Yesterday was an unfamiliar sight for A’s fans with Grant Balfour blowing only his second save this season in a 7-6 walk-off loss to Detroit. However, as soon as Torii Hunter’s homer landed in the seats, a litany of people flooded social media and absolutely trashed Balfour as if he just ran over a cancer patient’s dog while using an American flag to blow his nose. Some called for his demotion from closer, while others just insulted him. While it re-affirmed my belief that I would never use the internet if I were a professional athlete, it also made me wonder if those who are losing faith in Balfour are just being typical, overactive, childish fans.
Throughout all the ups and downs the A’s have endured this season, Balfour has been one of the few pillars of stability, yesterday’s result notwithstanding.
Despite putting runners on at the second highest clip of his career as a reliever with a 1.123 WHIP, Balfour has been able to work his way out of trouble with 33 saves in 35 opportunities. It’s been common for him to close out games by first allowing a runner or two on base. Yesterday was just one of those games where playing with fire finally resulted in a severe burn.
Balfour had a sparkling 1.76 ERA coming into the game but it jumped to 2.44 when it was over. While his standard ERA is still pretty nice, his 3.38 FIP (fielding independent pitching) and 3.93 tERA (basically an ERA estimator that takes all batted ball types into account) are much higher.
Basically what those intimidating acronyms and numbers mean that Balfour has been a decent pitcher this season, but certainly not the sub-2.00 ERA guy he seemingly was. It doesn’t help that his line drive percentage is at 24%, the highest during his time as a reliever, and his pitch values on his fastball and slider are both dramatically lower than last season.
However, there are signs that show Balfour is having a solid season and we don’t need to deport him back to crikey country.
At 35-years-old, Balfour still has an average speed of 93.4 MPH on his fastball, right in line with his career average of 93.3 and an increase over his last four seasons. As such, his swinging strike percentage has seen a huge jump (9.4% last year to 11.5% this year) and his K/9 rate is an impressive 10.45. In addition, his 2.82 SIERA (skill interactive ERA) is the second-lowest of his career (behind 2008).
Above all else, the most important number of all is the fact he’s only blown two saves. When it comes to a closer’s job that’s all that really matters. It doesn’t have to be pretty as long as the job gets done.
Despite some rough stretches, the talent is still definitely there. His fastball is still certainly fast enough, and he generates plenty of swings and misses. If he can do a better job of preventing solid contact on a more consistent basis he should be fine. You don’t close 44 consecutive games, beating a franchise record set by Dennis Eckersley, by being lucky and relying on others. He is more than equipped to be the closer for the A’s.
Losing one game can sometimes feel like much more than a singular contest. Whether it be due to injury, losing ground to a divisional opponent, going down in dramatic fashion or any number of other reasons, a loss combined with an emotional gut-punch always seems to amplify the feelings of failure.
Yesterday’s almost-sweep of the Tigers, coming after three straight wins in the Motor City, felt like complete devastation and heartbreak. Even though I firmly believe every single game counts, one game does not make or break an entire season. Nor should one game determine the role of a player who has done his job, and then some, during his time with the team.