The life span of a right-handed relief pitcher can be fleeting. Entering what will be his eighth season with the Twins, can the former set-up man have a career after 2008?
Last summer saw the meltdown of a pitcher who had been one of baseball's finest set-up men over the prior three seasons. Coming into the middle of June, Juan Rincon had been a bit more shaky than what we'd been accustomed to, but he'd been effective nevertheless. On June 14 he pitched an inning against Atlanta, allowing two hits and striking out one, and he kept the Braves off the board. This lowered his ERA to a very respectable 2.38, but there were signs of trouble.
In addition to the reduced strikeout rates, Rincon was having trouble finishing off hitters. It wasn't unusual to see him face a batter who could push his plate appearance to four, five or six pitches. This had been a problem all season, and through his outing against the Braves was averaging 4.1 pitches per batter faced. All alone this number isn't alarming, but while the number of pitches per batter rose, the number of outs recorded fell. His pitches per inning rose to their highest peak since Rincon became a full time player, and the number of outs per batter faced fell off dramatically. This went on all season.
Year BF OR Conv%
2003 370 257 70
2004 327 246 75
2005 319 231 72
2006 315 223 71
2007 272 179 66
Since becoming a full-fledged member of the Twins bullpen, Rincon had been converting at least seventy percent of his batters faced into outs. Last year saw reduced strikeout rates, increased home run rates, increased walk rates and field-independent marks that jumped exponentially. He wasn't stranding as many runners and, most importantly, he wasn't getting as many batters out.
Following his appearance versus Atlanta, Juan was touched for seven earned runs and three homers over his next three games. Coming out of that stretch he was shaken, taking 20 pitches to get through his next inning. He was lacking in confidence, struggling to hit the strike zone and struggling to put hitters away.
June (6.30), July (12.38) and August (5.56) saw the deterioration of not just Rincon's ERA, but his position in the bullpen. From set-up man to middle relief to, after another rough day, low-pressure situations; even after the rash of injuries, Rincon was passed on the depth chart by both Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier.
A bad summer well in the rear-view mirror, this season represents a proverbial fork-in-the-road for Rincon. Posting rebound numbers would bolster his stat track and likely bring a pretty solid contract, since one off year like '07 usually doesn't end a career. With Juan's track record there would be plenty of teams looking for a reliable and experienced 30-year old set-up man with a history of striking people out.
Another poor season would see Rincon probably having to pitch himself onto a roster. A 30-year old pitcher who looks past his prime and who will cost three times as much as a rookie isn't always an easy sell, especially when the peripherals are discouraging.
Rincon was roughed up on Sunday afternoon, giving up two hits and walking three in his inning of work. After his apparent collapse last summer, was it another sign of Rincon's inconsistency, or was it just a bad day? Other than a solo home run it's been his only damage of the spring, but throwing four strikes in sixteen pitches isn't excusable even in exhibition play.
Confidence is important for any pitcher, and last season it wasn't rebuilt. In a season where Rincon's future in baseball rests so much on the results of one summer, if he has the resolve to come back and be effective in his next couple of outings, there may be hope for him yet. The talent is there, and taking control of it would go a long way in helping him come back.
Juan Rincon's career will likely go beyond 2008. How far beyond and what kind of roles he'll play are up to him.