Jason Grilli’s Triumphant Return to Detroit

Did Detroit Tigers fans recognize the pitcher who took the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 11th inning Tuesday night at Comerica Park?

The Pirates closer mowed down the best part of the Tigers batting order, striking out Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in succession to finish off a 1-0 win. (Cabrera was punched out in just four pitches, by the way.)

The mullet on that reliever looked familiar, though perhaps more stringy than it was before.

Wait — that was Jason Grilli? And he leads MLB with 21 saves? He’s even perfect, converting all 21 of his save opportunities?

grilli_piratesYep, that was the same Jason Grilli who Tigers fans couldn’t wait to run out of town during his four seasons in Detroit. In 2008, the team granted their wish by shipping Grilli to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for minor leaguer Zach Simons.

On his way out of Detroit, Grilli made sure the door was slammed shut behind him by saying the Tigers clubhouse had become “stale and stagnant.” Chemistry suffered, he claimed, when the team didn’t bring back Sean Casey.

That led to the best rant Jim Leyland has ever unleashed on the Detroit media.

“You have to be kidding me,” Leyland told reporters, including MLB.com’s Jason Beck. “I mean, please. Jason Grilli ought to just worry about Colorado.

“Jason Grilli’s not here any longer because Jason Grilli didn’t pitch good under pressure situations and didn’t pitch very well in Detroit. You want to tell it like it is? When players want to start talking, I’ll start talking. But I’m very reserved about stuff like that. Jason Grilli ought to worry about Colorado, not Detroit.”

You can listen to the audio of Leyland’s remarks at MLive.

I enjoyed the rant so much that I still have it on my iPod. If it comes up on shuffle while I’m at the gym, I start giggling and people around me wonder what’s wrong with this guy.

So at least we can always thank Grilli for that. Oh, and the windshield-wiper goggles that he wore during the clubhouse celebration in 2006. Those set a standard that really have yet to be matched since, despite attempts to avoid stinging champagne in the eyes by snowboarding and ski goggles.

Personally, I should also show gratitude toward Grilli for providing me with some great material back when I was writing at Bless You Boys. As infuriating as it was to watch Grilli pitch poorly for the Tigers, it gave me the opportunity to unleash some rants of my own. This one, for example, after he blew a game early in the 2008 season.

If a tied ballgame were a carton of eggs handed to Grilli, he not only would’ve dropped the eggs on the floor, shattering the shells, and pooling yolk and white all over your kitchen tile.  But he would’ve then slipped on the viscous puddle, gone feet-first into the air, came crashing back down ass-first into the sticky, gooey mess, getting it all over his clothes, spreading and spraying the now-inedible sludge across the floor and onto the walls.

Even worse, Grilli would’ve pulled the person who was trying to help him up down to the floor with him, causing the innocent to also fall injuriously, soil his or her clothing, and causing a further spread of slop around the room.  And you know what?  Grilli might not have even cleaned up the mess, leaving all that broken egg to cause a salmonella outbreak in your household.  And all he was supposed to do was put the damn eggs in the refrigerator.

Ah, I kind of miss those days. Along with the ability to coin a nickname like “Gas Can Grilli.” (I even tried to cash in on the anti-Grilli sentiment with t-shirts.)

Grilli pitched well for the Rockies after the Tigers traded him, compiling a 2.93 ERA in 51 appearances. He also struck out 59 batters in 61.1 innings. Going to the National League looked like a good career move for him.

The next season didn’t go so well, however. Grilli lugged a 6.05 ERA in 22 appearances with Colorado in 2009 and he was designated for assignment. The Texas Rangers picked him up, but as you might expect, it didn’t go much better for him in Arlington. Grilli struck out 27 batters in 26.1 innings, but allowed 14 hits and 14 walks while posting a 4.78 ERA.

grilli_tigersAt 32 years old, it wasn’t outlandish to wonder if Grilli’s career was near its end. That seemed like even more of a possibility after Grilli missed the entire 2010 season due to a knee injury suffered in spring training with the Cleveland Indians.

But something seemed to click for Grilli after he returned in 2011. Following a minor-league stint with the Phillies in which he compiled a 1.93 ERA in 28 appearances, Grilli caught on with the Pirates. Since then, he’s been one of the best relievers in the majors.

Into his third season with Pittsburgh, Grilli has a 2.43 ERA in 118 appearances (almost as many as he had with the Tigers) and is averaging 12.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

If you’re a believer in holds, Grilli racked up 32 of them last season. This year, he has those 21 saves, three more than the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera. He’s a big reason that the Pirates are 32-20, 2.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the NL Central.

What’s been the big difference for Grilli? Experience may have made him a smarter pitcher, as Hunter alluded to after Tuesday’s game. But the primary change in Grilli’s game is his slider.

As FanGraphs shows, Grilli has ditched the curveball and changeup that he mixed in while he was with the Tigers. He’s primarily a two-pitch pitcher now, featuring a fastball and slider.

That slider is even more effective than his fastball. He gets a strike with it nearly 44 percent of the time. Opposing batters are hitting .133 against it with a .295 OPS.

Interestingly, according to Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was former Tiger Jeremy Bonderman who talked to Grilli about how to throw a slider more effectively. Maybe Grilli can someday return the favor and advise Bondo on how to reinvent himself as a lights-out major league reliever.

Did I really just use the term “lights-out” in reference to Grilli? Well, look at the numbers. He might just be the best closer in MLB right now.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve mentioned on a few radio and podcast appearances that the Tigers might want to look at Grilli if they find themselves looking for a closer at the trade deadline.

I meant it somewhat jokingly, since things generally didn’t go well for Grilli in Detroit. That’s also presuming, of course, that the Pirates fall out of the NL playoff race in the second half of the season, as they have during the past two years. But if they do, Grilli will likely be the best closer available.

Tigers fans surely wouldn’t want to see Grilli return. Yet all would likely be forgiven if he was just as effective for the Tigers as he’s been for the Pirates and helped fill the one big hole on Detroit’s roster.

How strange would that be?

Published by

Mike McClary

Upbeat guy.

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