What is going on with Eric Gagne? My one-woman quest to find out.
Despite arriving in Boston to much fanfare, Eric Gagne has nearly been run out of town by apoplectic fans who have seen him almost singlehandedly cut the team’s division lead over the Yankees. But why? Why does this venerable closer suddenly suck? He didn’t have a stellar start to the season in Texas, but he was solid. So why the sudden suckage north of the border? Is it a mental block because his role is different? Could it be a physical ailment? He’s been injured so often these past couple of years. Is he 31 and past his prime?Is he just tired? After all, his last full season of work was in 2004.
Multiple times now, Gagne has gotten two outs but been unable to get the third. Does he have a third-out problem? Or is it a first-pitch strike problem? He struggled to throw first pitches for strikes last night, but many times he has actually been ahead of the batter when he’s ended up getting rocked. Is he working too slowly? He seems to plod agonizingly around the mound, as if daring the networks to go to commercial between his pitches. The guy sitting next to me at the ballgame last night suggested that Gagne was rattled by the Fenway crowds; but though Gagne looked visibly confused last night when the Fenway Faithful gave a furious roar of joy for no immediately obvious reason (the manual scoreboard had just been updated to show Tampa Bay pulling ahead of New York), I don’t think the closer temperament requires library-type silence to get the job done.
So why, Eric? Why?!
I’ve narrowed it down to five possibilities:
1. “Overthrowing.” John Farrell, the Red Sox pitching coach, has said Gagne has been overthrowing, causing him to leave the ball up in the zone. I feel like this is what the Red Sox organization says about every pitcher who struggles. It sounds like it makes sense, but the excuse gets trotted out so often it’s started to sound like meaningless pablum.
2. Bad luck. Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus says Gagne “is not nearly as bad as his ERA suggests,” and offers the following evidence:
Usually, not watching a particular team’s games is a disadvantage to a baseball analyst. At other times however the 30,000-foot view can be helpful. Take for the example the case of Eric Gagne, who from reading the blogosphere and a couple messages in my inbox, would seem to be the worst idea in Boston since the Big Dig.
Here is a breakdown of Gagne’s key peripheral indicators in Boston and Texas:
In the two most reliable indicators of pitching performance — strikeout and walk rate — Gagne has been exactly the same pitcher in Boston that he was in Texas. And that is a pitcher with decent but unremarkable talent….His GB/FB ratio has deteriorated in Boston, leading to a somewhat higher QERA, but he’s faced all of 70 batters since moving to Beantown. Essentially the entire reason for the rise in his ERA is that his BABIP has increased from .236 in Texas to .468 in Boston.I’m fairly certain that if I were a Red Sox junkie, watching the team play every day, I’d come up with a way to rationalize the BABIP jump away as something other than a statistical fluke. Maybe Gagne is tipping his pitches, or maybe curveball isn’t breaking very much, or whatever. But more likely, his opponents are simply doing an unusually and unsustainably good job of hitting it where they ain’t. There may be scouting evidence that Eric Gagne is not the same pitcher in September that he was in June. But there is little or no statistical evidence based on an informed reading of his numbers.
First, I can’t dismiss the change in his ground-ball/fly-ball ratio as minimal. That’s actually a pretty sizable shift. Plus, from having actually watched Gagne pitch (which Silver admits he hasn’t), I know that Gagne’s “fly balls” have hardly been cans of corn. More like bullets of fire (new baseball slang: bullets of fire = powerful shots fired rapidly to the warning track). Tonight’s display was typical Gagne: two K’s, two hits (both liners), and one scorching line drive that would have gone for extra bases if not for the quick reflexes of rookie outfielder Brandon Moss. That strike-em-out, get-lit-up dichotomy is one of the most mysterious aspects of the Gagne Enigma. Plus, a .468 BABIP is so ridiculously high, I feel like it can’t be *just* luck—some of those balls-in-play must be hit too hard and fast for the fielders to get to. Looking at his line drive percentage, it was 20.9 with Texas and is now 25.0 with Boston (not including tonight’s game, which hasn’t been added to the numbers yet). His ground ball percentage is down from 41.8 to 30.8. That’s not enough to explain away the entirety of the BABIP, but it is enough explain part of it. Another factor? Once those guys get on base, he’s letting them score. His left-on-base percentage is down from 84.3 to 60.1.
3. Pitch selection. Gordon Edes—my fave sportswriter at the Boston Globe, for the record—has wondered why we haven’t seen more of Gagne’s famous changeup in Boston. (Confidence? A physical reason?) Sox backstop Jason Varitek has also noted that when Gagne misses with his changeup, they’ve tended to over-rely on the heat, which is no longer as overpowering as it once was (and which, she wonders, hitters are now sitting back and waiting on?). It should be noted that Gagne did throw his changeup effectively tonight. A sign of things to come?
4. Mechanics. Here’s what The Baseline Report had to say about Gagne:
Gagne has been releasing the ball from the first base side of the mound. It is physically impossible for a pitcher such as Gagne to do this and consistently throw to the opposite side of home plate for strikes. Unless, of course, if you’re a pitcher like Chien-Mang Wang, Kevin Brown, or any sinkerball type pitcher that creates plus tailing action and natural movement which would run into right handed batters. Gagne’s fastball is not a sinker nor does it have plus tailing action, therefore he should be standing in the center of the rubber on the pitching mound.
Last year we identified a similar issue with Josh Beckett. He couldn’t throw consistent strikes to both sides of the plate, and more importantly, his good breaking ball with plus depth was thrown off the plate and ended up a being a ball out of the strike zone. This year his adjustment was to move to the middle of the rubber. It has kept most of his effective pitches including his excellent curveball inside the strike zone. This year Beckett has pitched ahead in the count more often than he did in 2006.
Is this true? I have no idea. But it makes as much sense as any other theory out there.
5. Thinking while walking. Here’s what the man himself had to say after his most recent meltdown, a Sept 19 fiasco against his Canadian countrymen:
“I don’t know how to put it into words anymore,” said Gagné, his voice a whisper. He was asked to repeat himself, the words not registering on most ears. He said it again.
He was asked if perhaps he was overthrowing. He mumbled an answer, the volume dipping even lower.
“Everything, I guess, I don’t know,” he said, almost as though he were talking to himself, trying to explain how he could have fashioned a 4-3 loss out of a potential 2-1 win. “I’ve got to go out there and stop thinking. I don’t know. It’s frustrating. I don’t know what to tell you. Walk people, that’s it.”
Actually, Gagne did give up two costly walks in that appearance, but overall, his walk rate is actually down from his days in Texas (his WHIP is up because of the number of hits he’s given up—26 in 17.2 innings with the Sox, after 24 in 33.1 innings with the Rangers). Given that Gagne has now admitted that his sucktitude is a mystery even to himself, I’d go with “thinking” as more of a problem than the walking. Plus, the fact that he has strung some scoreless innings together when in non-save situations could point to a confidence gap.
After all, you can’t win if you’ve already beaten yourself.