July 21, 2001: Life as a LOOGY — Do one thing really really well

Story originally appeared July 21, 2011 at thestar.com



Seconds after ordering the intentional walk that loads the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 5-5 tie against the Washington Nationals, then-Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez marches to the mound to take the ball from the outgoing pitcher.

In the on-deck circle he sees Adam LaRoche, a hard-hitting first baseman who had swatted 25 homers in each of the previous three seasons — so Rodriguez turned to the bullpen and summoned the one man he felt could solve his team’s dilemma.

Southpaw reliever Randy Choate sprints in from the bullpen and runs through the elaborate routine that precedes every outing.

Kicking the rosin bag off the mound before throwing a predetermined sequence of warm-up pitches. Walking to the back of the mound and touching his shoe tops before nudging the rosin bag back into place. Scratching a series of letters into the dirt — a coded message to his two daughters — before staring at a clump of dirt, tugging at his cap, peering in at catcher John Buck and considering the possibilities.

Retire LaRoche and the game heads to extra innings. But if LaRoche reaches base . . . well, that isn’t an option. Anything but an out would hand the Marlins a loss to a last-place team.

A high-pressure scenario for sure, but Choate views it instead as an opportunity to succeed.

And the 35-year old has never experienced success like he has in 2011, posting career bests in ERA (1.33), WHIP (0.885) and opponents’ batting average (.129).

Choate hasn’t learned a new pitch — he still only throws a fastball and a slider — or a new approach to pitching.

Rather, his stats have skyrocketed as his job has become more specialized.

While every major-league bullpen is stocked with role players, few relievers have carved out a niche as specific as Choate’s. He’s not a closer who pitches the ninth inning or a set-up man who works the eighth. Instead, he parachutes into games to retire a particular left-handed hitter.

On this afternoon, he coaxes a weak ground out from LaRoche, bringing on extra innings in a game the Marlins would eventually win 6-5.

Through Monday, 60 of the 82 batters he had faced had been lefties. And of his 45 appearances, 28 had consisted of just one batter.

Baseball people have an acronym for guys like Choate — LOOGY, which stands for Left-handed One Out Guy.

Choate’s not the first LOOGY; Jesse Orosco parlayed the specialty into a 24-year career that spanned 11 teams. He’s also not the only one in the majors right now; Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver play similar roles with the Rangers, as does Boone Logan with the Yankees.

But with a new contract and new assignment in Miami, Choate has emerged as the premier practitioner of the LOOGY’s craft.

“When the Marlins came searching for me (last off-season) they said they wanted me because there are a lot of tough left-handers in our division,” says Choate, who had spent the previous two seasons with Tampa Bay. “(Now) it’s focus, come in, get that guy out and get off the field. (My job) has become even more specialized.”

*    *    *

Randy Choate isn’t the only hurler benefitting from a renewed emphasis on pitching in baseball’s post-steroid era.

On the strength of six no-hitters, 2010 earned the label Year of The Pitcher — but midway through 2011, pitchers are even more dominant, collectively posting numbers the game hasn’t seen in a generation.

Such as a 3.83 aggregate ERA through Monday, which is down from the 4.08 pitchers managed last season and on pace to become the lowest MLB-wide ERA since 1976.

The leaguewide walks and hits per inning pitched ratio (WHIP) is down to 1.305, the lowest level since 1988, and home runs have dropped off to 0.89 per game, a level unseen since the early 1990s.

What does Choate himself contribute to these stats?

Precious little, given that his 45 appearances this season total just 20.1 innings.

But the numbers represent an environment in which Choate doesn’t just survive, even with his seemingly meagre repertoire. His fastball tops out at 89 m.p.h. and sweeps away from left-handed batters, while his mid-80s slider dives down and in at the feet.

Those two pitches and a quasi-sidearm delivery have allowed Choate to thrive in a specialized role.

Last season with the Rays, Choate posted a 4.23 ERA over a league-high 85 appearances, totalling 44 2/3 innings with an emphasis on retiring left-handed batters.

Before this season, the Marlins signed the free agent to a two-year deal worth $2.5 million, hoping he’d handcuff Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez and other left-handed power hitters that populate the NL East.

This season, Choate faces left-handers almost exclusively — and he suffocates them.

In 56 at-bats against Choate, left-handed batters have managed just six base hits, five of them singles. Against righties, Choate has more than twice as many walks (seven) as strikeouts (three), but has walked only two lefties all season while striking out 23.

“He’s funky,” says former Blue Jay and current Marlins catcher John Buck. “He comes from an angle that’s not really easy on lefties. It’s not really necessary for him to have more than two pitches. You just use those two pitches to spread the plate.”

And to get into hitters’ heads.

Last season, Choate’s showdowns with Adam Lind became as predictable a part of a Jays-Rays matchup as the pre-game anthems.

The two have faced off so often (17 times and counting) and Lind prevailed so infrequently (just one hit so far) that the pairing has become a running joke to some Blue Jays.

When a reporter interviewing Lind after a recent home game mentions Choate, second baseman Aaron Hill, eavesdropping a few feet away, cracks up.

It’s not funny to Lind.

His smile turns into a Dave Stewart scowl, and a friendly interview turns tense.

“We’re not going to talk about Randy Choate,” he says.

And he means it.

Interview over.

*    *    *

Kids don’t dream of reaching the major leagues as niche-filling relief pitchers any more than they fantasize about winning Super Bowl rings as long snappers.

So for many relievers, the first step to success is learning to subdue their inner starter.

It’s not always easy.

These days, Jose Contreras is one of the Phillies’ closers by committee. But two years ago, he was closing in on 40 and frustrated with the options his few remaining years in the game offered him. He knew becoming a reliever could extend his career, but still wasn’t happy when the Colorado Rockies transitioned him to the bullpen.

“About halfway through last season I started thinking differently and now I enjoy it,” says Contreras, who won a World Series with the White Sox in 2006. “But at first I didn’t like it. I was a starter for 22 years. It’s very different, physically and mentally.”

For Choate, the shift from starter to reliever occurred long before he reached the majors.

Drafted by the Yankees in the fifth round of the 1997 draft, Choate figured that to reach the majors as a starter, he needed to abandon the sidearm delivery that carried him through four years at Florida State University.

And after his first summer as a pro, he remained convinced he would graduate to the Yankees as a starting pitcher with a traditional over-the-top delivery despite factors that hinted otherwise.

Such as his 2-13 record.

And the damage caused by a throwing motion to which his body wasn’t accustomed, with bursitis and tendinitis teaming up to cripple his left shoulder and short-circuit his season.

That off-season, Yankees officials didn’t so much suggest Choate become a reliever as demand it, telling him it was the best way for him to make the majors. By July 2000, he had made his major-league debut.

Every season since then, the focus of his job has grown a little narrower, until this year he settled into the niche to which he is uniquely suited. Choate maintains he can handle an expanded role; on July 6, he logged his longest outing since September 2010, pitching 1 1/3 innings against Philadelphia.

Still, he knows the key to extending his big-league career is maintaining mastery over his specialty.

“They pay me a good amount of money to come in here and do that,” Choate says. “The competitor in me wants to be out there facing (more batters). I just want to do whatever I can to help this team win.”


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