By Jack Moore
Jason Grilli polished off his 21st save of 2013 with aplomb against Detroit Tuesday night. He not only sent back Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in order, he struck out the side.
This has been the story of the season for Grilli, the new closer in Pittsburgh. Of his 26 appearances, 15 have gone three up-three down. He has yet to blow a save. Toss in his 1.14 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings and his All-Star resume is substantial.
If Grilli can stay healthy and get the All-Star bid, he'll become the 18th player in All-Star game history to make his first appearance at age 36 or older. An All-Star bid would be a tremendous achievement to crown a career defined by perseverance. It's also precisely where Grilli was supposed to be, except perhaps 10 years earlier.
Scouts were smitten by Grilli's ability dating back to his college days at Seton Hall University. Grilli was a freshman All-American in 1995 and earned third team All-America honors in 1997 as a junior -- his last season at Seton Hall, and the season in which he entered the MLB Draft.
"Reminds of Jim Palmer," Brewers scout Russ Bove wrote in a report on March 8, 1997. "Totally focused. All business. Raised five points due to total pitching package."
White Sox scout Doug Laumann agreed in a report filed eight days earlier. "Very good delivery and arm action. Does all the things we want in a pitcher. 30% chance to be [No. 1 starter]. 60% chance to be [No. 2 starter]. Considering scouts are reserved with their use of the "ace" label -- typically, there are only around 10 pitchers scouts would call true No. 1 starters -- Laumann's report is glowing.
Bove and Laumann each gave Grilli a first-round grade, imploring their teams select him at 13 or 15 respectively. Instead, the San Francisco Giants nabbed Grilli at fourth overall -- one pick after the Angels got Troy Glaus and one pick before the Blue Jays snagged Vernon Wells.
Expectations manifested immediately. Grilli raked in a $1.875 million signing bonus and shot to the top of the Giants prospect rankings per Baseball America following the 1998 season. He was a top-60 prospect upon signing and within the top-50 after showing excellent mechanics at Double-A Shreveport in 1998. He struggled in eight starts at Triple-A Fresno to close the season, but that was attributed to hitting a wall at the end of his first professional season.
Except the wall didn't come down. Then 22 years old, Grilli served up 22 home runs in 19 starts at Fresno in 1999 and was shipped out to the Marlins in the Livan Hernandez trade. Things didn't get any better in Florida's system. He allowed a 7.68 ERA at Triple-A Calgary and struck out just four more batters than he walked.
Grilli free-fell down the prospect rankings. He ranked eighth in the Marlins' system after 1999. His ERA remained above 7.00 for the first month and a half of 2000 until elbow injuries cost him his season. By the end of 2001, Grilli was down to 25th in the Marlins system. In 2000, Baseball America joked "his stock has plummeted to the point where you wonder if he shouldn't just go by Grilli.com." At the outset of the 2002 season, Grilli bit the bullet and underwent Tommy John surgery, a crushing denouement for Grilli's five-year crash.
From 2002 through 2011, Grilli went through every trial and tribulation reserved for the marginal player. He was traded twice times, once for cash. He was selected in the 2003 rule 5 draft. He spent three seasons out of the majors entirely between injuries and incompetence. In 2010, Grilli's career looked like it could be finished, as knee surgery killed his season before it started and threatened any future job prospects.
Grilli credits a friend he met during his rehabilitation as inspiration. He told The Star-Ledger of his experience:
"Baseball can try to weed out the guys that can't hack the tough times. I trained hard, man. A friend of mine in rehab who was an amputee put things in perspective. What she had to go through, and what I had to go through, there was no comparison. I thought if she can do the things she's doing, no doubt in my mind as an athlete I can put myself in position mentally to say I'm coming back."
Here are Grilli's failures in perspective. He was, for 11 years, one of 750 players allowed to participate in baseball at its highest level. At the time of his rehab, Grilli had appeared in 238 major league games. He had earned more than a decent living -- over $3.5 million including his signing bonus, as well as entrance into the MLBPA's pension plan -- and barring obscene financial irresponsibility, he had secured a decent life and more for his children.
Still, baseball doesn't relent. It heaps failure upon you game after game, season after season. The only way through is to shrug it off. Failure can become the only thing you think about as you arrive at the park, and then you've already lost. Maybe it wasn't so easy to shrug it off when Grilli was supposed to be the next Jim Palmer, at a time in his life when ambition and expectations can dominate the mind. Enter perspective. It gets a little bit easier when the infinitesimal nature of these failures in the big picture becomes apparent.
Grilli dominated at Triple-A Lehigh Valley in Philadelphia's system in 2011, his first professional stop after rehabilitating his knee. He recorded a 1.93 ERA in 32 ⅔ innings and struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. It wasn't enough to crack the Phillies bullpen, but the Pirates were intrigued and picked him up after Grilli exercised an out-clause in his contract with Philadelphia.
Grilli's fastball, praised by scouts for its solid velocity and sharp boring movement since he was a draft prospect, became a weapon. It still pushes the mid-90s. Most importantly, he has harnessed the control, as he has slashed his walk rates every year since his return to the majors. Paired with a vicious slider -- a classic closer combination -- Grilli has all the tools to thrive.
But then again, Grilli has always had the tools. It just took 15 years to figure out how to use them.