The unsung life of middle relievers may go unnoticed by the casual fan.
But their teammates and coaches appreciate their valuable role.
Rangers manager Ron Washington isn’t ready to push for a year-end Middle Relief Man of the Year Award, but he’s certain that middle relief success is a requirement for any team with postseason aspirations.
“To me, sometimes, what they do saves the game right there,” he said. “Maybe the closer gets the save at the end, but the game was won and lost when those guys came in and shut it down. They don’t get the credit for it, but that’s where the game was won and lost.”
Just ask the 2013 world champion Boston Red Sox. Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow combined to pitch 128 innings with a combined ERA under 3.00 but were only a combined 10-6 with no saves. There is no Cy Young or Rolaids Relief Award coming their way, but there may be no title without them.
“It’s a different game today, and sometimes six innings is good enough [for a starter],” said Rangers middle reliever Jason Frasor, who had a 2.57 ERA in 49 innings a year ago. “You have to cover nine more outs and you’re matching up lefty-righty. You piece it all together. That’s the way it goes. I understand.
“At the end of the day, win or lose, people asked, who pitched? You hope the starter goes long, and if the starter goes long you’re usually just watching the game that day.”
Frasor is in his 11th season and has closed games before. Rangers left-hander Neal Cotts had a choice after starting four games his 2003 rookie season for the White Sox. Going into the ’04 season he chose the bullpen in the big leagues over starting the season in Triple A as a starter.
“Well, [the decision] was easy for me,” said Cotts, who got a taste of the big leagues as a rookie and wanted more. “I figured I could learn just as much up there. The whole mindset when I got up there is you’ll be a reliever and you can transition back to a starter eventually and it just never really happened. But I’m not mad about it. I wouldn’t take it back for what I went up there and did.”
At 36, Frasor is the second oldest player in the Rangers’ spring training clubhouse. He was the ace starter, of course, in high school and college. But he’s at peace in the pen.
“Yeah, but I wasn’t coming in and facing [David] Ortiz, [Derek] Jeter, and [Albert] Pujols and these guys,” Frasor said of his youthful starting days. “A lot of games are won and lost in the sixth, seventh and eighth inning. It’s an important job, but it’s a great job. The sixth, seventh, eighth innings ... that’s my gig.”
It’s a role he’s had for much of his professional career. Mopping up messes and tasked with escaping improbable jams.
“Sometimes you come in with no outs with a runner on third. You going to strand that guy, really? Tough to do, tough to do,” Frasor said.
Both Frasor and Cotts aren’t too concerned about the seemingly thankless nature of their roles. Their importance may be lost on some fans, but not on their teammates and manager.
“I don’t think we’re unsung at all when you’re part of a team,” said Cotts, who was 8-3 with an 1.11 ERA in 57 innings in 2013. “Maybe in terms of the stat line and in terms of numbers that people on the outside look at, maybe they don’t perceive it.”
Washington sure does.
“I think every team needs that,” he said. “You need guys that can come in and maybe shut innings off. Maybe they can give you another inning, help you get to the part of the bullpen that you want to get to. They don’t get the credit for it, but that’s where the game was won and lost.”
A middle reliever’s main priority, Frasor said, is to be aggressive and throw strikes.
“[The manager] wants to see strikes. You have to be aggressive,” he said. “The only way I sleep at night, good or bad results, is if I go right at them. If I’m hesitant and if I pitch unsure of myself, bad things happen. That’s when I can’t sleep. If I go at them, that hitter is getting paid a lot of money, too. I’m still upset, don’t get me wrong. But at least I went right at them.”