I'm fascinated by relief pitchers. They are interesting because they are clearly the third-most important squad on any baseball team. Bullpens are overwhelmingly populated by cast-offs, riff-raff, no-good-nicks, and ne'er-do-wells. Building a bullpen is less like selecting a playground kickball team and more like staffing a pirate ship. The only ones willing to take the job are ones that can't get jobs doing anything better.
See, most relief pitchers end up in the bullpen. What I mean is, they begin their baseball lives doing something else. Dennis Eckersley was a 20-game winner as a starter before he became a dominant closer. Mariano Rivera was a promising starting pitcher prospect before he magically invented the cutter and became the best closer ever. Trevor Hoffman began his career as a shortstop before going on to set the saves record. Countless guys like Nick Masset and Sean Marshall wash out of the rotation for various reasons, frustrating their managers and GMs, only to end up making careers for themselves as relievers. So most relievers end up in the bullpen, because they started doing something else and failed at it. It's the cold truth, but it's the truth all the same. The bullpen is like grad school for ball players.
The guys that really fascinate me the most are the guys that begin their careers as relief pitchers. These aren't the straight-A students who fell in with the wrong crowd and gradually turned into high school misfits. These are the badass kids who showed up late the first day of kindergarten with half a pack of Marlboro Reds rolled up in their t-shirt sleeve and someone else's blood on their jeans. They didn't become relief pitchers, they were born relief pitchers.
I bring all this up because I've had a secret crush on one of these bad boys for a while now. The week after the Mat Latos trade, the same day as the Sean Marshall trade, the Reds made a much less interesting move. They picked up Josh Judy off the waiver wire. He had been DFA'd by the Indians to make room for whatever. He was the 41st man on a 40-man roster, and so the Reds were able to pick him up for nothing. Teams collect relievers like him every off-season, pulling them out of the bargain bin with the slim hope they might turn into something valuable. This year, the Reds have picked up the likes of Andrew Brackman, Luis Atilano, and Kanekoa Texeira to go along with Judy. I think I can confidently say that none of these guys will throw meaningful innings for the Reds this year. But there is just something about this Judy fella that I can't quite let go.
Look, the story of "relief ace comes out of nowhere" is not a novel one. Joakim Soria was a Rule 5 draft pick. Mike Adams was claimed off waivers and traded a few times for garbage before locking it down. Of course, the "unknown player never makes good and eventually coaches high school" story is much more common. But something tells me Judy has a chance to be the next Mike Adams rather than the next Bert Spurlick.
Check it: Judy made his debut last year with the Indians, shuttling back and forth between Columbus and the big league club all year. He only pitched 14 innings for the Tribe and got shelled pretty hard. But come on, 14 innings is nothing. Take a look at his minor league numbers:
I dunno man, I just don't know. I look at a guy with strikeout numbers like that, matched with a decent ability to suppress walks and home runs, and I see potential. He has good stuff, too, with a hard fastball that can hit the mid-90s and a strong slider. Shut-down bullpens almost always have at least one guy who kinda came out of nowhere, right? Maybe Judy is that guy for the Reds.
I know, I know. It's stupid to dedicate this much time talking about some waiver-claim relief pitcher. Seriously, the chances that this guy amounts to much are pretty slim. But I won't count him out. Judy doesn't even give a shit about that. He's gonna pull his motorcycle up (not wearing a helmet) to the Spring Training complex in Goodyear next month and glare at the Indians entrance. He won't say anything, though. He'll just put out his cigarette on his tongue and stick the remainder behind his left ear. Then he'll walk into the Reds' clubhouse and drop his garbage bag in front of his locker and George Thorogood will start playing over the PA. He'll pull out his glove, his spikes, his switchblade, and a picture of his motorcycle. He's a bad ass and he doesn't care what you think. He knows no other way but bad. He was born a reliever.