[Ed. note: This is the second installment in our series on Hate Week. Come hate with us!]
Many speculated that he had incriminating photos of manager Lou Piniella. Conspiracy theorists whispered that he was GM Woody Woodward’s secret love child. It’s possible he had insider information on Nintendo that could bring the whole corporation crashing down.
Rumor has it the Ventura, CA native has been living in Arizona since walking off the mound for the last time in 2000. He recorded 9 saves for the AAA Albuquerque Dukes that year. Then, he disappeared from baseball forever. Whatever secrets he kept are littered in the southwestern desert, as wind-strewn and dry as the splitter he inexplicably continued to bounce in front of batter after batter in close game after close game.
The very name sends shivers down the spines of 90s vintage Mariners fans.
No pitcher since has come close to the immediate and brutal indigestion that would incapacitate you whenever Lou signaled for a righty from the bullpen.
They way he’d nearly fall over after ever pitch he threw still haunts the recollections of fans of those mid to late 90s teams. The best chance the Mariners ever had to be real, legitimate World Series contenders was utterly ruined by the dismal bullpen with Ayala at the helm.
Was it fair, this Ayala hate? Did he really deserve the venomous vitriol that cascaded from the furthest reaches of the Kingdome outfield seats?
Following the 1993 season, the Mariners traded starting pitcher Erik Hansen and infielder Bret Boone (yes, that Bret Boone) to the Cincinnati Reds. In return, the Reds sent catcher Dan Wilson and starter-turned-reliever Bobby Ayala to their former manager, Lou Piniella, in Seattle.
Ayala went into his first Spring Training with the Mariners to fight for the closer’s role against Jeff Nelson and Bobby Thigpen. He pitched well enough to impress Piniella and became the team’s official closer by the end of April. Following an extra inning win against the Red Sox on April 26th, Lou Piniella would first utter the words he would echo after the disastrous Ayala appearances to come, “The kid’s got good stuff.”
Ayla would appear in 46 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season. He earned 18 saves while posting a 2.28 FIP, striking out 12.1/9 innings, and walking 4.1/9 innings . The 1994 Mariners were starting to make a run at the AL West division title when the Kingdome roof tiles fell, sending the team on the road for the remainder of the shortened season. With a fairly proficient closer, the team looked to do the same when the strike was resolved.
1995 saw Bobby Ayala begin the season as the closer. The Mariners ran a series of commercials modeled after Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball. Ayala was featured in the Ninth Inning as a closer so scary you wouldn’t want to see him on Halloween:
The Mariners scheduled his first (and only) promotion: Bobby Ayala Goatee Night. For the July 28th game, any fan showing up with a goatee was given free admission. The first 5,000 fans without a goatee were given a stick-on. This would turn out to be a truly scary Halloween costume that October.
We all know the story of the magical 1995 season. How the Mariners came back from a 13 game deficit on August 2nd to force a 1-game playoff where they beat the California Angels to win the division. The comeback was possible in part because Norm Charlton was brought in to take over closing duties. After a solid start, Ayala hit a brutal slump in July. In his first 31 appearances he had racked up 13 saves and a 3.18 ERA. The rest of the way, he saved only 6 games on the back of a 5.59 ERA. In the ALDS he pitched .2 innings in 2 games and allowed 4 runs.
1996 didn’t get off to a much better start. In the early morning hours on April 23rd, Ayala’s struggles manifested in a broken hotel window and nine stitches in his hand. It has been said that after a night of drinking, he took out his frustrations by punching the window. It has also been said that story is overblown and the window just happened to break as he tried to open it for some fresh air. Whichever story you choose to believe, he landed on the disabled list for a couple months amidst rumors that he was seeking treatment for alcohol abuse. He appeared in 50 games that season, earning only 3 saves while plagued with a 5.88 ERA and 4.49 FIP, his worst in his 5 years with Seattle.
