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Lights Out

July 23, 2007
July 23, 2007

Table of Contents
July 23, 2007

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
Baseball
  • Henry Aaron is about to be displaced from his spot atop the alltime home run list, but 755 will endure as one of baseball's magical numbers, a lasting monument to an underappreciated star and to the courage and integrity with which the Hammer attained his crown

  • It's after midnight on the East Coast: Do you know where baseball's best closer is? J.J. Putz is in Seattle, saving games with near-historic efficiency

Pro Football

Lights Out

It's after midnight on the East Coast: Do you know where baseball's best closer is? J.J. Putz is in Seattle, saving games with near-historic efficiency

The first bars ofAC/DC's Thunderstruck came at precisely 9:54 p.m. PDT, Putz Domination Time,which on the East Coast, where J.J. Putz is little more than a name at thebottom of a box score, was almost one in the morning. Like the old-fashionedmilkman or the vacuous Hollywood party girl, the Seattle Mariners' closerstarts his day when much of the country is asleep. He emerges from the SafecoField bullpen in leftfield at a steady, almost stately, jog until he reachesthe mound to pitch the ninth. Heavy-metal accompaniment aside, there is no fauxair of menace about him. The hulking Putz is genuinely scary.

He stands 6' 5", weighs 250 pounds and throws both an industrial-strengthfastball and a burrowing splitter. When Seattle's resident sandman tosses hismagic dust in a hitter's eyes, it's usually at 96 mph. Mariners manager JohnMcLaren calls him a "lights-out closer"--Thunderstruck apparently beingBrahms's Lullaby for a different century--a baseball cliché perhaps, but onethat addresses a geographical truth.

This is an article from the July 23, 2007 issue

With Seattleleading the Detroit Tigers by a run last Thursday, Putz gave up a one-outdouble to Marcus Thames but retired the dangerous Gary Sheffield on a fly toright and then, in a confrontation between baseball's best closer in 2007 andits leading hitter, got Magglio Ordoñez to swing through a 1 and 2 fastball toend the game. Mariners 3, Tigers 2. The digital scoreboard clock read 10:05.All the games were over, and it was time for a nation's night owls to turnin.

J.J.'s work wasdone. Another day, another collar.

The name is JosephJason Putz although no one, except for one college teammate, ever calls himJoe. The surname is pronounced puts as in "puts up numbers so spectacularthat they border on the implausible" (chart, page 56). Through Sunday, Putzhad converted all 26 of his save chances, the last of which--a four-out,strike-out-the-side-in-the-ninth outing to nail down a 6-4 win over the Tigerslast Saturday--set a club record for consecutive saves (28) and earned him apostgame beer shower. ("There was Bud," Putz reports. "And Idefinitely tasted Bud Light."). His streak is impressive but notnecessarily unusual; there have been 14 longer streaks since 1990 according tothe Elias Sports Bureau. But in a specialized line of employment former Seattlemanager Mike Hargrove once characterized as "three days of boredom followedby 15 minutes of sheer terror," Putz's mastery has been staggering. Thestatistics tumble like his splitter. At week's end he had allowed only one morerunner (27 in 43 1‚ÅÑ3 innings) than he had accumulated saves. His ERA was 0.83;in save opportunities, it was a microscopic 0.30. His strikeout-to-walk ratiowas nearly 7 to 1 and on the road, away from the AC/DC adrenaline, he had yetto give up a run. His walks and hits per innings pitched, or WHIP, was0.58.

To put that numberin context, Eric Gagné's WHIP was 0.69 in 2003, when he was in the midst of hisstreak of 84 straight saves for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And during his run ofexcellence with the Oakland A's from 1988 through '92, Dennis Eckersley'slowest seasonal WHIP was 0.61. "When I see [Putz], I see dominance,"says Eckersley, a Boston Red Sox studio analyst. "I see punch-outs. If I'mgoing to get a closer, I like one who doesn't give you contact, who doesn't letyou hit ground balls. Who doesn't?"

But the 30-year-oldPutz, three classes shy of his degree in sports management from Michigan, isnot a numbers man. He prefers letters. One letter, actually: W. "If I comeinto a game with a three-run lead and give up a two-run homer and we win by arun, so be it," Putz says. "Bottom line. Get a W so we can have somefun in the clubhouse." In the late-night world of J.J. Putz, WHIPs are forjockeys. Thanks largely to a Putz-anchored pen that had the American League'sthird-lowest ERA through Sunday, the surprising Mariners were only three gamesbehind the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West and two out of thewild card. That's it.

"Maybe he's notone of a kind, but there aren't a lot of guys out there like J.J.," saysEddie Guardado, the former Seattle closer now with the Cincinnati Reds. "Hecares about the team, cares about the game. He understands the unwritten rulesof baseball, about doing the job on the field but enjoying things and keepingthe team loose."

Although Putzproudly proclaims that his hero is his younger brother, Brian, a firefighter inTaylor, Mich.--J.J. is the latest in a long line of firemen, although unlikehis maternal grandfather, an uncle and Brian, he doesn't rush into burningbuildings and douse actual flames--his mentor is Guardado, who showed Putz thebig league ropes when he finally stuck with the Mariners in 2004, at age 27.Guardado, who is to baseball humor what Meryl Streep is to accents, also showedhim the hoary gags. Putz generally eschews cutting up teammates' clothing likehis buddy Eddie Scissorhands, having made the shaving-cream pie his signaturebit. He claims to be a veritable pie-in-face ninja. "I come out ofnowhere," he says. "Some guys even think they know it's coming, and Istill get them." True, that eye-burning pie that marked reliever SeanWhite's first career victory in May was underbaked (you should always go withfoam, never gel), but really, isn't it all about making sure a teammate getshis just desserts? "I haven't done anything new," says Putz, who alsohoses players with cold water as they come out of the sauna or bubblegums theodd cap. "I'm just continuing the baseball tradition of the childishprank."

