Wednesday, May 30, 2012

All-Time Bluefield Team - Armando Benitez

Next up on the All-Time Bluefield-to-the-Bigs Team is reliever Armando Benitez. This two-time All-Star ranks 25th on the all-time saves list with 289. Despite his knack for blowing big postseason saves (as any Orioles or Mets fan can attest), he definitely makes the All-Time Bluefield pen. With Sparky Lyle established as closer, Benitez and Arthur Rhodes make a fine righty-lefty set-up duo.

Benitez was born on November 3, 1972 in Ramon Santana in the Dominican Republic.

Signed by the Orioles in 1990 at 17, he began his pro career a year later and after a successful season in the Gulf Coast League, moved up to Bluefield in 1992.

He posted a 4.31 ERA and five saves in 25 relief appearances for the Baby Birds. He struck out more than a batter per inning (37 in 31.1), but 23 walks inflated his WHIP to a subpar 1.85. The club won the division at 37-25, but faced a 49-17 Elizabethton Twins squad that featured LaTroy Hawkins and Cory Lidle. The Orioles won the best-of-three series 2-1 to pull the upset and claim the title.

1993 was a big leap, as Benitez struck out 112 batters in 67 innings with a 1.34 ERA while splitting time between the low-A Albany Polecats and high-A Frederick Keys. He was closing games with the Double-A Bowie Baysox when the Orioles called him up for his major league debut on July 28, 1994.

Mopping up for Mike Mussina against the Indians, Benitez started his career in the bigs with a strikeout of Albert Belle, who was in his prime as one of baseball's most ferocious hitters. He finished the game with two and two-thirds scoreless innings, allowing only two singles and retiring eight of the ten men he faced with three strikeouts. All against a lineup that starred a 1-through-7 of Lofton, Vizquel, Thome, Belle, Murray, Sorrento and Alomar.

After three outings (one run and 14 strikeouts in ten innings), it was back down to Bowie, but he earned a promotion to Triple-A Rochester in '95. He was great in 17 games with the Red Wings (1.25 ERA), but he struggled in Baltimore during a lengthy 44-game call-up (5.66 ERA).

Armando was on the O's late in 1996 for their stretch run to the wild card, as he and lefties Rhodes and Jesse Orosco formed a solid set-up corps for Randy Myers. He made his postseason debut in Game Two of the ALDS against Cleveland. Summoned to protect a one-run lead in the eighth with two on and no outs, he gave up a walk and sac fly to blow the save. The offense rallied in the bottom half of the eighth with three runs and Benitez wound up getting credited with the victory. In the next game he served up a tie-breaking grand slam to Albert Belle.

The next night, the Tribe was a strike away from forcing a fifth and deciding game. Jose Mesa surrendered a game-tying single to Roberto Alomar and the game carried into extra innings. Benitez worked a scoreless tenth and 11th, earning another win when Alomar homered off Mesa in the 12th to win the series.

In the ALCS opener against the Yankees, he entered to a bases-loaded, two-out situation in the seventh with the O's up two runs. With a 10-year-old James Smyth in attendance, Benitez walked Darryl Strawberry to cut the lead to 4-3, then served up this double home run to Derek Jeter that tied the game. The Yankees won that game, then the series in five games en route to their first title in 18 years.

1997 was more of the same. He was lights out in the regular season setting up for Myers, but he blew two big games in the ALCS against the Indians. The O's were six outs away from taking a commanding 2-0 series lead, but Benitez went K-BB-K-BB before Marquis Grissom homered to even the set and give Benitez another playoff blown save. After Jose Mesa blew the save in the top of the ninth in Game Four, Benitez gave up a walk-off single to Sandy Alomar Jr. in the bottom half. In Game Six, Mike Mussina and Charles Nagy had a great duel. With the game still scoreless in top of the 11th inning, Benitez gave up this home run to Tony Fernandez that won the pennant for Cleveland.

The right-hander took over the closer role in 1998 and locked down 22 saves. He started this epic brawl (that I saw live at Yankee Stadium) when he gave up a go-ahead homer to Bernie Williams then drilled Tino Martinez in the back with the next pitch and all hell broke loose. Martinez, who a year earlier with Seattle was hit immediately after Benitez gave up a grand slam to Edgar Martinez, charged the mound. The benches and bullpens (led by Graeme Lloyd) emptied and Darryl Strawberry was throwing haymakers all over the place. Finally order is restored, Benitez was ejected but Tino wasn't. The new reliever came in and on the first pitch, Tim Raines hit a two run homer!

