Tim’s recent posts about closers reminded me of an interesting interlude in Pirates’ Closer History that got virtually no attention at the time. Back in 2003, when Kevin McClatchy ordered Dave Littlefield to dump payroll (yeah, a real salary dump, unlike some more recent transactions that have been mischaracterized as such), one of the dumpees was closer Mike Williams. His 6.27 ERA that year was good enough to get him in the All-Star Game (he had a lot of saves, y’know), but not good enough to make him missed by Pirates fans who had a clue. The move left Lloyd McClendon with a truly sorry collection of relievers, although none of them was quite as bad as Williams himself. Other than Willams and another dumpee, Scott Sauerbeck, the team’s primary relievers that year were Mike Lincoln (who finished the year with an ERA of 5.20), Joe Beimel (5.05), Brian Boehringer (5.49), and one other guy I’ll get to in a minute.
McClendon initially tried Lincoln as closer and he did well at first, but reality quickly set in. So, too, did the reality that the team was not only lacking a reliable reliever for the 9th inning, it didn’t have one for the 7th or 8th inning, either. McClendon hit on a solution that was truly radical for a team that for decades has had trouble thinking outside the box: he started using his one reliable reliever, Julian Tavarez, as a multi-inning closer. Starting in mid-August, Tavarez had fourteen save opportunities and converted eleven of them. Of those eleven, seven lasted longer than an inning. The first four lasted two innings. Tavarez pitched in 18 games beginning with his first save. He had one disastrous game in which he allowed seven earned runs in a third of an inning. Otherwise he allowed just three earned runs in 25 innings.
Of course, three blown saves out of fourteen doesn’t sound great, but it was better than the raw numbers would lead you to think. One of the blown saves was the seven-run outing; Tavarez had entered in the 8th with a two-run lead, no outs and the bases loaded. Another was a game in which he attempted a three-inning save in a one-run game and allowed a run to tie the game. The Pirates eventually won, but Tavarez got a blown save, which shows the limitations of the stat. I’d call that a good outing. The third was a one-run game in which he entered with one on and no outs in the 8th and let that run score, then went on to pitch two innings, allowing no runs of his own. The Pirates lost in extra innings. (That was the first game of a doubleheader; Tavarez got a save in game two.) So none of Tavarez’ three blown saves came in conventional save situations and he pitched well in two of them.
I remember at the time there were some questions directed to McClendon and Littlefield about the possibility of bringing Tavarez back as closer, questions that were met with firm, negative replies. Tavarez went on to pitch two strong seasons for St. Louis. Considering Tavarez’ profile as a pitcher, he was an interesting choice for multi-inning saves. He was a rubber-armed reliever who’d been unsuccessfully converted to starting over two years before the Pirates picked him up. He appeared in 64 games for the Pirates, then 151 games in his two years with the Cards. Earlier in his career he’d pitched in 89 games one year for the Giants. He didn’t strike out a lot of hitters but was an extreme groundball pitcher. Yet I don’t remember any discussion at the time about McClendon’s unorthodox use of Tavarez. Only, Will Tavarez return as closer? Seems like somebody could learn something from this.