I confess to becoming a big-time Grant Balfour fan during his 2007-2010 tour with the Rays. I loved his competitive approach to the game and his desire to have the ball in his hand at critical times. His next three years with the Oakland Athletics were equally as impressive as he went from a setup man to a shutdown closer. As he reached free agency after his three years with Oakland, I wondered where he would land next. Little did I know what a strange journey would unfold.
In his three years with Oakland, Balfour was dominant in whatever role in which the A’s put him. His overall statistics were incredible: a 2.53 ERA, 64 saves, a 203/75 K-BB ratio and a 1.043 WHIP. Numbers like those will get the attention of any general manager and Balfour was set to be a free agent after the 2013 season. However, things didn’t go well from the beginning as Oakland GM Billy Beane didn’t seem interested in Balfour and quickly acquired former Baltimore Orioles closer Jim Johnson, avoiding arbitration with him on a a one-year, $10 million contract. That was an incredible contract for Beane and the small market A’s and less than Balfour was probably asking per year.
Balfour turned around and agreed to a $15 million with Baltimore and then things really became unglued. Baltimore backed out of the contract citing possible medical problems found during a physical. It was later revealed that those problems included possible right shoulder, wrist, and knee issues. Balfour was furious and shortly after signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Rays who claimed they found no injury issues with Balfour.
Balfour opened the season as the Rays closer and from the beginning things didn’t go well. His command was off and he wasn’t just blowing saves, he was having horrendous outings. Many including myself, blamed the performance on the lack of save opportunities the woeful Rays were offering. Closers are creatures of habit and if you don’t offer them a steady diet of high-risk, high-reward outings, they lose it. But as time went on and things didn’t get better you had to look elsewhere for the problem.
The next place to look is always the possibility of injury. Certainly, a red flag was sent up by the Orioles when they cited injury problems and voided the contract. Maybe, that was the same reason Oakland passed on Balfour for a more expensive closer. Any one of the three injuries mentioned could affect Balfour’s delivery and his command. As usual, the Rays are silent on the subject and Joe “it’s always a sunny day” Maddon claims Balfour’s healthy and he’s sure he will snap out of it any day. Based on Balfour’s three walk performance on Monday loss to Detroit, the turnaround isn’t here quite yet.
There is always a chance that it is mental. For a hyper-competitive pitcher like Balfour, any sign of failure can work on your mind and affect your game. Steve Blass, a pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970’s, lost his command and got to the point that he couldn’t throw a strike. I don’t know how you solve that problem, but having Balfour see a sports psychologist wouldn’t be a bad idea. One other solution is to take Balfour out of the high-stress closer role. Maddon seems to be trying that solution, but based on recent performances, that isn’t working either.
The last possibility, and I certainly hope the least likely, is that Balfour has hit the wall and he’s done. That happened to Heath Bell in the middle of a three-year contract and he’s out of baseball. Johnson hit it with the A’s and he’s back in the minors. It’s a cruel way to go out but it wouldn’t be the first time nor the last.
This is all sad because Balfour’s good guy. It’s sad because, for the same money, the Rays probably could have resigned Fernando Rodney. It’s sad because the Rays owe Balfour $7 million next year and that’s a lot of money for an ineffective relief pitcher. Let’s hope that sometime between now and next April the Rays find an answer that is positive for the team and Grant Balfour.