Everyone loved the story of Sal Fasano last year, the hard-as-nails, short-on-talent guy who against all odds found himself playing in the big leagues again. Even hitting .178, there were gasps and grumblings from Toronto fans when he was sent back down to Syracuse. Maybe it was just his facial hair, but I think a lot of his appeal had to do with him being an everyman- the complete opposite of the incredibly bland, overly polished, inhumanly talented super(rich)star of today.
Sal was a guy way past his prime who once had a bit of a drinking problem, eats far too much to be an athlete and looks like a freaking plumber. In the style of Ron Jeremy, he makes us all think that maybe we’re not so far off from the guys in the big show if we just got our act together. But since it’s much easier to live vicariously, GO SAL!
Well, I’m ready to start a new personality craze for the coming season. Plucky? He’s 5 foot 10. Distinctive? He’s bald as a baby at 29. Underdog? He doesn’t have a 90 mph fastball. BUT DOES HE GET RESULTS?? You’re damn right he does. His name is Lee Gronkiewicz, and he’s well on his way to becoming the Crash Davis of closers.
Despite not being taken particularly seriously as a potential big-league player, “Game-over Gronk” has been a successful closer at every level of the minors. His numbers are excellent: A 2.57 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, with more than a strikeout per inning over his 7-year career. He’s never really had a bad season- his worst ERA was 3.27 two years ago in AAA. For a while he was walking too many for a control guy, but now he has it down to just over 1 BB every nine innings. Nothing hugely exciting, and he’s too old to be a prospect at 29. But certainly not deserving of these sort of lowlights over his career:
- 2001 : All-American Closer at South Carolina, leading the nation in saves.
- Result: Left undrafted. His college coach pulls some strings so he is sent to rookie ball as a 22-year-old to babysit a bunch of kids straight out of highschool. He dominates the league (13.36 K/9, 0.82 WHIP)
- 2004: After two successful years and 64 saves as a closer in Cleveland’s minor league system, he is promoted to AA and has another good year as a closer. He is promoted to AAA at the end of the year and plays one game, retiring the side in order.
- Result: He is left unprotected and claimed by Toronto, who sends him back to AA. He dominates the league. (1.41 ERA, 10.57 K/9, 0.87 WHIP)
- 2007: After a full season closing in AAA, he is invited to spring training with the Jays.
- Result: He rots on the bench until the very end, finally pitching 2/3 of an inning and allowing one run. He is demoted to AA. He dominates the league. (1.80 ERA, 11.10 K/9, 1.17 WHIP)
- 2007 (still): After putting up a sub-2.00 ERA in AA, he finally gets his shot in the big leagues, coming in to bail out an exhausted Toronto bullpen in a 10-1 blowout by the Dodgers. He pitches 4 innings (although one of the knocks on him is that he can’t pitch more than 1), allowing 2 hits- one of them a solo HR by Russell Martin, (which everyone wanted to see from the Canadian, anyway) for his only run allowed.
- Result: Predictably, he is instantly demoted to AAA (because the Jays need to call up Ty Taubenheim so he can start a game 5ive days later) and finishes the year with good numbers. He is now pitching (scoreless) innings for team USA in the Arizona Fall league, although the Jays home page neglects to mention him in their Arizona Update.
Oh the tragedy! Now there are reasons for the absolute lack of confidence shown by one organization after the other- he’s been old for each level he’s played at, can’t pitch more than one inning, and doesn’t have the stuff or height that lends an excess of confidence for how he’s going to do at higher levels (see: Jason Frasor and the amazing flat-as-a-board fastball). He relies on a couple of different curveballs (which nobody throws any more), and isn’t going to sneak a fastball by anyone. But he keeps the ball down very well and doesn’t put anyone on base.
Sure he might not be the next Joe Borowski (really aiming high here…) but I find it hard to believe he couldn’t catch on as a useful bullpen guy somewhere, and unbelievable that he’s never been given a real challenge and the chance to fail. You have to know after all the cheery “wherever the team wants me to go, I’m happy to do my bit” sound bites, the Gronk goes home and puts his fist through walls, screaming and cursing the Jays’ braintrust and questioning their lineage. 155 career saves! A win in the Gold medal game against Cuba in the Olympic Qualifier! And he can’t even beat out Josh freaking Towers for the don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you position in the bullpen for a year or two of the downright-glorious major league minimum salary??
There’s a huge emphasis these days on scouting raw tools, and it makes sense. It’s ridiculously hard to figure out which control guy is going to figure out how to sneak by hitters (e.g. Josh Banks was consistently ranked ahead of Shaun Marcum), whereas if you can throw 95+ and get it over the plate occasionally there’s a good chance of a decent career. So you draft a bunch of guys that throw gas, and keep your eyes out for anyone with marginal stuff who puts up incredible numbers.
But this mindset is taken one step further, to the idea that no pitcher without those raw tools is ever going to be able to succeed, unless he puts up overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some players will be given chance after chance and big contracts just because they’re lefties or can pop the radar gun, while others tend to fall through the cracks because there’s nothing special about them on paper- they just have developed a style that is hard to hit. They are the Matt Herges and Paul Byrds of the world, who if they disguised themselves as 20-year olds probably wouldn’t be drafted today, but are very successful major league pitchers. Call it craftiness, deception, whatever…they may not be competing for Cy Youngs, but still be solid contributors because they’ve figured out how to use what they have to keep hitters off balance.
The Gronk is that player, and he deserves our support and reverence as a minor folk hero in his attempt to overcome expectations with his wits and skill rather than superior baseball gifts. He is the epitome of what you want to cheer for in the minor leagues- a normal guy battling against time and hoping for his shot to prove he can play. The Jays just took him off the 40-man roster for a younger pitcher who kinda sucks and has never done much, (but hey he’s 6′ 2! Can’t be all bad!) Maybe someone will claim him in the rule 5 draft and he can stop riding buses for a while. Or maybe six guys in the pen will get injured and he can step up any be this year’s Sal Fasano. GO GRONK!