When the Giants signed Armando Benitez, I don't think there were a lot of folks hoping for a repeat of his 2004 season. He had a fantastic season, saving 47 out of 51 with an ERA of 1.29. That was a bit unexpected, though. The Giants were just looking for stability. Expensive, expensive stability.
It didn't work out. Even before the hamstring sproinged into submission, the fastball rarely cracked 90 MPH. There might have been concerns with having Benitez as a closer, but a limp fastball was never one of them. Then came the injury, and it was coupled with a foolish rush back to action. The fastball stayed away.
Benitez has always had his faults. He never really stopped walking people, even in his best years. He'll still allow home runs; he throws pretty straight fastballs, and people have a tendency to sit on straight fastballs. But in his pre-Giants years, Benitez made every opposing hitter the equivalent of Jose Vizcaino. Worse, even. For all of the talk about Benitez not having the joie de vivre to close, or whatever the hell it takes, he has one of the higher save success percentages in history. He was a good pitcher before he came to the Giants.
Worth 1/4 of 10% of one billion dollars1? It seemed like a lot at the time, and it seems ridiculous now. A closer that would never frustrate you? Those don't exist. But he was one of a small handful of closers that had maintained some level of consistency. There are fly-by-night closers that seem to have the career lifespan of a gnat. Danny Kolb. Rich Loiselle. Billy Taylor. Good for one, two, three, or so years, but eventually swept out the front door. Benitez was in a different class, and just barely on the outside of the top tier of closers. He wasn't the worst closer to overspend on.
After about 30 innings of 89-MPH flatness, though, I was pretty convinced the Giants got hoodwinked. Bamboozled. Possibly even hornswoggled. It doesn't matter what color sash a guy wears to the annual Proven Closer's Ball; if a guy can't pitch, he can't pitch.
That's what made the mysterious velocity increase of last month so interesting. Expectations had been adjusted, and now the team would be thrilled with a slightly above-average closer. If the fastball's back, that's not out of the question. But what spurred this overly wordy treatise on the State of Armando was one pitch. The velocity loss has been beaten to death, but rarely has anyone mentioned his splitter. Or, rather, the complete absence of anything other than a fastball to try and get people out. He used to have a nasty split-fingered fastball.
Last night, he threw a splitter for the second strike to Orlando Cabrera, and it was the best pitch he's thrown as a Giant. It broke Cabrera down, and did exactly what a splitter was supposed to do. The strikeout of Vlad was great, but more a case of a stubborn hitter guessing incorrectly. It was that one Punxsutawney Phil of a splitter that gave me hope that Benitez would just be overpaid, not overpaid and useless.
A slightly above-average closer. That's all I ask for. Right now, I have more confidence in Jeremy Accardo, but that's fine. That just means Accardo will be the one brought in with runners on base, and tight situations. I'm growing more comfortable in giving the two- or three-run leads to start an inning to Benitez. Expecting him to be an All-Star might be a little goofy, but there's no sense in dismissing him entirely. He's a bit of a clown, and not in the good way, but I'm guardedly optimistic.
1First rule of sports muckraking: Always make the salary seem outrageous.