If you want to give Seattle Mariners fans of a certain age cold sweats, just start repeating the name “Bobby Ayala” over and over again. They will promptly run away screaming. From 1994-98 Ayala was the team’s “closer.”
I put that in quotes because Ayala was, at best, a league-average reliever during most of that span with a WAR of -.4. Yet, he was trusted with pressure-packed situations.
After thriving in a strike-shortened 1994 season, he rapidly began to struggle. He converted 70% of his save situations in 1995 and would never hit that mark again. Seemingly every appearance was a high wire act. After every blown lead, I could expect a call from my late grandfather, usually with the question, “Ben…why is he so bad?”
The trauma caused by Ayala’s tenure runs deep in the team’s history. Top prospects have been traded to try and shore up the team’s bullpen over the years, with the most infamous probably being a trade that sent Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe to the Boston Red Sox for walking gas can Heathcliff Slocumb, who came in to try and extinguish the fires caused by Ayala. Slocumb would…not do that. A half-decade later, Varitek and Lowe helped the Red Sox to a World Series title, an achievement the Mariners are still waiting for.
Nearly 25 years after Bobby Ayala last took the mound for the Mariners, the team is showing that maybe they have learned from their bullpen foibles of the past. Coming into the season, the group of misfits and castoffs that make up the bullpen was projected as a bottom-five bullpen in the majors, with closer Rafael Montero expected to be the best of the bunch. Instead, almost the opposite has happened. While Montero has struggled in the closer role, the rest of the bullpen has dominated. The standout has been Kendall Gravemen, who went from flamed out starting pitcher with the Oakland A’s to bullpen flame thrower with the Mariners. Operating more like a traditional “fireman” than a reliever with an assigned role, he has entered games anywhere from the sixth to the ninth inning, has not allowed an inherited runner to score, and has strikeouts against 30% of the hitters he has faced. Gravemen and Anthony Misiewicz have not allowed a single runner to score. Kenyan Middleton, Casey Sadler, Drew Streckenrider, and Will Vest have been nearly as good — stranding around 75% of runners they inherit.
To his credit, Mariners manager Scott Servais has suddenly become extremely flexible with his bullpen, employing pitchers in spots to maximize their results. With starting pitchers increasingly only throwing 5-6 innings maximum, being willing to get the most of a bullpen is crucial to winning. This was highlighted in the team’s series-clinching 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday. After six innings of two-hit ball from Justus Sheffield, Servais handed things over to the bullpen. Among the league’s best at allowing only soft contact, Vest worked a scoreless seventh along with Anthony Misiewicz. With Mike Trout and the heart of the Angels’ lineup coming up in the eight, Gravemen came in and got three quick outs in the eight. With the main threat extinguished, Montero worked the ninth to complete the shutout and get the save.
With their offense struggling to provide anything resembling consistency and a starting rotation struck by injuries, the Mariners are going to need their surprisingly successful bullpen and newly flexible manager to keep hitting all the right buttons if they want to stay in the AL West race. A few weeks ago, Paul Redman asked if this Mariners bullpen was real. If April is any indication, signs point to the 2021 bullpen finally allowing the team to exorcise the ghosts of Bobby Ayala and bullpens past.