Atchison, Aging Well, Will Again be Key Bullpen Arm in 2015
Craig Gifford | On 26, Mar 2015
The time-line for most Major League Baseball players typically involves being a rookie in their early 20s, hitting their stride in their mid 20s, having their peak years in their late 20s and early 30s, declining in their mid 30s and retiring – if lucky enough – in their late 30s.
Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Scott Atchison is far from your typical baseball player, at least where age is concerned.
Atchison, a 1998 49th round draft pick by the Mariners, was a long-shot to make it to the big leagues. Guys picked that far down in the yearly selections are far from guarantees to be anything more than career minor leaguers.
After years of toiling in the bush leagues, Atchison finally did reach the Majors with Seattle in 2004, at the age of 28. While not old, it certainly older than the average Major Leaguer debuts. Aside from a six-outings campaign in 2005, Atchison did not enjoy another extended run in MLB until 2007 with the San Francisco Giants. By the end of that season, at age 31, Atchison had but two seasons of more than 20 appearances to his credit.
Not garnering much attention by MLB clubs, Atchison went to Japan to pitch in 2008 and 2009. for the Hanshin Tigers. He was lights out in the second season overseas, with a 1.70 ERA in 75 games. That year with Tigers he made more appearances than in parts of three seasons combined as a big league player in the Unites States.
After the 2009 campaign, the Boston Red Sox and then manager Terry Francona reached out to Atchison and brought him back to the states. In 2010, and at 34, the right-hander finally arrived as a trusted Major League bullpen arm. He pitched in 43 games that year, but had a mediocre 4.50 ERA. In 2011, he only pitched in 17 games of what would be Francona’s finally season at the helm of the Red Sox, but had a career-best 3.26 ERA.
Then, at 36, when most players are slowing down, Atchison had a career year in Boston, posting a 1.58 ERA in 42 outings. After a 50-games campaign with the Mets in 2013, Francona looked Atchison’s way again, this time from Cleveland.
Last offseason, looking to add some veteran arms to young pitching staff, the Tribe invited Atchison to camp. He won a job on the Opening Day roster and had another very good season. In his first year with the Tribe, Atchison became one of Francona’s more trusted relievers. He pitched, by far, a career-high 70 games, covering 72 innings and had a 2.75 ERA.
On August 19, the Indians signed Atchison to a two-year extension. He will make $900,000 this season. The 2016 season is a team-option year for $1 million. If Atchison enjoys another good summer, next year, at 40, would be the first time the veteran hurler would see a seven-digit contract. To put that into perspective, lefty Marc Rzepczynski is making over a million at age 29. Closer Cody Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw are in their mid-20s and will soon be at that level.
While most baseball players are slowing down in their mid 30s, Atchison did not start seeing regular Major League work until he was 34. Now Atchison is nearing his 39th birthday, on March 29, and the Indians are counting him to be a big part of their bullpen.
Last year, the bullpen was a big part of a team that went into the season’s final weekend with Wild Card hopes still alive. Francona used the pen a lot. An American League record 538 appearances were made by Tribe relievers, covering 513 and 1/3 frames, third in the A.L. last year.
At this point, Atchison may arguably be Francona’s third most reliable reliever after Allen and Shaw. Rzepczynski is probably the number one guy out of the pen from the left side, though Francona has high hopes for Nick Hagadone after his long-awaited breakout season of 2014. Rookie sensation of a year ago, Kyle Crockett, could also see more pressure-packed situations as the 2015 campaign rolls along.
When camp breaks, Atchison will be on the Opening Day roster and looked as a key guy out of the pen. There are questions as to how he will hold up at 39 years old. That he did not pitch a lot early in his career may be helpful. Atchison does not have the wear and tear on his body compared to most athletes his age. Like a fine wine, he has also gotten better with age.
Atchison will not blow batters away with a blazing fastball. However, the veteran knows how to hit locations and make guys hit into outs. Atchison’s career arc is going quite the opposite of many a Major Leaguer. However, now that he has arrived as a trusted arm, he and the Indians are hoping Atchison will defy Father Time for at least a couple more seasons.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer