overrated as they are, are often used to evaluate a closer's performance, but it wasn't until relatively recently that "holds" -- a statistic documenting how many leads a pitcher holds throughout the season -- were introduced for middle relievers. But critics have argued that holds are not an accurate gauge of a reliever-s success. For example, if a pitcher enters a contest with a six-run lead and leaves with a one-run lead, he is still credited with a hold.
The holds stat was a start in acknowledging the value of middle relievers who do their job, despite the fact that recording three outs with a three-run lead in the ninth inning is still more celebrated than securing crucial outs with a one-run lead in the seventh. A middle reliever, or a LOOGY like Oliver, is often brought into games to bail the starter out of a jam with runners on base, while most modern-day closers enjoy the luxury of starting an inning fresh.
To illustrate, Oliver has inherited eight base runners from previous pitchers so far this season and has only allowed two of them to score. Rangers closer Joe Nathan, selected for the all-star game, has only had to deal with one inherited runner this season. Similarly, Orioles closer Jim Johnson, also headed to the Midsummer Classic, has only pitched with two inherited runners on base and he allowed both of them to score.
Anyone who has followed the Blue Jays this season will attest to the fact that, on a staff that has been decimated by injuries and incompetence, Oliver has been the club's most reliable reliever. And the veteran southpaw has been at his best in clutch situations. Batters are just 3-for-19 off him with runners in scoring position and 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position with two outs. He has also held hitters to a .107 batting average (3-28) when pitching in tie games.
When all-star teams are assembled, debates about who should and should not have been selected are inevitable. A good argument could be made that Oliver has been better than Oakland A's reliever Ryan Cook, who's headed to Kansas City next week. Cook has a higher WHIP (.94) than Oliver and has allowed 36.4 per cent of inherited runners to score. But all-star game rules stipulate that there must be a player from each team at the event and Oakland needed a representative.
Oliver is also as all-star worthy as Royals closer Jonathan Broxton, who, along with Yu Darvish, Jake Peavy, Jason Hammel and Ernesto Frieri, is being considered for the American League all-star final vote. Broxton owns 20 saves this season, but he has allowed almost half a baserunner more per inning than Oliver. Fans have until Thursday at 4 p.m. ET to vote for one of these hurlers for the final roster spot.
Admittedly, adding Oliver to the all-star roster might be a bit of stretch. But in a season where the Jays' pitching staff has been in constant tumult, the 41-year-old LOOGY, in his 19th big-league campaign and with career end in sight, has quietly put together all-star numbers.
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