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Ryan Down, Downs Up

Blue Jays lefty B.J. Ryan has gotten his 2009 season off to just about the worst start imaginable. The 33 year-old is doing a pretty good Kyle Farnsworth imitation, with 5 walks, 2 homers and seven runs surrendered in 5.2 innings pitched. Once a power pitcher, Ryan is having trouble cracking 88 MPH with his heater, and his mid-80’s slider has devolved into a low-80’s frisbee.

Not-so-coincidentally, word now comes that Ryan will hit the DL with tightness in his upper back and shoulder (this after Ryan’s elbow went snap, crackle, and pop during the 2007 season).

While Ryan is a well-coffered closer (having inked a 5-year, $47 million pact prior to the 2006 season), his replacement (fellow southpaw Scott Downs) comes with considerably less fanfare.

By the time most players enter their late twenties/early thirties, they are in the latter portion of their peak seasons or have already experienced their career climax. In Downs’ case, his peak to that point had been akin to that of a Kiddy Coaster. At 29, Downs was a vagabond who had been drafted by the Cubs in 1997, traded to the Twins in ’98, pinballed back to Chicago in ’99, only to be dumped in Montreal in 2000 for Rondell White. Cut loose by the now-Nationals in 2004, Downs was a thoroughly forgettable starter with a career 5.30 ERA.

Scooped up by the Blue Jays prior to the 2005 campaign, Downs split his time evenly between the rotation and the ‘pen (26 games, 13 starts) with a 4.33 FIP and a healthy number of grounders (52.6 GB%). His ’06 season (spent almost fully in relief) was a near carbon copy, again with a 4.33 FIP, 7.13 K/9, 3.51 BB/9 and even more carpet-burners (55.6 GB%).

Since then, Downs has taken the groundball act to extremes, cutting his home run rate significantly:

2007: 58 IP, 8.84 K/9, 3.72 BB/9, 0.47 HR/9, 59.9 GB%, 3.24 FIP
2008: 70.2 IP, 7.26 K/9, 3.44 BB/9, 0.38 HR/9 65.6 GB%, 3.39 FIP

Utilizing a bowling ball high-80’s sinker that features an incredible amount of tailing action (his fastball moves in on the hands of lefties by over 10 inches; the average for a southpaw is about 6.5 inches) and supplementing the heavy heater with a sweeping mid-70’s curve, Downs has continued the ground assault in 2009. In 9.2 innings, he has punched out 14 batters, while walking none, surrendering 1 run and generating grounders at a 73.7% clip.

Downs doesn’t have the sharpest control, but the second act of his career as a groundballing lefty with enough stuff to fool big league hitters has been fun to watch. The 33 year-old is about to go on the loop-de-loop ride that is major league closerdom. If you can snag Downs, you might want to grab a seat as well.