Benitez had a productive year but that offseason though, the team that signed him and first brought him to the majors traded him to the New York Mets for catcher Charles Johnson (who the Mets had received from the Dodgers that same day for Todd Hundley).

I know I've spent a bunch of space writing about his blown saves in the '97 and '98 postseasons, but Benitez's Oriole tenure was really good. From 1996-98, his 213 strikeouts in 156 innings gave him the second-highest K-rate (12.29 per 9 IP) in the majors among relievers.

It was on to Flushing and Benitez wound up pitching more games for the Mets than any other in his career. 1999 was a good start, as only Billy Wagner topped him in K/9 among MLB relievers and he finished second to Wagner in bWAR (3.2) and ERA (1.85) among NL relievers.

The Mets won the wild card and he was excellent in that postseason. In Game Four of the NLDS against Arizona, Jay Bell's two-run double off him put the D-Backs ahead, but the Mets came back to tie it. They won the game and the series in the tenth inning on an unlikely home run by backup catcher Todd Pratt.

Down 3-0 in the NLCS to the powerhouse Braves, the Mets roared back to win Games Four and Five (the last on Robin Ventura's grand-slam single) to send the series back to Atlanta. The Braves led Game Six 5-0 through five innings and 7-3 through six but New York kept coming back. The Mets led in the tenth and were two outs away from being the first team to force a seventh game after being down 3-0. But Benitez gave up an RBI single to Ozzie Guillen that tied the game. They lost in brutal fashion in the 11th when Kenny Rogers loaded the bases and threw a 3-2 pitch that was not even close to walk in the pennant-winning run.

The Mets got over the hump and won the pennant the following year, thanks in part to their closer, who was third in the NL with 41 saves. In Game Two of the NLDS in San Francisco, Benitez gave up a game-tying, ninth-inning, three-run pinch-hit homer to J.T. Snow. The Mets recovered and won the game when John Franco struck out Barry Bonds to end it. They went on to win the next two games to advance, then rolled through the Cardinals to reach a Subway World Series against the Yankees.

The Mets were poised to take the opening game, but the Yanks came back against Benitez in the ninth. With one out and the Mets up 3-2, Paul O'Neill worked a ten-pitch walk. Singles by the light-hitting duo of Luis Polonia and Jose Vizcaino loaded the bases and Chuck Knoblauch lifted a sacrifice fly to tie the game. Vizcaino laced a walk-off single in the 12th against Turk Wendell and the Yanks were on their way. Benitez saved the Mets' lone win in Game Three, but the Bronx Bombers won in five games to claim their third straight title.

2001 was a step back for Armando, as his K's went down while his walks and ERA went up. He still saved 43 games (second in the NL to Robb Nen) and won the National League Rolaids Relief Award. His ERA+ of 110 was actually the second-worst among NL closers.

Benitez got back on track in 2002 and had another good year in 2003 as he made his first All-Star team. In July of '03 he was traded across town to the Yankees. I recalled him being a disaster in the Bronx, but he actually pitched well. In nine games, he allowed only two runs, but one of them was in this game. He lost at Boston in the bottom of the ninth and was quickly banished to Seattle. He finished up strong and was on the move again that offseason.

Although postseason failures cast a shadow over his time with the Mets, Benitez was very productive over his four and a half seasons at Shea. His 159 ERA+ ranked fourth among ML relievers (behind Mariano Rivera, Keith Foulke and Wagner) and his bWAR of 9.9 trailed only the aforementioned three and Octavio Dotel. Wagner edged him out 11.71-11.68 for the top K/9 rate over that span.

He signed with the Marlins for one year in 2004 and led the National League with 47 saves with an absurd 1.29 ERA (319 ERA+) that led all major league relievers. Of NL RP's, only Brad Lidge had a higher bWAR than Benitez's 3.3. 2004 was the second straight season in which he made the All-Star team. He didn't get into either game and those were his only All-Star nods.

