When the Diamondbacks signed J.J. Putz this off-season, I jumped for joy. (Figuratively speaking.) Officially, there were only 24 "blown saves" in 2010, but it certainly felt like the team lost games in late innings every other day. Aaron Heilman alone lost 8 of those. Our "closer", Chad Qualls, had an ERA of 8.29 before he was traded at the deadline. We had come a long, long way from the days of the Four Reliefmen of the Apocalypse.
But Kevin Towers and his expertise of relief pitchers came riding in on a white horse and brought us J.J. Putz in December last. He'd proven to be a great reliever for a number of years with Seattle, particularly in 2007 when he was an All-Star with 40 saves, and Towers had faith that his '09 stint with the Mets was merely an aberration. Anchoring the bullpen with a reliable, hard-throwing closer proved to be one of Towers's best moves for the 2011 Diamondbacks.
J.J. Putz was an All-Star closer with Seattle before being shipped to the New York Mets before the 2009 season. He struggled, incurred an elbow injury, and signed with Chicago White Sox for 2010 to set up closer Bobby Jenks. He regained his form and posted an ERA of 2.83 and ERA+ of 152 in 60 games on the South Side. He's known for a good fastball and split finger, and a strike-out pitcher with 65 strikeouts in 54 innings.
At 34 years old, it was assumed that as long as he stayed healthy, he would win games for the Diamondbacks. But, he wasn't healthy at first. He appeared in only two Spring Training games, threw for an inning and a third, and allowed four earned runs. He tried to reassure everybody that he knew his body and he was comfortable in his spring routine and workout regimens, but did we really know what we were getting for $4 million?
Starting in Game #1 of 2011, J.J. proved to the fans that he'd be just fine. I remember it clearly because I was so incredibly nervous! The season opener went to extra innings at home against Colorado. Arizona had taken a 1-run lead in the top half and J.J. came in to close his first game as a Diamondback. He didn't mess around, he threw strikes and threw 'em where he wanted 'em. If he ever missed his spot, he never put his hand up to apologize to Miguel Montero, because he never wanted the batter to know he'd missed. He struck out Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Spilborghs and got Ty Wiggington to ground out to lock up the win. (Okay, some of those play-by-play details weren't so clear, but that's what B-R is for.)
J.J. saved 45 games for the NL West champs. He saved 11 games in the month of May alone. His ERA hovered close to ~2.50 throughout the season, ending at 2.17, his ERA+ at 182. Only three times did he allow two runs in any of his outings. He lost one of those, the team lost one, and the team came back to win the last one. He had a 2-2 record with only four blown saves. He wasn't perfect and he spent most of July on the disabled list with elbow tendonitis, but David Hernandez picked him right up. With J.J. always set to be the closer, that lined everybody else up ahead of him, to make a more reliable bullpen. And Hernandez became the guy to step in after J.J. had thrown two or three games in a row and needed a rest. To me, that would be his only downside; he seemed to need rest a little more often than I'd liked to see, but I suppose it's natural for a pitcher of his style and strength.
J.J. is a fierce competitor, but he's also a good "clubhouse guy". He'd had a reputation for pulling pranks, and that was no different here as he became involved with Tie Gate and, I believe, the chalk outline of Gibby at first base, plus the usual bubble-gum-on-the-cap and shaving-cream pies. But he also never had enough praise for his teammates. He recognized Montero as a leader of this team, he knew how important all of the members of the bullpen were to support the starters. He not only praised the play-makers but also the supporting players. He not only helped solidify the performance on the field but off it as well.
No news is good news. I've heard of no reports of any injuries coming in to Spring Training 2012. The Diamondbacks still have Hernandez, Brad Ziegler, Joe Paterson, and Bryan Shaw returning in the 'pen, and they have signed Takashi Saito and traded for Craig Breslow to fill in the other spots. I expect that bullpen, and J.J. Putz, to be just as solid as it was last season. No more "the dreaded 8th inning" feelings. It is such a relief to have a solid anchor to come in and close the game out!
J.J. is under contract for 2012 for $4.5mil and has a 2013 club option for $6.5mil.
snakecharmer's grade: A+
I'd better explain, before the mob with torches grabs some wood and nails. My expectations for Putz were very solid - don't forget, he had a sub-three ERA in 2010. Getting a relief arm like that - career ERA+ of 137, over 100 saves coming in to the season - as our closer, for such a reasonable sum, was probably Kevin Towers' best move last winter. My concern was Putz's health, as he'd averaged only 42 games during the previous three years. As 'charmer noted, there were issues in spring, and also around the All-Star break, but when J.J. was healthy he was absolutely nails. Second-half ERA: 0.77, with a 28:3 K:BB ratio. I knew he'd be good. I still didn't expect that good.