The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Koch Krumbles

It’s kind of like opening a pack of baseball cards. You rip open the wrapper and start sorting through them. Sometimes you get something good. An All-Star or a future Hall of Famer, or a rookie card of someone that you think will be somebody some day. More often than not though, in your pack of fifteen cards, you get fifteen guys who either platoon with someone else of equally little value or who hit about .250 in their 500 annual plate appearances.

That’s kind of what it’s like when you summon Billy Koch from the bullpen.

It hasn’t always been this way. In 1999 and 2000, Koch was a flame-thrower out of the bullpen. The kind of a guy you brought in to shut down a rally or to close the door on a win. In 1999 his ERA was 45% than average in the American League and in 2000 it was 89% better. During those two years he saved a total of 64 games and regularly reached 100 mph on the radar gun. Granted, there are better statistics out there than ERA and saves, but those are two of the key numbers that elevated Billy Koch’s name into everyone’s vocabulary.

Then in 2001 something happened. No one really knows what yet, but if anyone does, they’re not saying. Koch’s ERA fell below the league average for the first time in his career and his strikeout to walk ratio fell from 3.33: 1 in 2000 to 1.67: 1 in 2001. The lack of control belied Koch’s sudden inability to get hitters out. Management in Toronto didn’t like this, so they jettisoned him to Oakland, in a seeming steal for the Jays (the Jays acquired Eric Hinske – who won the Rookie of the Year award and Justin Miller).

With Oakland, Koch regained his form in 2002 as quickly as he apparently lost it in 2001 (hello, Rick Peterson!). There wasn’t any real reason for his turnaround though. Not everyone apparently saw this though, and the A’s traded Koch after the 2002 campaign to the White Sox. Surprisingly, to the White Sox at least, Koch reverted to his 2001 form, and not his 1999, 2000, or 2002 form. 2003 and the early part of 2004 were not solid campaigns for Mr. Koch. In fact, they were arguably worse than any of his other previous campaigns. To his credit, Koch was a stand-up guy about the whole thing and took all of the blame for his poor performances, even going as far at times as to thank Sox management for continuing to give him a chance after repeated failures.

So the Sox traded Koch to the Marlins for a fringe minor leaguer and possibly a bag of balls (even offering to pay a large portion of Koch’s salary for the remainder of the 2004 campaign) on their way out of Miami last week. The Marlins apparently think they can turn Koch around (maybe they’ve seen something in his mechanics that’s fixable). If another team sees promise in Koch, why didn’t the Sox keep him?

For one, there’s the change of scenery opinion. Some folks believe that simply putting Koch in the Marlins bullpen instead of the Sox bullpen may be of benefit to Koch. This may well be true. But the real reason the Sox traded Koch was because you never know what you’ll get with him on the mound. This was proven to the Marlins for the first time yesterday, when the Fish lost to the Rangers in eleven innings.

Jack McKeon brought Koch into a tied game in the tenth inning. Koch performed well – allowing a weak popup to first and recording two strikeouts in the inning. This was the Billy Koch the Marlins traded for. So far, so good. The trade is working out.

Unfortunately, the Marlins were also shut down in the 10th, so the Fish take the field in the 11th, with Koch taking the hill again. The 11th did not go as smoothly for the Fish as the 10th did. Koch allowed a lead-off single, which was followed by a home run to right. Koch quickly recovered to retire the next three batters in order, but, by that point, the damage had already been done. The Marlins were down 4 – 2 and were unable to score in the bottom of the 11th, so they were swept by the Rangers and fell into a tie for first place with the Phillies.

Leaving Koch in the game was a relatively brave decision for Jack McKeon. By pulling Koch after the successful 10th, McKeon would have built up some confidence in Koch’s head. However, it was still a tied game in extra innings, and McKeon wasn’t in a position to be playing with pitchers and wasting an arm or bat off the bench in order to build confidence. McKeon did what he had to, but Koch cost the Fish the game.

Hopefully, for Marlins fans, Koch will turn it around. Otherwise it could be a very long, hot summer. That bullpen is not very deep and Koch will likely play a large role in making or breaking the Marlins playoff hopes.


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