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Not explaining Jason Grilli

Justin K. Aller

Last November, Jason Grilli turned 36. He'd recorded five saves in his long career.

Today, Jason Grilli leads the major leagues with 19 saves, and I'm still trying to figure out what happened because the Great and All-Powerful Internet hasn't been real helpful.

One thing I found: the Phillies really blew it ...

When the obvious became apparent 21 months ago to Jason Grilli, the veteran pitcher started making phone calls. He was stuck in the Phillies organization at triple-A Lehigh Valley. The Phillies summoned six relievers from the minors before Grilli despite his overwhelming success.

"I almost went to Korea," Grilli, 36, said.

The Pirates heard about Grilli, who had a clause in his contract that said if any team wished to promote him to the majors, the Phillies either had to do the same or release him. Pittsburgh sent a scout to watch him in late July 2011. They told the Phillies they wanted him July 18. Grilli was released July 20 and signed with Pittsburgh on July 21.

--snip--

When the Phillies released Grilli, he had a 1.93 ERA with 43 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings with the IronPigs.

"With the numbers I was posting in triple A, I thought I was going to get a chance," Grilli said. "They saw it differently. They're entitled to that. I hold no grudges because it's what got me here. It's a process, man."

Well, it's easy to not hold any grudges on your way to the All-Star Game. I wonder if Grilli would be quite so magnanimous if he were today pitching for the SK Wyverns. But this is a clear case of a team, understandably enough, not really trusting a 34-year-old pitcher with impressive Triple-A statistics. Then again, isn't this what scouts are for? And isn't Mariano Rivera 43?

Granted, we shouldn't be too hard on the Phillies. If they were wrong, so were 28 other clubs. It seems the Pirates picked up Grilli because they were particularly desperate, and because Clint Hurdle liked him. There are dozens of situations like this every season, and almost none of them work out this well.

Is there any way to explain Grilli's metamorphosis, though? Yes, he's healthy now. And for many different stretches of his career, he was not. Here's a short capsule of Grilli's pre-Corsairs career:

He would play in 12 leagues for 18 teams, and get hurt (and never suit up) for yet another organization, Cleveland. He would be rendered a free agent three times, traded twice, released twice, purchased once and chosen once in that thing called the Rule-5 Draft. He would start, close, set up and mop up.

There would be Tommy John surgery, quad/kneecap reconstruction, a bulging disc in his back, a strained elbow, bone spur removal and other "lesser" physical challenges.

But he must have occasionally been healthy, right? And yet before joining the Pirates, Grilli struck out 6.4 batters per nine innings; since then, he's struck out 12.8 batters per nine innings. Go ahead, take a few minutes and try to find another pitcher who has increased his strikeout rate by 100 percent while in his middle 30s.

Another thing I did notice: Before pitching for the IronPigs in 2011, Grilli had been exclusively a starter in the minors: 152 games, 152 starts. Maybe Grilli, like Luke Hochevar and Jose Mesa and so many others, was simply miscast as a starting pitcher, and in his case it simply took someone forever to figure that out.

That's a lovely theory, attractive in its simplicity, except for this inconvenient truth: Even before 2011, Grilli was mostly a relief pitcher in the majors. From 2006 through 2009, he appeared in 220 games with nary a starting assignment. He did pitch decently over that stretch ... but again, not in the same universe as what he's been doing lately.

So I'm left to keep wondering. Is Grilli healthier than he's ever been? Is he happier than he's ever been? Is Clint Hurdle some sort of a genius? Because while Grilli probably won't finish this season with seven times more strikeouts than walks, and probably won't wind up leading the majors in saves, what he's doing does seem real. Even if nobody on earth could have imagined it just two years ago.