The Old Man and the Z

He was an old man who pitched alone on a mound in the Major Leagues and he had gone sixty-nine games without looking like himself. In the first twenty-four games results had been with him. But after fifty days without a hold the team’s front office had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the team had gone at their orders in another direction which threw several good relievers the first week.

The old man was Scott Atchison, and this is the baseball equivalent of Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea, in the event that this reference went over your head. It would have been just as relevant to link to another Hemingway work, A Farewell to Arms.

A lot of things went wrong for the old man on his trip and the same could be said for the Indians bullpen in 2015. While some of the relievers who struggled initially during the recently completed season eventually found their way, Atchison and his veteran teammate Marc Rzepczynski were shells of their former selves.

For Atchison, his struggles may have led to the sudden end of his revived career at the age of 39. For Rzepczynski, it led to his trade to San Diego at the trade deadline and left the Indians with a notable southpaw void in their bullpen in the last two months of the season and on the roster for the future.

Atchison may have been the bigger surprise, especially after he found himself after years of bouncing around the league doing yeoman’s work. His success to some may have been a surprise after being a 49th round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in 1998, four years to the day that the club drafted him out of high school in the 36th round. He debuted with the Mariners in 2004 and spent two seasons with the club, posting a 2-3 record in 31 relief appearances with a 4.10 ERA. His strikeout rate was healthy, but so too was his WHIP in a negative fashion and he would be granted free agent status following the 2006 season.

He joined the San Francisco Giants for the 2007 season, appearing in 22 games with a 4.11 ERA. His strikeout rate dropped, but so did his walk rate. His WHIP did not, however, and after career numbers quite similar to those in Seattle, he was a free agent again.

He signed with the Boston Red Sox nine days later, but within two weeks was cut loose by the club. He headed overseas, playing two seasons with the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League. He was 7-6 in his first season with the club, making 12 starts and 42 total appearances. The next season, he appeared 75 times and posted a 5-3 record with a 1.70 ERA. Not surprisingly, an opportunity in the Majors appeared again as Terry Francona’s Red Sox brought him back.

He appeared in 102 games for the Red Sox over the next three years, including his first two with Francona at the helm. In his lone season there without Tito, he was 2-1 with a 1.58 ERA in 42 games and would join the New York Mets in the offseason. He was 3-3 in 50 games with a 4.37 ERA as a Met before joining the Indians, where he was a perfect 6-0 with a 2.75 ERA in a career-high 70 games and 72 innings pitched for Cleveland in 2014, saving a pair of games and earning holds in 14 others.

This season, he lost it, just as the old man Santiago lost his marlin on his return from the seas – bit by bit, chunk by chunk, until only a skeleton of what once was remained.

Atchison was 1-1 this season with a 6.86 ERA. After seven fairly routine outings to start the year, with a pair of holds to his credit, he gave up five runs in back to back outings, earning a blown save and loss in the latter. He would surrender runs in four of ten outings in May and gave up five runs over four innings of four appearances in June after returning from the disabled list, where he had spent time dealing with a sprained ankle. Time, however, was not on his side, leading to a tough decision for Francona in designating the elder statesman for assignment on June 23rd.

“It was just all the off-speed [stuff] – the cutter, breaking ball. He couldn’t get it down where he wanted to. And, every time he left it up, it seemed like they hit it,” Francona shared after word of Atchison’s release. “There wasn’t a lot of room for error. As soon as he made a mistake, they hit it. Even when he was around the plate, like when he worked ahead, he was having a tough time finishing hitters off.”

Atchison signed a minor league deal with the Minnesota Twins on July 2nd. He appeared in four games for Double-A Chattanooga, allowing one run on four hits with two strikeouts over five innings. He requested his release less than two weeks later after he was not promoted to the Major League club.

Rzepczynski - Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer
Rzepczynski – Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

Rzepczynski was a different dilemma for Francona.

A former starter turned reliever, “Scrabble” had become a viable lefty-one-out-guy in the Indians bullpen after they acquired him at the 2013 trade deadline from the St. Louis Cardinals.

Rzepczynski started his career in Toronto and debuted as a starter for the club in 2009 as a 23-year-old. He started eleven games that season and another 12 (with two relief appearances) the following season before the club looked at him as a reliever. He relocated midway through the 2011 season to St. Louis and earned a trip to the World Series as his Cardinals knocked off the Texas Rangers for the title. He was heavily used, appearing in three games of the NLDS, five more in the NLCS, and four in the Series.

He came to Cleveland at the deadline in 2013 for minor league infielder Juan Herrera. He had appeared in just eleven games for the Cardinals and had spent nearly three months at Triple-A before a brief recall that preceded the Indians pulling the trigger on the trade. With regular opportunities and a new place to shine, he appeared in 27 games, logging 20 1/3 innings in relief while posting a stellar 0.89 ERA on the Wild Card Tribe team.

Last season, he appeared in a career-high 73 games, the third time in six big league seasons he toppled the 70 plateau. He earned his first (and only) MLB save and was dealt three losses, but earned a respectable 2.74 ERA. He had been and was going to continue to be Francona’s go-to lefty out of the ‘pen.

That did not go as planned.

He earned three holds in ten April appearances, but was also tagged for six runs (four earned) in the month for a 6.75 ERA. He threw in 15 May games and was much more sharp, posting a 1.17 ERA for the month, but two of the three runs he allowed (just one earned) led to blown saves and losses. Despite the nice ERA number, opposing hitters had hit .286 in the month off of him and he had four separate outings that he could not retire a batter.

The scales tipped the opposite way in June. He worked in eleven games, but in just three and two-thirds innings. He struck out seven of 19 batters faced and limited the opposition to a .200 average, but two of the seven batters who reached safely against him came around to score, leading to a 4.91 ERA for the month. He appeared in just nine games in July, allowing four runs (three earned) on seven hits with two walks for a .389 batting average against, a 2.45 WHIP, and a 7.36 ERA.

His biggest issues were clearly with the same left-handed hitters he was called upon primarily to shut down. In his better seasons in 2011, 2013, and 2014, he limited lefties with strikeout-to-walk rates of 3.70 and better while holding them with batting averages below the .180 mark. He walked just one lefty in 62 chances in 2013.

In 2015, lefties hit .255 off of him for the season. While his SO/W rate was at 3.75 and still above his career average, he walked eight batters in key lefty-lefty matchups in 108 plate appearances.

When LOOGYs cannot get lefties out, their use to a club becomes increasingly minimal.

He was traded on July 31st just before the expiration of the trade deadline for unproven outfielder Abraham Almonte. While combined with the injury to left-handed reliever Nick Hagadone, the trade left the Indians notably devoid of a solid lefty out of the bullpen, but Almonte played well down the stretch when replacing Michael Bourn after his trade to the Atlanta Braves in early August.

Rzepczynski pitched in 27 games for the Padres, logging just 14 2/3 innings while allowing a .309 batting average and a 7.36 ERA.

Francona and his coaching staff were sharks in turning both Atchison and Rzepczynski into solid contributors in the bullpen. They did similar in picking up viable pieces in Jeff Manship and Ryan Webb for the 2015 season. The front office will need to continue the trend of reeling in another big catch hidden in the chum and fish bait in replenishing the lost chunks of their relief corps.

Photo: Rick Osentoski/USA Today (Atchison)

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