We were all told to give Chris Reitsma the chance. Let’s see how he would do as the designated team closer, they told us. Well, it’s been six weeks, so how much longer do we have to wait?
I was ready to give him that chance. The stuff was always there, or so I thought. The season before he was traded to the Braves I saw Reitsma pitch for the Reds. His fastball was consistently in the mid-90s, making his changeup even more impressive.
But we have only seen glimpses of that pitcher. We saw it last April, when Reitsma posted a 0.73 ERA in 12 games. We saw it last July, when he was 8-for-8 in save opportunities and had a 1.17 ERA. We even saw it the first two months of his Braves’ career, when he had a 2.48 ERA in his first 26 games of the 2004 season.
But we’ve just not seen it enough, and that’s the problem. There is no bigger word in baseball than consistency. It’s what separates good players from mediocre players. And there is no doubt that Reitsma is showing he’s as mediocre as you can get.
Or is he even that? Consider his overall stats since August 1st of last year and including this season: 0-5, 6.37 ERA, 37 games, 52 hits in 35.1 innings, 25 earned runs, 9 walks, 15 strikeouts, 7 saves, and 7 blown saves.
That’s not mediocre - that’s Dan Kolb from last year. That’s just plain bad.
The biggest problem, however, is not only Reitsma’s numbers, but the lack of fear he places in the opponent. There is no fear factor when he steps out of the bullpen to come in for a save. When John Smoltz stepped onto that field for his three years as the closer, or when Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman come in now in the ninth inning, you know it’s over. There is a fear factor that is just as important as the stuff those pitchers throw across the plate.
And Chris Reitsma just does not have that.
Instead of a fear factor, there must be a feeling in the other team’s dugout that they’ve got a good shot at tying the score. What would give Reitsma that fear factor? Consistency. But how long can a team wait for that to happen?
We might have seen a glimpse into Reitsma’s future Wednesday night when Bobby Cox brought him into the game with the Braves trailing 7-1. Yeah, Cox said it was only because Reitsma had not worked in a while, but wasn’t this the same thing he did when Kolb was struggling last season? Is he trying to allow Reitsma to work things out in a non-pressure situation, or has he just decided the future without Reitsma as the closer is inevitable?
Maybe Reitsma can turn things around, but maybe, just maybe the Braves will give a few others a chance to close. Ever since spring training there have been rumors that the first person that would be given that opportunity would be left-hander Macay McBride.
Now healthy after a peculiar injury in March that forced him to have his spring training in April, McBride has the stuff for a closer. He’s got a fastball that can reach 95, along with a solid slider and changeup. But more important is his makeup. Even though he resisted the switch to the bullpen at first, McBride now relishes the chance at being a closer one day. He’s got that bulldog mentality you want in someone coming in for the ninth inning. And after he has some success, he might even create that fear factor that Reitsma just doesn’t have.
The Braves need to see if there are any internal options for the closer’s role before they decide what kind of trade to make. And don’t be mistaken; a trade of some sort is inevitable. It’s just not clear yet what kind of reliever the Braves are going to have to acquire. If they can find an internal option for the closer’s role, and if that person does well, maybe it won’t have to be as big a trade.
And that’s the key. There’s plenty of time left to figure out whether McBride or perhaps even Oscar Villarreal can be that internal option. Blaine Boyer and Joey Devine would have been other possibilities, but Boyer’s gone for the year and Devine is still questionable with his back problems. So for now, the best option is McBride, and with Reitsma continuing to struggle, don’t be surprised if the young lefty is given a few save chances in the next few weeks.
If the Braves are going to have a legit chance in this race, a change is going to have to be made. And for now, McBride is the one that deserves the chance. For some odd reason, the word “closer” has always been a four-letter word for the Braves. But maybe, just maybe, the young lefty from Georgia can be the pitcher that can change all that.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look at the Braves’ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.