Simplifying repertoire key for Batista

In going with Miguel Batista as their closer, the Blue Jays felt he was the best man for the job, all things considered.

Originally Published: April 25, 2005
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

Some teams – such as the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers – buy their closers on the free agent market. Some – such as the Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees – develop their own from within. And some, for reasons of desperation or financial limitations, happen upon their closers almost by accident.

So it is with the Toronto Blue Jays and Miguel Batista.

Miguel Batista
Al Messerschmidt/WireImage.comMiguel Batista is 4-for-5 in save opportunities for the Blue Jays thus far.

A season ago, the Blue Jays tried two young pitchers – Justin Speier and Jason Frasor – in the role with mixed results. As an experiment, the Jays auditioned Batista in the role in the final week of the season.

This spring, they were prepared to go with Speier again when circumstances altered their plans. Lefty Gustavo Chacin showed he was ready to crack the starting rotation, freeing up Batista for full-time duty at the back end of the bullpen.

"We had five quality starters,'' explained general manager J.P. Ricciardi, "and we thought Miguel could [close]. He did it for us last September [converting all five save opportunities], and we know he can pitch back-to-back days without any problems.''

Without an obvious closer candidate of their own, the Blue Jays briefly considered pursuing free agent Troy Percival. But when the Tigers priced everybody else out of the market, the Jays were forced to look inward.

As they bid for Matt Clement – who eventually signed with Boston – they had in mind that Batista could be moved to the bullpen to make room. Instead, Chacin's showing in the spring led to the same internal shuffle.

"We couldn't afford to go get [a top-notch] closer,'' Ricciardi said, "and we haven't been able to fill it through other avenues. Unless you develop them or sign one as a free agent, they're not that easy to find. We don't have one in our system, but when you look around, most of the good closers in baseball were starters at one point.

"I think there's a closer in every system. You just have to find one.''

That was the philosophy in Oakland, too, where before landing in Toronto Ricciardi served as Billy Beane's top advisor. The A's went through a stretch when they changed closers on an almost yearly basis – going from Billy Taylor to Jason Isringhausen to Billy Koch to Keith Foulke to Octavio Dotel. In four of those seasons (2000-2003), the bullpen was good enough for the A's to reach the postseason.

"Sometimes,'' said Ricciardi, "it's just a matter of how creative you can be. You try to take the best arms available and make something out of them. I don't think there's an exact science to it.''

In many ways, Batista is the perfect candidate to convert. Notoriously durable – Batista routinely would long toss in the outfield a day after throwing more than 100 pitches in a start – he also had the reputation of losing his concentration over the course of his starts.

I think our guys know he'll take the ball and there's a definite confidence there. We're trying to figure out how to get 25 to 40 saves out there. We feel more comfortable with a guy like this than anyone else we have. It's the guy who's the best fit for us.
Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, on Miguel Batista

"It seems like he loses a little interest when he starts,'' noted catcher Gregg Zaun. "Miguel gets a little less creative when he closes.''

Manager John Gibbons observed that Batista was able to "simplify things'' in the September experiment.

Batista's repertoire was often too varied for his own good. He would throw as many as six different pitches as a starter, but often couldn't command them all.

"We're hoping this narrows down his choices,'' Gibbons said, "[and] that he'll just come into games and air it out.''

"He knows what's at stake,'' said Ricciardi. "It's easier for him to come in and use only a couple of pitches.''

In particular, the Jays are hoping the new assignment can sharpen Batista's cut fastball, which Zaun has compared favorably to the one thrown by the Yankees' Mariano Rivera.

So far, so good. Batista has converted four of five save chances, and also has a win along with a 3.12 ERA. The problem for the Blue Jays has been getting him late-inning leads to protect.

The Jays credit bullpen coach Bruce Walton with helping Batista handle the necessary mental adjustments and settling him into a routine.

It helps, too, to have an established pitcher ready to get the final three outs, especially for a predominantly young team like the Blue Jays.

"I think our guys know he'll take the ball and there's a definite confidence there,'' Ricciardi said. "We're trying to figure out how to get 25 to 40 saves out there. We feel more comfortable with a guy like this than anyone else we have. It's the guy who's the best fit for us.''

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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