Do the Giants Have a Closer Controversy?

The Giants just experienced a weekend of such nightmarish proportions that, if we were in September, authorities would have to be talking the entire fanbase off the Golden Gate Bridge. The Giants lost not one, not two, but three late inning leads against the Colorado Rockies this past weekend, in what had to be the most horrific collection of Giants games since Games Six and Seven of the 2002 World Series. The Giants had leads in the ninth inning on both Friday and Saturday, and blew both of those, the latter on, unbelievably, a two-run inside-the-park home run. Then, to top off the misery, they squandered a seemingly safe 7-3 lead in Sunday’s game, leading to a totally demoralizing sweep at the hands of a division rival.

At the heart of the mess was Sergio Romo, the Giants’ embattled closer, who received the loss in both of the first two games. Once one of the most popular players on the team, Romo has recently been coming under fire from fans, scribes, and beer-drunk KNBR callers alike for his recent shaky pitching in the closer’s role. His twin blow ups against the Rockies certainly did him no favors in that regard, and calls to replace him are at an all-time high. Despite ranking second in the league with 20 saves, Romo currently sports a ghastly 5.08 ERA. That number was inflated quite a bit by the five-run disaster on Friday, but Romo hasn’t been the same pitcher this season. He’s been more hittable than ever and he’s been way more homer-prone than at any point in his career.

Romo, of course, is a totally unorthodox closer. While most pitchers of this nature throw extremely hard, Romo’s fastball sits at around 88 mph. His bread and butter, of course, is a filthy slider that right-handed hitters have found completely unhittable since day one. In 2011, for example, working primarily as a ROOGY (right-handed one out guy), Romo struck out an astounding 61 of the 126 right-handed batters he faced. Romo later added a changeup to combat lefties and became the team’s closer in the World Series stretch run in 2012, famously striking out Miguel Cabrera to end the final game. In 2013, his first full season as closer, he saved 38 games.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing relievers do in this life, it’s fall apart without warning. Romo’s strikeout rate has been declining precipitously in the past couple of years, from 13.1 K/9 in 2011 to 7.6 this year. Needless to say, that’s a horrible trend. When pitchers begin to lose their effectiveness, typically the strikeouts rate is the first thing to go. Romo was the victim of some dunk hits this weekend (not to mention a truly terrible route by Angel Pagan on a base hit that turned into the winning inside-the-parker on Saturday), but therein lies the problem. When a pitcher stops missing bats, there’s a greater chance for hitters to make contact for bloop hits. There’s a much slimmer margin for error in the ninth inning, of course, and a couple of those bunched together can lead to bad things happening, and bad things have been happening to Romo a lot lately. Since April, his ERA is 6.88.

So is it time to consider giving Romo the heave-ho from the closer spot? The Giants currently still (somehow) hold the best record in the majors. If they’re intent on making waves in the postseason again (or making it at all), they can’t have a flaky closer blowing games as the team gets further into the season. The Giants already did that dance in 2004, when their inability to find a good closer cost them a playoff spot and led to a totally ill-fated Armando Benitez signing.

The pitcher mentioned most frequently as the guy to take Romo’s place is Jean Machi, who hasn’t given up a run in seemingly forever (not since April 15, to be exact). Machi has been brilliant this year, fooling opposing hitters with his split-fingered fastball. He was also terrific last year, but the only hang up might be, again, that he doesn’t strike out many batters (just 6.7 K/9 this year), and hitters might catch on if his success is mostly a mirage based on a trick pitch.

The Giants aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to tell Romo, a pitcher who has been so reliable and popular in recent years, that he’s out as the team’s closer. Not to mention, Romo is in his walk year and the closer is a glamour role, so if he’s ousted from the role, it could potentially cost him a lot of money. However, the Giants also can’t afford to have a long leash, as it’s not likely that the Dodgers are going to struggle all season and the NL West could turn into a summer dogfight.

The Giants made one questionable loyalty call by re-signing Tim Lincecum. It’s hard to believe they’ll do the same thing in this scenario with Romo. Maybe Romo was just unlucky this weekend, and maybe he’ll be fine the rest of the way, but one or two more ninth inning blow ups and the Giants will be forced make some difficult decisions.