His standout campaign in '04 netted him a contract from the San Francisco Giants, but his time there was marred by injury and ineffectiveness. One of his blown saves was this one against his old team in New York (which just happened to be five years ago yesterday). Tasked with holding a one-run lead in the 12th inning, he walked Jose Reyes and balked him to second. After a groundout moved Reyes to third, Benitez committed ANOTHER balk to plate Reyes and tie the game. Moments later, Carlos Delgado ripped a walk-off homer. It was one of only six blown saves since 1918 (so it's probably all of them) that featured multiple balks:

Rk Player Date Tm Opp Rslt App,Dec IP H R ER BB SO BK WPA
1 Jim Gott 1988-08-06 PIT NYM L 3-5 8-8 ,BL 0.2 1 3 3 3 1 3 -0.655
2 Armando Benitez 2007-05-29 SFG NYM L 4-5 12-12f,BL 0.2 1 2 2 1 0 2 -0.795
3 Doug Jones 1988-04-12 CLE MIN L 6-7 8-9f ,BS 1.2 0 0 0 1 3 2 -0.180
4 Lance McCullers 1986-09-22 SDP ATL L 8-9 7-8 ,BS 1.2 1 1 0 3 0 2 -0.201
5 Eric King 1986-05-30 DET SEA L 7-8 7-8 ,BS 1.2 3 2 2 0 2 2 -0.196
6 Roy Thomas 1977-09-26 HOU ATL L 10-12 5-5 ,BS 1.0 2 2 2 1 0 2 -0.229
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/29/2012.

It was Benitez's last game as a Giant. He was dealt back to the Marlins and was mercilessly booed in San Francisco upon his return as a visitor later in the year. He pitched to a 5.73 ERA to finish the season and the end was near.

He was a free agent again in 2008 and signed with the Blue Jays during spring training. He didn't make the roster to start the season, but after time in Dunedin and Syracuse, got to the majors in May. He put up a 5.68 ERA in eight games before being released within a month. His last big league game was June 6, when he gave up a game-tying eighth-inning homer to Kevin Millar and a go-ahead blast to Adam Jones.

At 36, Benitez couldn't land a major league job in 2009 until August. He pitched for most of the summer with the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League, then signed with the Astros. He got into seven games with Triple-A Round Rock, but never made it to Houston. He split the 2010 season between Newark and the Marlins. He lasted a month in the Fish system, once again being released within a month before getting back to the majors.

Just last week, Benitez signed with the Long Island Ducks back in the Atlantic League, a club that also has former big leaguers Ryan Garko, Gustavo Chacin and Randy Keisler, among others. After a year off, he's staying in the game at 39 years old, so you gotta' hand it to him for his perseverance.

Benitez's career is a bit of an enigma. He was one of the better closers of the late 90s and early 2000s, but he had several high-profile implosions in big games.

These are the eight pitchers with four or more blown saves in the postseason. My earlier post on Arthur Rhodes had this list and I said I would have bet my life that Benitez topped it:

Rk Player #Matching
1 Armando Benitez 6 Ind. Games 2 1 9.95 6.1 10 7 3 7 9 2.68
2 Mariano Rivera 5 Ind. Games 0 1 3.52 7.2 10 3 1 2 7 1.57
3 Mitch Williams 4 Ind. Games 2 2 15.75 4.0 10 7 1 4 4 3.50
4 Arthur Rhodes 4 Ind. Games 0 1 43.20 1.2 9 8 2 1 1 6.00
5 Jose Mesa 4 Ind. Games 1 1 5.19 8.2 15 5 1 2 10 1.96
6 Ryan Madson 4 Ind. Games 1 0 9.00 3.0 5 3 1 1 4 2.00
7 Rick Honeycutt 4 Ind. Games 2 0 2.08 4.1 4 1 1 2 1 1.38
8 Rawly Eastwick 4 Ind. Games 3 0 6.75 5.1 9 4 2 5 3 2.63
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/27/2012.

The great Mariano Rivera makes the list as well, mostly because of the sheer volume of save chances (47). Brad Lidge is second all-time with 20. Rivera was 42-for-47 while Benitez was only 4-for-10.

Still, Benitez was an elite closer. Over the nine seasons from 1998-2006, here are the pitchers with the most saves:

Rk Player SV From To Age G IP H BB SO ERA ERA+ HR Tm
1 Mariano Rivera 365 1998 2006 28-36 574 635.1 482 142 534 2.03 223 28 NYY
2 Trevor Hoffman 347 1998 2006 30-38 512 516.2 399 122 544 2.49 161 41 SDP
3 Billy Wagner 292 1998 2006 26-34 554 584.1 391 178 761 2.33 191 55 HOU-PHI-NYM
4 Armando Benitez 265 1998 2006 25-33 563 577.0 391 282 684 2.81 154 67 BAL-NYM-TOT-FLA-SFG
5 Troy Percival 258 1998 2005 28-35 426 411.2 297 185 434 3.41 136 50 ANA-DET
6 Jason Isringhausen 249 1999 2006 26-33 460 505.0 407 213 465 3.10 140 41 TOT-OAK-STL
7 Bob Wickman 235 1998 2006 29-37 469 477.0 464 177 397 3.19 140 34 MIL-TOT-CLE
8 Jose Mesa 217 1998 2006 32-40 620 635.1 677 291 470 4.25 104 68 TOT-SEA-PHI-PIT-COL
9 Ugueth Urbina 210 1998 2005 24-31 480 495.2 359 220 607 3.21 140 53 MON-TOT-BOS-DET
10 Robb Nen 206 1998 2002 28-32 365 378.1 297 113 453 2.43 169 24 SFG
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/29/2012.

