Friday, September 10, 2010

Acid Flashback Friday: Billy Koch as Blue Jays Closer

By
Before there was Kevin Gregg, and before there was B.J. Ryan, the Toronto Blue Jays had another maligned closer in the 21st century.

For this week's Acid Flashback Friday, we take a look back at Billy Koch's tenure with the Blue Jays.

Koch was a product of the Gord Ash era and was drafted fourth overall in the 1996 draft. He quickly made his way up the minor league system after speeding through Dunedin in 1998 and being promoted to Triple A Syracuse.

He logged 25 innings with Syracuse in early 1999 before being summoned by the Blue Jays to make his big league debut on May 5th. Koch picked up a save in his second appearance ever in the majors by tossing two scoreless innings against the Texas Rangers.

The closer duties were very quickly passed over to Billy Koch as he took over for the previous ninth inning man, the veteran Graeme Lloyd.

The ball continued to roll from there for Billy Koch as he had a phenomenal rookie season with the Blue Jays, posting 31 saves with a 3.39 ERA. Accolades included finishing 7th in AL Rookie of the Year voting and Koch also set the franchise record for saves by a rookie.

The following two seasons, the save totals steadily increased with 33 in the year 2000 and 36 in 2001 under the watch of the Blue Jays.

However, under the direction of new General Manager J.P. Ricciardi, the Blue Jays sold high on Billy Koch and traded their closer to the Oakland A's for future Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske and Justin Miller.

Koch enjoyed success during his first season with the Oakland A's converting 44 of 50 saves and picked up the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award. Billy bounced around from Oakland to Chicago, and then Florida before returning to the Blue Jays organization at the beginning of the 2005 season.

He signed a one-year deal with Toronto to the tune of $950,000 but he didn't even crack the Opening Day roster after just four fairly dismal appearances in Spring Training.

Needless to say, Billy didn't take the news very well and vowed to show up at Tropicana Field wielding 240 schoolchildren to cheer for the Tampa Bay Rays on the second day of the 2005 regular season. It just so happens Koch was living in Clearwater Florida at the time.

Apparently, Koch made good on his word by at least showing up to Tropicana Field on April 5th 2005, donning a Devil Rays Jersey with Aubrey Huff's number and heckling his former teammates.
The guy wearing a Devil Rays cap and a Aubrey Huff jersey wouldn't stop yelling. He was seated near the Blue Jays bullpen down the left-field line.

"Schoeneweis is a bum," he howled. "Go Devil Rays." Scott Schoeneweis, a left- handed reliever for the Blue Jays, was surprised a Tampa Bay fan would pick him out as a target.

"I can't believe that they think I'm a bum here too," Schoeneweis said was his initial reaction. When he saw the loud- mouthed culprit, Schoeneweis couldn't stop laughing. A closer look revealed former Toronto closer Billy Koch was the man doing the yelling.
From what I remember of Billy Koch, he had great velocity and was definitely one of the elite power-pitching closers for a short period of time. J.P. Ricciardi made a smart move by trading Koch away at his highest possible value, and it worked temporarily by snagging Eric Hinske from the A's organization.

And of course the other distinguishable trait of Billy Koch was his rat-tail like soul patch. Along with those god awful barb wire arm-band tattoos, it was the norm for the era.

Billy Koch proved that you don't need to go outside the organization to find a great closer, and if you're willing to go through the growing pains at first, it's possible to mold a rookie into a ninth inning guy.

Hat tip to @brentoliver for the Acid Flashback Friday suggestion. If you have anything you'd like to see, drop me a line at bluejayhunter@gmail.com

11 comments:

  1. I never liked Billy, but absolutely loved that moment in Tampa when he heckled. That was one of the funniest things ever.

    His story also shows that most closers flame out faster than they arrive. Guys like Rivera and Hoffman are the exception, not the norm.

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  2. Jeremy, no doubt that a steady closer is of the dying breed. I also think it's one of the toughest jobs in baseball to hold down.

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  3. You don't need to go outside the organization to find a great closer but spending the fourth overall pick on one is just as costly. Even at his best, Koch was never as dominant as a closer with his stuff should have been and it's that stuff that made him so costly at the draft. The pick wasn't a bust by any means but it was a bit of a wasted opportunity to use such a high pick on a very good but ultimately not elite closer.

    J.P. was very smart to trade Koch although it would have been a much better trade had JP sold high on Hinske as well. Instead, he held on too long and by the time Hinske was moved it wasn't even worth it anymore. In a sense, the handling of Koch and Hinske was a microcosm of JP's tenure. When it came to trading his own guys, J.P. just didn't show the same killer instinct he did when moving Ash guys.

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  4. He was the last of the steroid power pitchers. There were many and he was the perfect poster boy. Lots of power, no finesse. Looked like he lost 50 lbs in that final spring training. Not bashing him, just saying...

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  5. NoisyFlowers, I'm not debating that it's risky to draft a closer as your first pick, but I think he was a starter prior to being drafted. He started 27 games in the minors in 1998, so I'm assuming the Blue Jays converted him into a reliever for one reason or another.

    With Koch, that's a pretty easy trade for Ricciardi to make - Koch didn't really have any upside to him other than a hard-throwing reliever. However, maybe they were on the fence about Hinske and were waiting to see if he was the real deal or not.

    Mattt, gotta at least ask the question, right?

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  6. I have no proof but my eyes tell me that was happening. It's not like he was the only one or anything. I've heard it was more popular with pitchers than hitters actually.

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  7. Mattt, it could very well have been - I don't really remember what Koch looked like early in his career, so it's tough to say. Having said that, I wouldn't be shocked.

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  8. Ian, I agree that the Jays had more reason to be on the fence about Hinske. A better argument to support my view that J.P. became trigger shy about trades would be to look at what happened to Jeremy Accardo.

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  9. Billy Koch is the prime example of how closers are overrated, and how you can basically just create one. If you've got a bullpen guy and you want to increase his trade value, just stick him in the closer's role. If you have a guy and you want to deflate his conventional value, stick him in middle relief.

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  10. Ian, this was fantastic. Koch was a character. I'll never forget that game when he heckled the Jays down in Tampa. One of the best baseball-watching moments I've experienced. Just awesome.

    And, by the way, I've really enjoyed the Acid Flashback Fridays feature this season here at the blog. Great idea, and very well done. Thanks, mate.

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  11. Noisyflowers, in retrospect ... J.P. should have traded Accardo in 2007 after he took over for the Beej, but maybe they thought Jeremy was going to fit in the long-term plans for the bullpen. Unfortunately, looks like that wasn't the case.

    Steve, I couldn't have said it better than myself. I can't remember who said this quote, but it summarizes it perfectly:

    "The save is the only situation in which a manager makes his decisions based on a statistic rather than what makes the most competitive sense for his team."

    Navin, I never had a chance to watch that game but I'm sure it was hilarious. How often does a former player crash a game and heckle his former opponents?

    And thanks for the kind words, sir. It's been a tonne of fun going through the history books for Acid Flashback Fridays. I'm glad you enjoy them!

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