A closer is as good as his music.
Sure, I try and maintain an objective approach; I know that saves are up there with wins and runs scored as the wardens of a system of statistical analysis that borders on farcical, but I still give the closer’s role a great deal of weight. There’s a poetry to the ninth inning, and the men who reside there, but that poetry is elusive to all but the greatest of figures. Figures with kick-ass entrance songs.
Whether it’s Trevor Hoffman’s use of “Hell’s Bells” (still the undisputed king of entrances) or Mariano Rivera/Billy Wagner and “Enter Sandman”, the ambience of the ninth inning can really be dictated by the song. Hell, I wanted JJ Putz closing in 2009 ahead of Frankie Rodriguez for one unassailable reason: I would much rather hear “Thunderstruck” than “Sandungueoso” with Rollins, Utley and Howard set to bat in the ninth.
So here you have my uber-scientific philosophy on closing, and with it I would like to return you to August of 2008, as hard as it may be. Billy Wagner is injured, and all hands are on deck. The bullpen is hemorrhaging wins left and right, and Jerry is looking for the solution. Enter Eddie Kunz, set to be my folk hero until the end of time.
Drafted in the supplement road of the draft in 2007 draft (thank you Roberto Hernandez) out of Oregon State, Kunz was a closer from the get-go. He threw a hard sinking 95-mph fastball, and not much else, but the fastball was a plus-pitch. He was groomed in the bullpen, closing for an Oregon State team that won back-to-back national championships and then racking up 27 saves for AA Binghamton in his first full professional season. Some real AAA seasoning would be nice, but time is of the essence. Kunz needs to go to the big-time. The Mets are going to need a closer.
My hope was that he would immediately slot in in the ninth inning. Duaner Sanchez wasn’t the answer, and God knows Aaron Heilman wasn’t. Kunz had been bred for the role; he was no 7th inning man. But Jerry chose to slot him in slowly; his debut against Houston resulted in a scoreless inning. The heavy sinker was lauded; Kunz had yet to give up a home run as a professional ball-player. The Mets returned home and faced San Diego. In the 8th inning down one, Kunz set to come in, clearly inching up the pecking order. I listen intently to the SNY broadcast for some indication of musical gravitas that will give me strength in the depths of my dismay for another woebegone season. And Kunz came up empty.
I don’t even remember the song; if I had to hazard a guess it was some rock anthem, a couple power chords and a shouted chorus. Admittedly, my criteria for a closer song is significantly less nuanced than it is for anything I listen to on an every day basis, but this song still sucked. Or maybe it didn’t suck, but Kunz didn’t convey any of the sort of energy that I was sure he would bring to the team so the song hardly mattered. After all, Mariano Rivera still has no clue what “Enter Sandman” means (what Panamanian would?), it just sounds cool when he’s jogging in. It’s what you bring to it. And after getting the lead-off man out, Chase Headley homered, the first Kunz had allowed in over a year. He brought nothing to it.
It’s been a hard road since then for Eddie Kunz. He was demoted to AAA to end 2008, and spent the duration of 2009 there, quadrupling the number of home runs allowed in his professional career over the course of one season as he posted a 5.02 ERA and notching only one save. While never a great control pitcher, Kunz’s BB/9 reached 4.57, a suicidal number for a reliever no matter how good the sinker (and the sinker, by all observers accounts, had lost some life). In 2010 a makeover was in order, so the Mets shifted Kunz into the rotation at Binghamton; the experiment did not go well, as a one-pitch pitcher simply will not survive multiple runs through the batting order. A return to the bullpen (this time in middle to long-relief) did not particularly rejuvenate him, either. As it stands Kunz is facing the loss of both the action on his best pitch, and his command of it. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can forecast a return to the majors now.
I’m not about to forecast that either, but I will say that Eddie Kunz is exactly the type of player I enjoy following; one with plenty of potential for redemption. In the least George Will and Ken Burns way possible, I love the poetry of the game, and exult in the success of the RA Dickeys and Colby Lewises of the world far more than I rationally should. So while I promise to cover the minors faithfully and objectively, I also promise to be on a vigilant watch for the stories that transcend the five tools and a slider with late bite, since unfortunately this system had been lacking on those for far too long.
And if Eddie Kunz is reading this, which I’m sure he is, then Eddie, I’m pulling for you. If you’re in need of the right song to get you back on track, just drop me a line, I think it’s finally time for me to admit I won’t be needing mine.
I’m Max, by the way, and I’m one of the new Minor League guys. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be here. Let’s go Mets and let’s get started!