The 1997 Mariners were picked to make the post-season across the board, and anointed World Series winners in many pre-season predictions. That year would see the most potent power hitting team in baseball history. That year would see a bullpen utterly unable to protect a lead in the late innings. Norm Charlton, the savior of games in 1995, had passed his peak. Combined with Bobby Ayala, and later in the season, a crew that included Heathcliff Slocumb and Mike Timlin, the Mariners tried to make a closer by committee situation work. Ayala certainly improved over 1996, posting a 3.82 ERA in 71 games. Interestingly, his LOB% that season was a hefty 78.0%, the highest of his career and higher than the MLB average that season.
His one appearance in the 1997 ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles fulfilled the gloomy prophecies of the worst Mariner nightmares. In 1.1 innings he walked 3 and allowed 6 runs (that’s an ERA of 40.5 if you’re keeping score at home).
1998 was a complete disaster. In his final season with the Mariners, the bullpen built upon the frustration and ineptitude it practiced in 1997 to become a burning pile of excrement on the mound of the Kingdome and ballparks across the country. The traditional statistics of 1998 paint a bleak and dismal picture of his performance. A record of 1-10 with 8 saves and 7.29 ERA in 62 appearances. Not great, Bob.
The Ayala Song by Bob Rivers to the tune of Tom Jones’ Delilah.
Yet, a look at his advanced statistics is head scratching. His FIP was 3.96. The MLB average that season was 4.43. His BB/9 were the lowest of his career at 3.11 and his BABIP was .368, significantly higher than it had been at any point other than his rookie season (.360). By all measures of things a pitcher can control, he was either average or above average compared to the MLB averages for relief pitchers. When it came to things a pitcher can’t control, he was well below average. He simply got hit hard that year.
The awful, horrible, gut wrenching blown saves are what we think of when we hear the name Bobby Ayala. But, he wasn’t always bad. It feels crazy to type that out loud, but he could set down the side in order using only his fastball and sinker as weapons. It felt like he constantly bounced that sinker in front of home plate, but he often used it entice the burly sluggers of the 90s to swing fruitlessly two feet above it.
When the boos weren’t cascading down on him, and he was mowing through Major League lineups, the famous electricity in the Kingdome would radiate from him.
There have been comparisons between him and Fernando Rodney: pitchers with fantastic stuff who just couldn’t figure it all out. When he wasn’t on, he was a mess. The mechanics fell apart and his arms and legs and head would fly every which way. He was easy to hit in those situations. His walk rates are high, but not egregiously high compared other MLB relief pitchers at the time (walk rates were higher back then). It’s tough to draw the conclusion that he was purely a victim of bad luck, when the dominant memories of him on the mound involve ineptitude.
At the beginning of the 1999 season, the Mariners traded Bobby Ayala to the Montreal Expos for Jason Turman, a right handed pitcher who would never see the Major Leagues. The Mariners paid Ayala’s entire salary that season. He was released by the Expos in August and signed as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs shortly thereafter. He made his last Major League appearance in Chicago that season. He signed as a free agent with Minnesota in 2000, but never made the active roster. He tried to fight back the rest of the 2000 season with minor league appearances in the Cubs and Dodgers systems. However, that would be the end of his baseball career. He disappeared, and no one seems to know where he is now.
Robert Joseph Ayala.
He of the plus fastball and nasty sinker.
Robert Joseph Ayala.
When he was bad he was very, very bad. But when he was good, he was unhittable.
Robert Joseph Ayala.
Maybe he didn’t have the mental fortitude to pitch in high leverage situations. Maybe he was a victim of Lou Piniella’s famous mishandling of the bullpen. Maybe he was just really unlucky. He stopped talking to the press after the incident with the hotel window, so we never had any insight into what was happening with him. Lou’s public platitudes that he was a veteran pitcher with good stuff and that the team still had confidence in him did little to assuage the frustrations of a fan base that could taste contention. Fairly or not, Bobby Ayala bore the brunt of those frustrations.
He is easily the most hated pitcher in Mariners history, and for fans of a certain age (ahem) the most hated player. There is a distinct and visceral reaction to his name. But looking at his career through the prism of advanced statistics makes him more interesting as a subject of study than as an object of hate.
Bobby Ayala. Man of mystery, statistical head scratcher, victim of Mariners fans.
I hope wherever he is, he has found the peace that escaped him during his baseball career.