Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cruel And Unusual Punishment

Vin Mazzaro made Major League Baseball history last night. The unsavory, humiliating kind. The kind that makes you the answer to trivia questions you'd rather not be associated with for the rest of eternity.

Some day, in the hazy future, some baseball writers and analysts will be sitting in a press box or having drinks at a bar, and, out of boredom or just for fun, they'll try to stump each other with obscure snippets of baseball knowledge. The quirky statistics and half-remembered names will flow like so much overpriced beer from the concessions stand. And eventually, someone could, if they so chose, present the following query to his or her comrades of diamond documentation:

"Who is the only pitcher since 1900 (the inception of baseball's "modern" era) to give up 14 earned runs in less than three innings' work?"

The answer is the Kansas City Royals' Vin Mazzaro, on May 16, 2011, against the Cleveland Indians, whose final line from last night's outing looked like this:

2 1/3 IP, 11 H, 14 ER, 3 BB, 2 K. Oh yeah, and it took him a staggering 77 pitches to record 7 total outs. This single outing elevated his season ERA from a modest 4.50 to a mind-bending 22.74. It also bumped his career ERA up by OVER A FULL POINT. One night of work, and the angel of pitching statistical death descends on a young man's career.

Just rereading that last paragraph made me call time, step out of the box, and take a second to reel my jaw back up from the floor. I mean, the guy failed as completely as is possible for a big league pitcher, and we didn't even know this was possible until last night. The only thing he didn't do was get tagged with the loss, which went to Royals' starter Kyle Davies, whose first-inning departure due to injury prompted Mazzaro's early bullpen appearance.

Pretty much immediately after he was pulled, Mazzaro was given marching orders. To Omaha, and the AAA Storm Chasers. After an outing of that dubious magnitude, it's a somewhat understandable decision by the Royals' organization, but ... really? They just acquired this guy! At age 25, he's still getting his seas legs under him, and shoving him back down the ladder over one appearance, no matter how horrendous, seems a little reactionary and extremist, no? He's a young guy that never demonstrated elite potential as a prospect, but was apparently considered enough of an asset to pick up. If the Royals genuinely believe that his mechanics or mentality or whatever need work, well, that's their call, but you get the feeling that one day without his best stuff (OK, that's admittedly an understatement) resulted in an instantaneous demotion, which doesn't seem totally fair.

And that brings us to the larger point: what in the name of Les McCrabb (the last guy to give up 14 earned runs in relief) was Mazzaro still doing out on the mound after things started going terribly, precipitously south? When was the last time you saw a reliever left to his own devices after giving up 3 or 4 runs? (I can't help but think of Tampa Bay staying with Dan Wheeler as the Red Sox staged one of the great postseason game comebacks we've ever witnessed in the 2008 ALCS, but you don't see this kind of thing often.) Usually, when it becomes readily apparent that a pitcher is floundering, especially a reliever, he gets yanked To the clubhouse with thee! Ruminate upon thy failures of today and we'll suss it all out in a side session sometime soon. Not so for Vin Mazzaro. For reasons known only to himself, Royals' manager Ned Yost elected to leave the kid out there even as things spiraled irrevocably out of control. Conventional wisdom took a sabbatical, and a young man's fate was altered as a result.

At what point does "trial by fire" become baseball sadism? Mazzaro was blatantly, obviously, conspicuously not up for it last night. Fair enough. We knew this early on in the proceedings. He retired four of the first six batters he faced, but after that, the Indians might as well have been hitting off a tee. It was exactly how you'd visualize one of Crash Davis' last lines directed at Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham": "Listen, Nuke, these big league hitters are going to light you up like a pinball machine for a little while." The guy was getting tagged in every conceivable way. Repeatedly. At that point, doesn't logic dictate a pitching change? What, they had absolutely no other options in the Royals' bullpen? They couldn't have run one or four more guys out there to conduct damage control?

Apparently not. Mazzaro was inexplicably saddled with the unfair onus of completing a futile task despite a plethora of indicators that he wasn't the man for the job last night. The result was a pointedly unjust referendum on a career that was, if not exactly burgeoning, at least showing some signs of promise. No one can definitively say he was unfairly judged last night; the box score argues too strenuously to the contrary. But he should never have been left in the position to accumulate that box score in the first place.

Sadly, Vin Mazzaro will be immortalized as a statistical blip, an ignoble example, and an answer to a fluky trivia question, but the fault is not entirely his own. Every time he's reminded of this inglorious night in the future, he ought to curse Ned Yost, who patently failed to manage the game, and especially his bullpen, in any semblance of the word "correctly." Last night, a man's career arc may have been irrevocably altered for the worse by the stupidity of his superiors. The rest of us should be grateful that one bad day at the office (hopefully) does not hold similar implications.

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