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The Raucherrection of Jon

When Jon Rauch came over for the Washington Nationals in July last season, expectations were high that he would prove a crucial component in a strong bullpen down the stretch. Those hopes were cruelly dashed, as Rauch imploded. He not only posted a 6.56 ERA, he gave up runs in crucial situations - the result was six losses for the reliever in barely a month, defeats which basically holed the Diamondbacks' play-off chances below the waterline.

It was a shock when the team chose to exercise its 2010 team option, and the qualms seems justified as Rauch's wretched performances continued in 2009. In his first eleven innings of work, he allowed eleven earned runs, on 17 hits and six walks, and became the most-hated man on the roster. His appearance in a game was basically Bob Melvin waving the white flag, and you need only scan the gameday threads to see the reactions his arrival on the mound provoked. It's hard to think of a player in franchise history who was so universally distrusted and disliked.

Then something weird happened. Rauch got...well, good. After the jump, we'll take a look at the change, and see if we can figure out what might have happened.

If there's one player who seems to have benefited from the dugout change, it's Rauch. Whether the cause is a new manager, a new pitching coach, something else - or merely random chance - the difference in his performance has been massive. Here's the splits for Rauch, under Melvin and Hinch:
    Melvin: 34.1 IP, 44 H, 15 BB, 29 K, 28 ER, 7.34 ERA, 0-6 record
    Hinch: 39.1 IP, 37 H, 9 BB, 24 K, 11 ER, 2.52 ERA, 2-1 record

The strikeouts are down, but the walks have dropped even more dramatically, from 3.93/9 IP to 2.06, and the hits are also lower. The net result is a 30% reduction in WHIP post-Melvin, from 1.72 to 1.17. That's back-of-the-bus bad to front-of-the-line effective. While it didn't happen overnight, the feelings of dread that used to accompany the sight of his heavily-tattooed largeness taking the mound, were replaced first by neutrality and then a sense of reliability. Even including Thursday, he's been unscored upon in 26 of his past 31 outings.

And what impressed me even about Thursday, was that it was clear Rauch cared - enough to get himself thrown out of the game, though only after he'd done his job and completed the inning. Far worse performances had come and gone  in his Diamondbacks' career without a whimper from Jon, but he took his part in this loss very seriously, even on a team ten games below .500 and out of contention. It's in sharp contrast to mid-September last year, where he took the loss three times in eight days, and did nothing more than sit miserably on the bench.

There were reports that Rauch, coming from the closer's role in Washington, wanted to be given the chance to pitch high-leverage innings in Arizona too, and was upset to find himself behind Brandon Lyon, Chad Qualls and Tony Peña. Rumbling were heard that he was not exactly a popular guy in the clubhouse, seen as someone whose opinion of himself was greater than it should be. I recall suggestions that Rauch was one of the areas of disagreement between Melvin and Josh Byrnes, with the ex-manager wanting to drop the player.  Some evidence for this can be found in Rauch's usage patterns. In all 14 appearances under Melvin this year, he only appeared when the Diamondbacks were losing - and an average of three runs behind at that.

That may help explain why the new brooms apparently re-invigorated Rauch, but if there was a single game which perhaps changed Rauch's career with the Diamondbacks, it was the 18-inning marathon against the Padres on June 7. Rauch and the B-relievers pitched nine innings of no-hit ball, after the A-bullpen had coughed up a five-run lead in the ninth. After the game, a clearly-delighted Rauch heaped praise on his colleagues, an attitude adjustment which has continued since - he seems intent on deflecting the topic of conversation away from himself to his team-mates. Up until Thursday, he'd almost become invisible. Or at least, as invisible as a 6'11" human canvas can ever hope to be...

Whether performance bred confidence, or confidence bred performance, it's difficult to say - probably a bit of both. But that game was part of a run from late May to late June where Rauch allowed just nine hits in 16.1 innings of work, holding batters to a .164 average. His reward: getting to pitch in more important situations, and when Tony Peña was dealt to the White Sox on July 7th, Rauch became the set-up man. The results since have generally continued to be very good: a 2.31 ERA and only one walk in 11.2 innings.

While we don't have all the information we'd like, the metamorphosis of Rauch from...well, caterpillar to butterfly is as close as I can get [ok, not very], it seems like an interesting study in sports psychology. The effect of 'clubhouse chemistry' and/or 'intangibles' is often derided, yet this case would suggest it can have a powerful effect on performance. We perhaps also saw examples of that with Felipe Lopez in Washington, and even more starkly with Scott Schoeneweis here, where forces outside the lines appear to have impacted what goes on between them.