Teams really, really, really want stability in their bullpens. They’re willing to overpay completely for dependably average. The problem, though, is that relievers are impossible to predict -- living, breathing spectrums of success and failure, often in the same month.
Sometimes, they’re unpredictable in all the right ways. Take Mike Adams, the setup man for the San Diego Padres. No, seriously, take him: I’m tired of watching him strike out the side when he pitches against the Giants. For a few minutes in 2005, Adams was actually the closer for the Milwaukee Brewers before he was sent down to AAA Nashville. In 2006, Adams kicked around the AAA affiliates of four different teams, finishing the year with a pedestrian K/BB ratio of 48/22 in 59 relief innings. Then he was hurt, missing all of 2007. He somehow found his way to the Padres’ organization in 2008, and posted a 5.52 ERA in 12 AAA games.
Maybe throw in an epitaph about a stint with the Chico Outlaws, and that’s how the story usually ends. Adams’s recovery, though, was amazing (check out the documentary about it when you get a chance). He was called up despite his struggles in the Pacific Coast League, becoming a solid bullpen regular for the Padres that season.
And then he became a freak.
Since he gave up a three-run home run to Bengie Molina in 2008, he’s been one of the best pitchers of the game, with a 1.35 ERA over 133 innings. Over his last three seasons, he’s posted ERAs of 0.73 and 1.76, with a 0.75 ERA so far this season. Now, it’s worth noting that ERA is an imperfect metric, and he does play in Petco National Park, but those are still numbers to gawk at. His 0.73 ERA in 2009 is in some pretty heady and amusing company for a partial season.
The most impressive factoid might be his .156/.216/.215 opponent’s line over the past three seasons -- he's turned every hitter he faced into Adam Eaton.
And it all comes back to this: Anyone could have had him. He was kicking around baseball’s dustbin while teams were throwing multi-year deals to average relievers. The first scout, pitching coach, or sabermetrician to figure out what turns a pitcher like Mike Adams into MIKE ADAMS, eighth-inning Dennis Eckersley, will make a lot of money for someone. Until then, Adams will just have to settle for being the pitcher with the highest gap between real and fantasy baseball value.