Albert Pujols can probably hit a pebble 400 feet. Jose Reyes runs like a deer. You can’t teach someone to throw like Stephen Strasburg. But lost in the chaotic shuffle that is Boston these days, small and unassuming, is a 190-pound lefty with a 13-17 career record who barely touches 92 mph. And he just might be the most gifted of them all.
Put simply, professional sports aren’t overrun with geniuses. There just aren’t many Nobel laureates catching touchdowns or Rhodes Scholars shooting hoops. And there definitely aren’t any astronauts throwing bullpens. But Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow is close.
The academic careers of most baseball players end like Pujols’, which terminated after one year of junior college, or Reyes', which ended before graduating high school when he signed with the Mets. Some embark on long hiatuses when they’re so close to completion, like Strasburg’s did when he was drafted after his junior year at San Diego State. But Craig Breslow isn’t most — or some.
The Wall Street Journal did a study in 2009 and found only 26 major league players and coaches at the time owned a college degree. When Breslow graduated Yale in 2002, he had two: one in molecular biophysics and one in biochemistry. Molecular biophysics ... and biochemistry.
He has been dubbed the “smartest man in baseball” by multiple newspapers, including the Journal, which added, “if not, the world." Former teammate Dallas Braden told reporters, “I want to be Craig Breslow when I grow up,” and Breslow “knows everything.” Peter Gammons has tweeted Breslow’s the most interesting player in the game. We don’t know if he usually drinks beer, but if he does, he probably prefers Dos Equis.
From bad contracts to steroid scandals, Major League Baseball sometimes seems like a swamp of stupidity. With talent commonplace, it’s not difficult to see why Gammons would call the smartest man in the game the most interesting. When Breslow was traded to the Diamondbacks from Oakland last December, he showed his wit by tweeting, “I can no longer denounce the relevance of Twitter. It broke the story of my trade … to me.” It must be lines like this that make him a Gammons favorite.
If Breslow’s off-the-field resume makes him an outlaw, his on-the-field one makes him baseball’s version of tumbleweed. The reliever blew around the game for years after the Brewers drafted him in 2002, spending time with six organizations — including the New Jersey Jackals, then of the Northeast Independent League, in the equivalent of baseball purgatory — before finally finding a home with the A’s in 2009. He made stops in San Diego, Boston, Cleveland and Minnesota before Billy Beane picked him off waivers. After being released by Milwaukee, Breslow applied to New York University's medical school. He was accepted on the grounds he would stop playing baseball. He never even bought a book.
Before arriving in Oakland, Breslow was replaceable. He was small, he didn’t throw hard and he wasn’t a high draft pick. The only thing keeping his stock in some sort of demand was the fact he is left-handed.
But then the game changed. Just as people started considering closers idiotically valuable a decade before (they still do), relief pitchers began being labeled “eighth inning” and “seventh inning” guys. Teams like Detroit and Anaheim started handing out big-money deals to people like Joaquin Benoit and Scott Downs to solidify their “bridge” to the ninth inning. Joe Girardi and Tony La Russa felt the need to make seven pitching changes a game. In this revolution, the LOOGY was born.
A LOOGY, which stands for Lefty One-Out GuY, is a pitcher who usually comes in to get only one left-handed batter out per game, usually late in the game. It’s common baseball knowledge left-handed hitters have a harder time hitting left-handed pitching than they do right-handed pitching because of the trajectory of the breaking ball running away from them, among other factors. Typical LOOGYs rely more heavily on their sliders and curveballs to get hitters out, meaning they don’t need dominant fastballs. Because they often only throw to one batter per game, LOOGYs are durable and, as a result, valuable.
Breslow appeared in 77 games for the A’s in 2009, posting a 2.60 ERA and allowing lefties to hit just .143. In 2010 he sported a 3.01 ERA and opposing batters hit only .194 off him. He had found his niche.
By last winter he was such a commodity he was included in a trade package used to acquire phenomenon Jarred Parker from Arizona. He was traded to Boston at the deadline this year in the midst of another very effective season.
LOOGYs are in extremely high demand these days, as managers league-wide continue their plight on the CG by running campaigns to prolong games to almost unwatchable levels with meticulous micromanaging and matchup playing. Thanks to these developments, Breslow is thriving, just as he did in the classroom. His salary at $1.795 million, he earns a fat living even by Ivy League standards. The only physics he does these days involves keeping his sliders along the outside edge. He has finally found his footing after years of being too small, too weak and maybe even too smart.
As a dominant left-handed reliever, he is in a great position to cash in next winter, assuming he doesn’t fall apart or get hurt. The Red Sox could resign him to subdue Robinson Cano and switch around Mark Teixiera. The Indians need someone who can dominate Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Prince Fielder in the American League Central. Or the Diamondbacks could snag him again to shut down the Rockies‘ Carlos Gonzalez.
But even if Breslow’s arm or ERA implodes, and baseball doesn’t work anymore, don’t feel too sorry for him. He’s always got that whole career-in-rocket-science-thing on which to fall back.