When the White Sox first signed Scott Linebrink back in 2007, there was a general feeling the Good Guys had not just overpaid for their new reliever, but had actually grossly overpaid. The Sox at the time were coming off a season utterly ruined by a bullpen possibly in the running as the worst of all-time and of the easily available help, Linebrink was easily the most logical option. For a chance to put the Ryan Bukvich/Dewon Day/Andrew Sisco cabal behind them, Linebrink’s widely-derided four years and $19 million seemed easily worth it.
And oh, what a relief he was (zing!), forming one of the better front lines of any relief corps in baseball in 2008; not best, not elite, but for all intents and purposes it was hard to argue with the trio of Linebrink, Octavio Dotel and Matt Thornton as an excellent way to end a game early; the only reason anyone took that team’s chances of winning the division seriously was because they, like any decent team, had a bullpen that could either nail the coffin shut or at least stop the bleeding.
But any good reliever knows they’re only as good as their last outing, and we all know how far Linebrink’s 2009 showing has gotten him from the good graces of last year. The thing is, outside of his total inability to find the strike zone anymore (21 walks in 43.1 innings this year compared to 9 in 46.1 innings in 2008), he’s not actually doing that much worse than last year. His hits are up slightly (46 from 41) but his earned runs are exactly where they were, home run rate is nominally lower (1.5 per nine innings from 1.6) and his strikeout rate is actually higher (9.1 K/9, up from 7.8).
Of course, a reliever’s job isn’t really to post good numbers but to keep runners from scoring, and the best way to keep runners from scoring is to never allow runners on base in the first place, and this is where that loss of the strike zone hits hard: Linebrink’s issued 21 walks this season, which projects to just about the worst season of his career (36 walks assuming 75 innings). As a reliever, Linebrink can’t afford to give away at-bats, and as a team in marginal contention the Sox can’t afford to pin games on a reliever in such a funk. Ozzie Guillen did the right thing moving Linebrink out of the late innings, but with two years and $9.5 million owed him, they’d better hope this is just a phase.