With Bill Caudill faltering as the Toronto Blue Jays’ closer in 1985, general manager Pat Gillick looked within the organization to solve the club’s ninth-inning woes.
Fortunately, a bespectacled, 27-year-old fireballer that the Jays had plucked from the Texas Rangers as free agent compensation for Cliff Johnson was dominating International League batters.
In 51-1/3 innings with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs that season, Tom Henke had permitted just 13 hits, fanned 60 batters and posted a microscopic .604 WHIP.
The man who would become known as The Terminator was the logical choice to be promoted, and Henke would make his Blue Jays debut on July 29. The 6-foot-5 Missouri native would proceed to whiff 42 batters in 40 innings and record 13 saves to help the Jays advance to within one win of a World Series berth.
But I don’t bring up Henke’s debut merely as a walk down memory lane.
After witnessing the Jays’ bullpen blow 25 saves in 2011, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos traded for right-handers Sergio Santos and Jason Frasor in the off-season, and signed veteran lefty Darren Oliver and longtime closer Francisco Cordero as free agents.
So heading into this season, the Blue Jays’ bullpen was supposed to be dramatically improved. But prior to the start of Friday’s game against the Rangers, the Jays’ relief corps had converted just seven of 14 save opportunities and their 61 base on balls in 124-2/3 innings gives them a strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) of 1.97, which ranks 12th in the AL.
To compound their woes, the club will likely be without Santos for at least three more weeks while he rehabs his shoulder. With Santos on the shelf, Cordero assumed the closer’s role and was hit hard. Opponents are batting .329 against the 36-year-old Dominican and he had blown three consecutive saves before being supplanted by Casey Janssen as the club’s interim closer.
To Janssen’s credit, he has converted all three of his save opportunities since assuming ninth-inning duties, but the fidgety hurler doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. While fans like to celebrate his 6-0 record and 2.26 ERA last season, if they look deeper at his numbers, they’ll discover that he allowed 48 per cent of inherited runners to score (The league average is around 29 per cent).
That’s why Anthopoulos should take a page out of Gillick’s 1985 notebook and try the just promoted Ryota Igarashi, whose 98-mph fastball has been overpowering AAA hitters, in the closer’s role. With 28 strikeouts and a 0.62 WHIP in 21 innings in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, the soon-to-be 33-year-old right-hander, who was a closer in Japan before signing with the Mets in December 2009, has been dominant in the late innings in 2012.
Like Henke, Igarashi represents a flame-throwing, low profile acquisition. Picked up from Pittsburgh on March 30 for cash considerations, Igarashi was a five-time all-star with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the Nippon Professional Baseball league, before he inked a two-year, $3-million deal with the Mets.
Though not nearly as big as The Terminator, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound right-hander still managed to fan 9.8 batters per nine innings with the Mets last season. And like Henke, Igarashi’s arsenal boasts a fastball and a forkball.
“He’s (Igarashi) slowly starting to put himself on the map (in Toronto),” Blue Jays Triple-A Las Vegas skipper Marty Brown told the Las Vegas Review Journal in late April. “People know the kind of stuff he has now. His velocity, command of the fastball and curveball and the fact that experience-wise he knows how to pitch.”
And with the Jays’ bullpen still underperforming, Igarashi should find himself on Anthopoulos’s “map” in the closer’s role. It’s worth a shot. And who knows? Igarashi just might be the club’s next Tom Henke.