Jays 10, Royals 1: Lucky Number Seven

Saturday, October 01 2005 @ 08:00 AM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

Before last night's game I asked a few people around the press box the following question: "If you had known that Josh Towers would lead this rotation in wins, innings, quality starts, and ERA, what do you think Toronto's Won-Loss Record would be?" As I recollect, I don't think anyone anticipated even 70 wins...

Hey, who knew?

Josh Towers is heading into the 2006 season as Toronto's number two starter, and this is something he has achieved not by default, but on merit. The only thing that could change this is if the Blue Jays actually trade for a pitcher who is clearly better. Is there a free agent pitcher out there who was better than Towers in 2005? I can't think of one. What, you're thinking A.J. Burnett? I don't think so - I don't think 12-12 with a 3.44 ERA in a pitcher's park in the National League matches up to 13-12, 3.71 in a hitter's park in the DH League. Towers, by the way, is actually younger than Burnett as well, albeit by just 54 days.

That W-L record could easily be a little better. The Blue Jays bullpen has blown 20 save opportunities this season, in 19 different games. (No doubt we all remember that nightmare at Yankee Stadium in late August - the Felix Escalona Game - when the bullpen coughed up two different leads, resulting in two Blown Saves in one game.) The 20 Blown Saves is not really that bad a figure; it's not really as awful as would be suggested by the visceral and instant response each and every one of these missed opportunities inevitably provokes. It's not as many Blown Saves, for example, as have been posted by the peerless Mariano Rivera and his comrades in the mighty Yankees bullpen. (Rivera himself, needless to say, had very little to do with this!) But the Jays figure also represents fewer Blown Saves than were recorded by Atlanta's bullpen, and Philadelphia's.

The team with the fewest blown saves is Pittsburgh, because... well, they don't have all that many leads to protect; the teams that have seen their bullpens reject the most leads handed to them are San Francisco (27), Colorado (26), and Tampa Bay (26).

How often has each Toronto starter been betrayed by the relief corps behind him?

First of all, it's not always the starter. The pen has Blown Saves four times when a reliever was in line for a victory: twice the failure came in non-support of Pete Walker, and twice when Justin Speier was all set to collect a win (although on one of those occasions - yes, the Felix Escalona Game - Speier himself had already surrendered the lead entrusted to him by the starter.)

The pen has actually blown three games when Pete Walker was the pitcher of record, but Walker had come out of the pen on just two of those occasions. One of them, of course, was Roy Halladay's last (sob, sob) start of 2005. Doc left that game with a lead, but had not pitched the requisite five innings. The next man in, Jason Frasor, gave up a couple of runs to allow Texas to close to within a run. Walker then came in to work a couple of scoreless innings. If the Jays had held on, the official scorer's judgement would most likely have awarded Walker the victory. But I digress....

As for the starters: the bullpen was unable to preserve a potential win one time apiece for each of the following starters: Roy Halladay, Dave Bush, Ted Lilly, Pete Walker, and Dustin McGowan. They've blown the lead twice when Scott Downs was the starter, four times when Gustavo Chacin was the pitcher of record, and five times on behalf of Josh Towers.

Not that you can expect to hear Towers bitching about it. After the Felix Escalona Game, Towers tried to hog the blame for that debacle himself, claiming that he'd blown two leads. Hey, why not. He did give up a run to make a 2-0 game a 2-1 game. He regarded that as blowing the 2-0 lead. Nice try, Josh. We're still blaming that one on Miguel.

No bullpen holds onto every lead, but with a slightly better roll of the dice, Towers could quite easily have ended up with 16 wins this season.

Towers, as you may recall, got off to a very fine start this season. Justin Speier blew a save against Tampa in Towers' very first outing, but he won five of his next seven starts, and by mid-May was 5-1, 3.17. This seemed too good to be true, and perhaps it was. Towers struggled from that point on until right after the All-Star Break. He lost six of his seven starts before he won again. He went into the mid-season break with a 6-7, 4.51 log that seemed very much in line with his career numbers, and then got hammered in his first start after the break. His record at this point was now 6-8, 4.85, and surely none of us expected what was coming.

Over his final 14 starts, Towers went 7-4, 2.42. He pitched 104 innings, and allowed 101 hits, just 10 homers, 10 walks, and 28 earned runs. He reeled off an amazing 12 Quality Starts in a row, and 13 of 14 overall. Roy Halladay himself has never done that. Halladay has never even come close, not even in his Cy Young season. Doc ran off seven Quality Starts in a row earlier this year, and he also ran off seven straight back in 2002.

Even the one time Towers missed the Quality Start, which was just last Sunday against the Yankees, was actually a QS through the first six innings - he gave it up in the seventh, when Robinson Cano hit a two-run homer to put him behind 4-3.

Now there's no way Towers is really as good as he's been in the second half - it is my grim duty to point out that he struck out only 46 hitters in those 104 innings. That's just 4.0 Ks per 9 innings. He was clearly getting a lot of breaks on balls in play. Furthermore, he actually allowed 38 runs in those 14 starts - a whopping 10 of those runs were unearned, and if they'd all been earned, he would have had just 10 Quality Starts in the second half, and never more than three in a row. More balls in play are going to lead to more errors as well.

But Towers doesn't really need to be that good - no one really expects him to continue posting a Halladay-esque ERA. (Although I'm sure no one would object.) Furthermore, I do not think what Towers did in the second half was all luck. Not by a long shot.

Towers arrived in the major leagues with two things going for him, and not a whole lot else: 1) he could throw strikes at will, a skill surprisingly rare amongst young pitchers; 2) he was willing to throw strikes, and willing to challenge anyone. Anyone at all.

That's an old-fashioned style of pitching: this is how Catfish Hunter and Ferguson Jenkins pitched, it's how Robin Roberts pitched before them. It used to work very well - these types of pitchers give up lots of home runs, but they're always working ahead of the hitters, they get lots of first pitch outs, and because they don't give away free passes, they can get by allowing lots of home runs.

These guys - Hunter, Jenkins, Roberts - were also all very much flyball pitchers. I am still not sure if this style of pitching can actually work in the post 1994 era, with the smaller ball parks, and the bigger hitters, and everybody holding the bat down at the end and trying to hit home runs.

But Towers himself seems to have made a couple of adjustments. He was very much a flyball pitcher when he arrived in the majors, and all too often those flyballs flew right out of the park. He has gradually changed that part of his game over the years. Over his first 18 starts this season, Towers was getting more groundballs than flyballs - his GB/FB ratio was 52/48. But over the second half, he increased that ratio significantly - in his last 14 starts, his GB/FB ratio was 57/43. This is very important for a pitcher like Towers, who lets the other team put the ball in play. You don't hit home runs off groundballs, unless it's Carl Crawford swinging the bat.

I think Towers has also learned that discretion really can be the better part of valour, that he doesn't have to challenge everyone, that he doesn't have to just go "here it is, hit it if you can" every time he gets into a fix. I think this took him a bit of time because it involved an modification of his whole philosophy of pitching, and it also conflicts with his own extremely competitive temperament.

Towers can't always resist the competitive temptation, the temptation to go toe-to-toe with someone like David Ortiz when the game on the line. That's a situation when discretion is not merely the better part of valour, but also a consummation devoutly to be wished. But I think he's taken a real step forward. He's learned that there's actually a time and a place to nibble - and Towers is one of the very few pitchers in whom this tendency can actually be encouraged, precisely because he can throw strikes pretty much at will.

So let me close my last Game Report of 2005 by saying "Congratulations, Josh Towers."

You are about to become a millionaire.