Just Call These Lefty Pitchers the One-Out Wonders
Graeme Lloyd sneaks a peek at a reporter’s notebook, asking about each set of initials on the page.
“Who’s this? Ken Griffey? Sure.”
“Rafael Palmeiro? Yeah.”
“Mo Vaughn? Of course.”
The newly acquired Toronto reliever rolls his eyes. He’s all too familiar with those guys.
“In this job,” he says, “you get the biggest, hairiest left-handers around.”
Call them the one-out wonders, these lefty specialists. Pitchers like Tony Fossas, Paul Assenmacher, Jesse Orosco, Dan Plesac and Lloyd, relievers who have built careers stopping the most dangerous hitters in baseball, often one batter at a time.
“If you want to win,” Texas general manager Doug Melvin said, “you have to have them.”
Just look at Lloyd. In the last three years, he pitched in 13 postseason games for the New York Yankees, helping them win the World Series twice. His totals: eight innings, two hits, no runs.
That’s why Melvin brought Fossas to training camp. Fossas is 41, had a 5.96 ERA last year and got cut by two teams. But there was this, too: Griffey is just 3-for-24 against him with seven strikeouts.
Texas cut Fossas on Wednesday after a shaky spring. No surprise, it did not take him long to find a job--on Thursday, he signed a minor league contract with the Yankees, perhaps to fill the void left when Lloyd was traded to Toronto in the deal for Roger Clemens.
“Tony Fossas. How can you say it any better?” interim manager Don Zimmer said a few weeks ago. “Great guy, but if he hit you in the face, he couldn’t knock your glasses off.
“He throws that sidearm slurve and left-handers bail out and fall on their face,” he said.
Fossas grinned at the description.
“Tell Zim the frisbee is still working,” he said.
“A lot of left-handers come and go, but when you go into Yankee Stadium, when you have to face Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill in the eighth inning and there are 40,000 people going crazy, you have to have a cold heart,” he said. “Jesse Orosco and Dan Plesac would tell you the same thing. In the last 10 years, the importance of the left-handed specialist has really increased.”
All over the majors, there are lefties who average less than an inning per outing. They include: Atlanta’s John Rocker, Milwaukee’s Mike Myers, Oakland’s Buddy Groom, Tampa Bay’s Scott Aldred, Minnesota’s Eddie Guardado and St. Louis’ Lance Painter.
While specialists often are a bit older and rely on breaking balls, there are exceptions. Detroit rookie Sean Runyan led the majors with 88 appearances, yet pitched only 50 1-3 innings. In 25 games, he faced only one batter, usually depending on his 90-plus mph fastball.
“That’s really your whole job, every night. That’s your one job, is getting that guy,” Runyan said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to play as long as guys like Assenmacher and Orosco and be as successful as they’ve been.”
To many, Tony La Russa and his longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, are responsible for the increase in these specialists.
They always kept a couple of lefties in Oakland, be it Rick Honeycutt or Greg Cadaret or Curt Young. When La Russa moved to St. Louis, he made sure he brought Honeycutt, too.
“I think the role we played in this has been exaggerated,” the Cardinals manager said. “You look back at what Dick Williams did in Oakland in the 1970s. He had guys like Darold Knowles and Paul Lindblad in that position.
“The one thing I think we did was figure out how to use those guys more frequently. We figured that if you minimized the number of pitches they threw--one batter, mostly--you could use them three straight nights if you needed to.”
Which is no fun for big boppers like Vaughn.
In recent years, he could count on seeing Lloyd (3-for-16 lifetime) and Plesac (1-for-9, four strikeouts) in the late innings.
“Their job is stopping you, keeping you from making something happen,” Anaheim’s new slugger said. “That one key at-bat could be the difference.”
Barry Bonds, meanwhile, can plan on facing Chuck McElroy. The San Francisco star is just 2-for-30 with six strikeouts against the Colorado lefty, though he did homer off him last year.
“I didn’t dwell on that because I know that’s going to happen,” McElroy said. “The only thing I said is, ‘Hey, I still own the guy.”’
The main victim for Assenmacher is Darryl Strawberry (3-for-30, 10 strikeouts). Orosco dominates Yankees teammates O’Neill (0-for-16) and Martinez (2-for-21).
Plesac shuts down Griffey (4-for-18), Palmeiro (3-for-17) and O’Neill (1-for-14).
Lloyd stops Griffey (1-for-9) and Palmeiro (3-for-19). But not every lefty vs. lefty matchup works out so well--Jason Giambi is 5-for-11 with a home run off Lloyd.
“There’s a need for lefties all the time,” Orosco said.
Sometimes, they come in just to make sure a switch-hitter bats from the right side, where they usually have less power. Atlanta star Chipper Jones frequently gets that treatment.
“Every time a new series starts, you know what lefty is coming to town,” he said.
“There are a lot more of them now. And as long as you throw from the wrong side and do it well, you’ve got a job in this game.”