But Guardado'slasting impact on Putz's career has less to do with slapstick turns than with asimple rotation of the baseball. Like so many strapping righthanders with90-plus fastballs, Putz had been a starter at Michigan and for most of hisfirst four years in the Mariners' system. In Triple A four years ago hewas switched to the bullpen; once in the majors, he learned he'd need a secondpitch. During a three-day stretch in May 2005, the Red Sox' Trot Nixon and theYankees' Bernie Williams, sitting on Putz fastballs, hit seventh-inning grandslams. After Williams's homer, Guardado and reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawamarched into a sauna and encouraged Putz to stay aggressive while stressing thepedagogical value of getting your brains kicked in. It was an early lesson inselective amnesia, one reinforced every time Putz goes home. "I'm lucky inthat way," he says. "My wife [Kelsey] was a two-time All-Americansoftball player at Michigan, a second baseman, so she understands pressure anddisappointments, knows when to give me space and when to give me a littleneedle. And with the twins now [20-month-old Lauren and Kaelyn], when I gethome from the ballpark, they don't care how I did. They just want a hug fromDaddy."

On that dark Mayday two seasons ago, Guardado was reminding Putz to get a grip. Ten monthslater he was showing him one. Playing catch late in spring training in 2006,Guardado suggested that Putz turn the ball slightly so that neither index normiddle finger rested on a seam in his splitter grip. Like his suddenly bitingsplitter, a meandering big league career found an entirely differently plane.Putz supplanted Guardado as the full-time closer in early May 2006, and twomonths later, Seattle shipped the lefthander to the Reds. "I think J.J.felt a little guilty because Eddie was his best friend," McLaren says,"but he just got an opportunity and ran with it."

Unlike the otherlights-out West Coast closers--career saves leader Trevor Hoffman of the SanDiego Padres (changeup), the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez (slurve), the Dodgers'Takashi Saito (slider)--Putz still works off his fastball, but the splitterturned this horse into a two-trick pony.

"When he warmedup [at the All-Star Game], I was like 'Wow,' " says Tigers' bullpen coachJeff Jones, who was part of AL manager Jim Leyland's staff in San Francisco."[Boston's Jonathan] Papelbon had a tremendous split, but J.J.'s wasphenomenal. I'd seen him throw it in a game and thought it was a great pitch,but I hadn't been that up close. It's the best I've ever seen. Starts atmid-thigh and ends up in the dirt every time. A lot of guys' splits will tailor cut but his is straight down."

(Alas, Leyland gavehim the hook after Putz allowed a two-run homer and a walk that brought thewinning run to the plate in the ninth. "We won," Putz said after the5-4 AL victory. "The [AL's winning] streak's alive. Leave it atthat.")

This is thebaseball continuum, what Guardado calls "the merry-go-round." Just asGuardado learned from Rick Aguilera in Minnesota and Putz learned from Guardadoin Seattle, Putz has taken it upon himself to help school a Mariners bullpengreener than Live Earth. This explains, in a way, the pink My Little Ponybackpack in rookie setup man Brandon Morrow's locker. During an April trip toOakland, Putz and pitcher Chris Reitsma enlisted a clubhouse attendant tolocate a pink roller bag to help the young Seattle relievers cart gum,sunflower seeds and PowerBars to the bullpen. The clubbie came back with the MyLittle Pony model, which was even sweeter. The backpack is passed among Morrow,Eric O'Flaherty and Ryan Rowland-Smith, depending who is on a hot streak, butit carries symbolic weight more than bullpen supplies. "One day I hopeBrandon or somebody takes my job," Putz says, "and he does great thingswith it."

"You see whathe's doing with the kids, trying to teach them, being a leader," McLarensays. "J.J.'s a special guy. He doesn't dwell on his own success as much ashe wants to help the team."

No dim bulb, thislights-out closer.

Better Late ThanEver?

With a little morehelp from the Mariners' rotation, J.J. Putz could set a single-season standardfor relief pitchers

THE FANTASTICseason of J.J. Putz, who at week's end had yielded just one run in a savesituation, could end up as the finest ever. Although he will be hard-pressed tomatch Bobby Thigpen's record of 57 saves, set in 1990, the Mariners' closerstands a chance of becoming the standard-bearer in Win Expectation AboveReplacement, or WXRL, a Baseball Prospectus statistic that measures the numberof wins a relief pitcher contributes versus what a replacement-levelalternative would have achieved. The formula is weighted so that a relieverearns extra credit for stranding runners on base, for pitching against tougherlineups and for closing out a one-run game rather than a three-run snoozer.

Through Sunday,Putz's WXRL of 5.03 was easily the best in baseball; the Dodgers' Takashi Saitowas next, at 3.62. That put Putz on pace for a 9.26 WXRL, which would rate asthe second-best year ever (below). Putz could have an even better finish ifSeattle makes a deal to fortify its starting pitching (its 5.09 ERA is thefifth worst in baseball), which would provide him more high-leverageopportunities.

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PHOTORICH PILLING/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (HERNANDEZ)PHOTOROBERT BENSON/US PRESSWIRE  FAST ANDLOOSE
Putz brings the heat, but also keeps it off his teammates with his cutupways.
PHOTOV.J. LOVEROTHE SURETHING
In '03 Gagné was in the midst of converting a record 84 straight saveopportunities.