2011 Analysis: Jason Isringhausen
When Jason Isringhausen walked off of a softball field and into spring training in Port St. Lucie, expectations were low. After all, the 38-year-old hadn’t thrown a big-league pitch in almost two years — and even then, it was only 8 innings before blowing out his elbow and undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery. Izzy himself wasn’t necessarily convinced he could pitch in MLB again — he had resigned himself to playing recreational softball after a brief comeback attempt in AAA during 2010. But nonetheless, he gave it the old college try. And who were the Mets to deny any pitcher entrance to their spring training complex, much less one with Isringhausen’s resume and previous history with the organization?
It was a longshot, and if Izzy could just make it back on a big-league mound it would make for a fabulous feel-good story. As it turned out, Izzy gave the Mets and we fans much more than that.
Isringhausen began the season in extended spring training — a situation nearly declined by him, as he considered his options and might have entertained offers from other teams, such as the rival Phillies. He didn’t stay long in sunny Florida, getting a callup to the big club on April 11th and pitching two-thirds of an inning against the Rockies that night in his second debut as a New York Met. Izzy threw well from the outset, allowing only 4 hits to the first 26 batters he faced in April. He kept up that pace through the next three months, with the opposition struggling to reach the Mendoza Line against him. He seemed to gain strength as the season went on, before hitting a wall in August — when he allowed a .294 batting average and .400 OBP. However, he appeared to be turning it around in late August and early September, before suffering back spasms that effectively ended his season.
Throughout the year, Jason Isringhausen proved to be the Mets’ most reliable middle reliever / setup man. Though his velocity wasn’t where it was in his prime, and he sometimes struggled to get his fastball into the upper 80s, he usually had just enough gas to create a contrast with his nasty knuckle-curve. The crafty veteran mixed up a surprisingly effective cutter with a sinker that he had difficulty commanding early in the year — it was frequently beating up worms in April and May. Due to the recent TJ surgery, he was used judiciously at first and with ample rest, but eventually found his way into back-to-back games. By the end of the year, he appeared in 13 games with no rest, and responded fairly well, allowing a .195 batting average and .633 OPS. Interestingly, his worst numbers came when he was given two full days’ rest — .275 batting average, .843 OPS, and 3 HR in 10 games. Granted, that’s a small sample size, but it does suggest further investigation.
Though he was frequently used as the setup man, it was never an “official” role. Shortly after the departure of Francisco Rodriguez, however, manager Terry Collins intimated that Isringhausen would be the team’s closer — at least initially. At the time, Izzy had 293 career saves. In one month’s time — from July 16 to August 15 — he collected exactly 7 saves. Immediately after reaching the 300 milestone, Collins announced that youngsters such as Bobby Parnell and Pedro Beato would be given opportunities to close thereafter, and Izzy’s back starting barking about a week later.
Mainly because of his surprising comeback, I don’t see Isringhausen returning to Flushing in 2012. He’s proven to have a healthy arm and that he can still be effective as a legitimate setup man and part-time closer — and that makes him a valuable commodity, even if he’s approaching 40. His recent TJ surgery may benefit his value, as GMs might consider his arm “fresh” again. Of course, his back problems at the end of the year are concerning, but considering the dearth of reliable relief, one would expect that Isringhausen will have several offers this winter — and likely, at least a few from potential contenders. Anything can happen, of course, but the rebuilding Mets wouldn’t appear to be an ideal fit for a nearly 40-year-old setup man who can still help a championship-bound club. The idea of Izzy as a “mentor” to youngsters such as Parnell and Beato was a nice story to spin, but seeing the abysmal performances by both in their closing auditions suggest that such an intangible would be wasted. While I believe earnestly that Izzy has something to offer as a mentor to young firemen, I also believe that the Mets don’t currently have a closer-in-waiting who would benefit from such tutoring.
Will Izzy pitch well in 2012, regardless of what uniform he wears? I believe so — though it all depends on the health of his back. I can see a club like the Phillies ponying up a few million on a one-year deal, only to see him on the mound for 25-30 games due to chronic back issues. But if he gets over the back problem, I can also see Izzy pitching in another 50-60 games at a similar level he did this past year.