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Do Chicks Dig the Middle Reliever?

Editor's note: Have you ever been betrayed by your best friend? XM radio and I have been getting along fine--better than fine actually--I love it to pieces, carry it with me everywhere, depend it for all baseball scores when I'm away from the computer...I can't live without it...and all of a sudden, out of NOWHERE, yesterday it decided to betray me by displaying the ninth inning score as 7-6 Cleveland. I almost cried until I got home and realized that it was WRONG, WRONG I tell you, and now that that sacred trust has been broken, I just don't know if I can ever get it back.

Ahem. I'm fine. Topic. topic...

Close to this time last year, we were filling out All-Star ballots, half-heartedly voting for our A's, more as a sense of duty than because we could actually make a case for their appearances. Little League All-Star game, maybe. Everyone gets a trophy. But THE All-Star Game? The one that COUNTS? <checks notes> Oh, I see. Nevermind.

In case you forgot, or were not an A's fan quite yet, Justin Duchscherer was selected as the lone A's representative to last year's `Mid-Summer Classic', otherwise known as `The Yankees and the Red Sox Take On Some Players From Some Other League Where The Pitchers Hit.' Many thought Duchscherer was less-than-deserving of his spot; that he was a middle reliever picked simply because there was no one else on the A's to build a case for.

Well, they were kind of right, inasmuch as the 2005 May A's were indistinguishable from today's Royals, but in an interesting twist of fate, I think this 2006 season, minus Duchscherer, has retroactively validated last year's selection. Ironically enough, it seems that Duchscherer was, in fact, the correct pick for the A's, and not just because he was the only one performing; the one with the best numbers, but because he made more of a difference to the team than anyone could have guessed.

Some comments from this time last year:

What usually happens is the weaker teams' reps end up filling the pitching rotation, creating a revolving door on the mound. That's why you'll see reliever Justin Duchscherer represent Oakland instead of Eric Chavez.
Detroit Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez says they're all superstars. You can agree, disagree or simply ask who the heck is Justin Duchscherer (an Oakland A's pitcher)?
Oakland needed a rep, so they get Justin Duchscherer. Who?

Being a middle reliever, doing your job, and expecting to be noticed is virtually impossible in the mainstream baseball world. The only reason Duchscherer was chosen last year for the game is because, quite literally, there was no one else to pick from the A's. And of course, by default, that meant the A's were playing horrible baseball. And thus you have the baseball equivalent of a Catch-22. If only ONE other player had performed last year, Justin gets an early-July three-day vacation. It took the rest of the ENTIRE team posting Little League stats for him to even register on MLB's radar. And of course, with no one else performing at a major-league level, the A's were a terrible team, and Duchscherer was considered a mercy pick. And so it goes.

You will rarely see a middle reliever on a great team represented at the All-Star game. Middle relievers are simply add-ons from teams who need a rep with respectable enough numbers not to embarrass anyone with pesky little problems like inequality of revenue sources.

And it's true. Chicks dig the long ball, the starting pitchers, the closers--the defined roles. 'Superstars of Middle Relief' just hasn't quite caught on.

Some numbers for Duke: At the time of the 2005 All-Star game, he had posted a 4-1 record, a 1.49 ERA and had struck out 46 while walking only nine. Those are some numbers. But because he's not a starting pitcher, nor a closer, and he doesn't play in New York, he was pretty much laughed at.

But what about this year? The A's currently sit at 28-30, 3 ½ games behind the AL West leader, with all signs pointing up. Justin Duchscherer went down with an injury on May 6; he's been gone for a month, and not expected to return with the wave of DL'd players we're seeing back this week.

Due to the severe underperformance of the offense, and the weakened state of the bullpen in his absence, the A's have played an inordinate number of one-run games. Even though most of us could have cheerfully smacked the team for their performance in the latter part of May, they have hung in there, and are in an undeniably, indisputably better position than last year.

BUT what if we could have kept our All-Star Middle Reliever healthy? I've given a cursory glance through the month of Duchscherer's absence and came up with nine A's losses which almost certainly would have called for a Duke appearance, or at the very least, called for a rested Calero on the days when Duke needed the break. I firmly believe that losing Duchscherer not only cost us his appearances, but may have affected the other bullpen arms as well. Remember May 10, 20 22, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30, and June 2?

Nine games. A full third of the games that we have played without Duke. I don't know if he would have pitched (or pitched well!) in every appearance. But what I do know is this: The A's bullpen continued to blow save after save after save in a maddening month, and Duke's absence was noted every time.

We noticed Duchscherer's absence, but this type of accolade is different...and rare. It's no wonder why pitchers vie for the starting roles as they do. No one wants to be Brad "Yes, Harden Has Been Taken Out" Halsey or Kirk "Clean-Up - Inning Number Two" Saarloos. Great middle relievers have a thankless job; all the pressure with none of the glory; yet a great team cannot be built without them.

So baseball had its fun last year stating all the reasons why Duke wasn't a real All-Star. There will be more talk to come when Zito, or Chavez, or Swisher <SWISHER!> is selected to the 2006 All-Star team. You'll hear all about how nice it is that the A's are playing well enough to have a real All-Star Representative instead of an afterthought. But you'll know better.


Better late than never:

Justin Duchscherer - All Star 2005