These are the relief pitcher bWAR leaders over that same span:

Rk Player WAR From To Age G SV IP H BB SO ERA ERA+ Tm
1 Mariano Rivera 28.7 1998 2006 28-36 574 365 635.1 482 142 534 2.03 223 NYY
2 Keith Foulke 20.5 1998 2006 25-33 561 187 682.1 536 158 641 2.97 159 CHW-OAK-BOS
3 Billy Wagner 19.4 1998 2006 26-34 554 292 584.1 391 178 761 2.33 191 HOU-PHI-NYM
4 Armando Benitez 15.0 1998 2006 25-33 563 265 577.0 391 282 684 2.81 154 BAL-NYM-TOT-FLA-SFG
5 Trevor Hoffman 13.7 1998 2006 30-38 512 347 516.2 399 122 544 2.49 161 SDP
6 Tom Gordon 13.6 1998 2006 30-38 459 136 488.2 371 174 541 2.97 152 BOS-CHC-TOT-CHW-NYY-PHI
7 LaTroy Hawkins 11.9 1998 2006 25-33 536 75 860.0 944 275 580 4.40 108 MIN-CHC-TOT-BAL
8 Joe Nathan 11.6 1999 2006 24-31 327 124 477.0 357 203 478 3.17 139 SFG-MIN
9 Eddie Guardado 11.5 1998 2006 27-35 555 176 513.2 435 175 484 3.50 133 MIN-SEA-TOT
10 Octavio Dotel 11.3 1999 2006 25-32 395 71 610.1 482 270 732 3.75 122 NYM-HOU-TOT-OAK-NYY
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/29/2012.

Here's the leaderboard for most seasons with a 170 ERA+ (min 50 IP and relieving in at least 80% of their appearances):

Yrs From To Age
1 Mariano Rivera 13 1996 2011 26-41 Ind. Seasons
2 Billy Wagner 7 1999 2010 27-38 Ind. Seasons
3 Rich Gossage 7 1975 1985 23-33 Ind. Seasons
4 Hoyt Wilhelm 7 1954 1968 31-45 Ind. Seasons
5 Tom Henke 6 1987 1995 29-37 Ind. Seasons
6 Joe Nathan 5 2004 2009 29-34 Ind. Seasons
7 Jose Valverde 5 2003 2011 25-33 Ind. Seasons
8 Armando Benitez 5 1997 2004 24-31 Ind. Seasons
9 Trevor Hoffman 5 1996 2009 28-41 Ind. Seasons
10 Doug Jones 5 1988 1997 31-40 Ind. Seasons
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/29/2012.

He even had a statistical oddity at the plate. He had eight plate appearances in his career (five in 1999), four strikeouts, three groundouts and a lineout. However, two of those grounders came with a man at third base and drove in a run. So the right-hander actually has two career RBIs without registering a hit in the major leagues.

Benitez had an interesting career and although a lot of this post has been rehashing his postseason meltdowns, he did have a very good career with a prime that is especially productive and lengthy for a closer. While volatile, he completes an excellent quintet in the back of the All-Time Bluefield bullpen with Sparky Lyle, Arthur Rhodes, Jim Johnson and Sammy Stewart.

All-Time Bluefield Roster
SP 1 Dean Chance
SP 2 Mike Boddicker
SP 3 Bill Monbouquette
SP 4 Pete Harnisch
RP Tom Phoebus
RP Ken McBride
RP Sammy Stewart
RP Jim Johnson
Setup Arthur Rhodes
Setup Armando Benitez
Closer Sparky Lyle

C Gregg Zaun
C Johnny Gooch

1B Eddie Murray
2B Bobby Grich
SS Cal Ripken
3B Doug DeCinces
IF Mark Belanger

LF Don Baylor
CF Luis Matos
RF Bob Bailor
OF David Dellucci

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