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The Implosion of Troy Percival

First of all, I'm not out to convince you that Troy Percival is a bad relief pitcher. It's an unnecessary argument to make, as the assertion is pretty much backed with universal acceptance among Rays fans. This is even more true in the immediate aftermath of an event such as today's, when Percival loaded the bases and surrendered a grand slam in the 13th inning of a crucial intra-divison game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Still, I don't see myself as immune from the emotional swings of being a baseball fan, so I need an opportunity to vent. At the same time, I want to maintain a relatively level perspective on things. We can all blame the umpires and unleash our anger on them. Sometimes that's even the appropriate course of action to take, and I don't disagree with the premise completely in this case. But the fact of the matter is, the umpires are too easy a target. There are three teams that take the field for every game, and one of those teams has no fans and is constantly pummeled by the other two.

So while we can blame the intricacies of losses on the umpiring crew, doing so offers no sustainable solutions for future improvement. In what has quickly turned into the worst week of the season since the last week of the first half, Troy Percival has pitched in two games and surrendered six runs. Small sample size you say? Well, then ponder these facts:

  • Since May 8th, when Percival surrendered his first runs of the season and notched his first blown save in an eventual win for the Rays at Rogers Centre against the Blue Jays, he has pitched to an ERA of 6.75. That is not a typo, and that is 29.1 innings worth of sample size.
  • Dislike ERA? Well, since I can already hear R.J. screaming about the importance of peripherals, ponder this. Percival has surrendered 24 hits since May 8th. Not a lot right? It's less than one per inning, and 7.36 per nine innings. Yet of those 24 hits, nine have been home runs. Nine. That means that three of every eight Pericval hits surrendered are home runs. To put that into perspective, Andy Sonnanstine has surrendered 193 hits this season. If he were to give up the gopher ball at the rate Percival has in the last 30 innings or so, that would mean that Sonnanstine would have given up 72 home runs. Of course sample size disparities make the comparison tedious, but a 2.76 HR/9 for a closer is just as disastrous as that, on scale, if not moreso due to the consistency of a closer's high-leverage appearances.
  • What's more, Percival has given up four doubles and two triples among those six hits in the past four months. That means that five of every eight hits he gives up go for extra bases. Put it this way, his opponents' slugging percentage in this time frame is .541.
  • Surely Percival must at least mitigate some of this with his high number of strikeouts, right? Well, he does maintain a decent strikeout rate, having downed 26 on strikes in the relevant time frame. Unfortunately, over the same period of time he has walked 18, or 5.52 per nine. A 1.44 K/BB is simply not acceptable, no matter whether high numbers are involved or not.

So what's the point? Well, essentially this is a more eloquent and fact-based way of saying PERCY SUX!11!!111!! I'm not going to get into why Percival has become so poor, because quite frankly I don't know and neither do you. It could be the various injuries that have landed him on the DL this season still bothering him, or it could simply be a function of him breaking down over a long season. But without a reasonable degree of certainity, it's not worth making conjectures about. More importantly though, it doesn't really matter. September 6th is a little late in the season to be diagnosing things and making corrections.

In other words, I'm not exactly optimistic about finding a remedy for the 39 year old Percival's pitching woes in the last three weeks of the season, and there is sure as hell no room for experimentation in the playoffs. The question now concerns what the team can do to mitigate Percival's penchant for high-stakes meltdowns. The most obvious solution is to move him out of the closer's role in favor of someone like Dan Wheeler or Grant Balfour, but that doesn't get rid of the problem entirely. Is his penchant for blowing games any more palatable in the seventh or eighth innings than it is in the ninth, or 13th as the case may be?

I would suggest that the answer is no, and issue at that point becomes where you slot a guy like Percival if you don't want him in high-leverage situations at all. You might be able to get by stashing him in middle relief, but I for one would be very surprised to see the Rays, and manager Joe Maddon in particular, shuffle Percival off into obscurity so unceremoniously. Nor can I imagine Percival taking that too well.

But as the games get more and more crucial, and Percival keeps getting worse and worse, the need for action gets clearer and clearer. As painful as it may be to address the situation, the pain of inaction could potentially be a lot more.