April 18, 2014

Indians At the Break: The Bullpen

The Indians head into the All-Star break a surprising 47-42 and a half game out of first place in the AL Central. Many experts think they have done it with smoke and mirrors. I believe they have gotten this far thanks to Actaball- a combination of great pitching, solid defense, and timely hitting. Regardless of how they have gotten to this point, during the break from the action, WFNY will take a look at the four cogs of this roster, how they evolved during the first half, and where they look to be going forward through the rest of the season. On Monday we assessed the outfield and DH positions. Tuesday it was the infield and catching positions. Yesterday we gazed at the starting rotation. In the last of our four part series, we will go in-depth with the bullpen.

Chris Perez (2-4/21 Saves/2.43 ERA/1.17 WHIP/22 K’s in 33.1 IP )

Tony Sipp (4-1/2.72 ERA/0.96 WHIP/34 K’s in 36.1 IP)

Rafael Perez (3-1/1.91 ERA/1.19 WHIP/25 K’s in 37.2 IP)

Vinnie Pestano (1-0/2.97 ERA/1.05 WHIP/47 K’s in 33.1 IP)

Joe Smith (2-1/0.85 ERA/1.17 WHIP/19 K’s in 31.2 IP)

Chad Durbin (2-1/6.51 ERA/1.63 WHIP/32 K’s in 37.1 IP)

Frank Herrmann (1-0/3.90 ERA/1.40 WHIP/23 K’s in 30.0 IP)

Of the four groups we have touched in this week, hands down the best of the bunch has been the bullpen. Its been beaten into our heads, but its the truth; a bad bullpen can ruin a season. Indians fans know that all too well. When the Tribe has been really good (2005 and 2007), their pen has been solid. When the Tribe has been really bad (2008 and 2010), their pen has been constantly in flux and full of gas cans.

The 2011 Tribe has “The Bullpen Mafia,” a collection of arms who know their roles, have multiple options from both sides, and have done their jobs all season long. In years past, Tribe GM’s have been trying to mix and match and find the right guys to fill out the pen, often shuffling players back and forth to and from AAA. This season, its been a tight group. Only Justin Germano and Josh Judy have made appearances outside of this core group.

A great bullpen is built from the back forward. It starts with the closer. For the first time since Jose Mesa in 1995, the Indians have an all-star, power armed ninth inning guy. Chris Perez is the perfect poster child for the “Mafia.” He’s got the long hair, the beard, the personality, and the perfect mentality for the role.

Perez took over full time last season when Kerry Wood was sent to the Yankees and has run with the job ever since. This season he has blown just one of his 22 save opportunities and has done a terrific job. If the Indians take a lead into the ninth, its lights out for the opponent. The one bugaboo “Pure Rage” seems to have is his aversion to pitching in the ninth with the score tied. Both home runs he allowed came in these situations.

Former Indians closer Joe Borowski said that its a completely different situation for closers; they don’t get that same feeling as they do when they come in for as save. Regardless of the situation, the Indians are set with Perez at the back end for years to come and have complete confidence in him coming down the stretch of a pennant race.

In front of him are essentially four games who Manager Manny Acta has gone with. The eighth inning guys most of the season have been lefty Tony Sipp and righty Vinnie Pestano. Both have come though the Indians organization and have been a perfect duo for Acta.

For the second straight year, Sipp has been one of the most consistent left-handed relievers in the game. It doesn’t matter who he faces; lefties hit just .109 (5-46) against him, righties just .198 (16-81). His 17 holds lead the team. The concern with Sipp is his propensity to give up the long ball. Opponents have hit seven off of him in 36.1 innings pitched, but he has been rock solid.

Pestano has been quite a find for the Tribe. He made the team with a strong spring, but nobody expected him to become Acta’s right-handed set-up man as quickly as he did. Entering July, Vinnie carried an ERA of 1.47 before three rough outings in a row bloated his ERA. It should be nothing to worry about.

The kid from Cal State Fullerton has pitched in more than his fair share of tight spots this season and is a strikeout machine. 47 K’s in 33.1 innings of work is quite impressive. His rising fastball has been his out pitch that few have been able to solve. Like Chris Perez, Pestano is another colorful character. He sprints out of the pen when called upon and is a Twitter junkie. Vinnie is truly a keeper.

The other right-handed option Acta has turned to in tight late games spots is Joe Smith. After two up and down seasons with the Wahoos, Smith has been exceptional in 2011. He leads the pen in ERA (0.85) and hasn’t allowed an earned run since May 8th, a span of 25 appearances. The side-winder was looked at as a right-on-right specialist. But in 2011, lefties are 4-33 (.121) against him.

This is easily the best year of Smith’s five year career. He has never had an ERA lower than 3.45 or higher than 3.83. he has always been good, but not great. Smitty has stepped up his game in a major way.

Left-hander Rafael Perez is the longest tenured member of the pen. He has been a fixture since he burst onto the scene in 2007. You look at his numbers and you wonder why he is pitching more in middle relief than late innings. In his case, the numbers are deceiving. He has allowed more inherited runs than anyone else in the pen. Not that Raffy is any slouch. He can still be called upon in key situations, but Acta has better options his disposal. Its a luxury that the Indians haven’t had since 2007. In years past, Raffy Left would be overworked at this point.

While Acta has a “big five” that he can go to, the two other spots in middle relief can be just as important, even though they haven’t pitched as often as the others. Frank Herrrmann and Chad Durbin may not have the numbers, but their work cannot go unappreciated. At times, both have been forced to go multiple innings to save the rest of the pen and they have done so with little fanfare.

Sure, Durbin can be taken behind the woodshed from time to time, but it hasn’t really burned the Indians this season. The 33-year old is a solid clubhouse guy and a veteran presence in a bullpen full of youngsters. His value to the team outweighs his statistics. And if he is pressed into key duty, it it is something he is accustomed to thanks to his three years in Philadelphia. He bailed out the Tribe pen on July 2nd in Cincinnati when Acta called on him for his first late inning duty since April. With the bases loaded and one out in a eighth in a 3-1 game, Durbin retired both men he faced without giving up a run.

In that same game, Herrmann was called upon in the third inning to replace the injured Fausto Carmona. “The Professor” pitched three scoreless innings of one-hit ball. It was just one in a long line solid performances Acta has received from Herrmann. This is just another case of a guy who understands his role and does it well. He has allowed just two earned runs in his last 13 appearances despite getting less work than any other guy in the pen.

The Bullpen Mafia is a great group. Both on and off the field, they represent the Indians well (OK, Rafael Perez is extremely aloof. he has a right to be if he wants to). The Indians have a significant advantage in the bullpen over the Detroit Tigers. That has to stay true for the Indians if they are going to outlast the Motor City Kitties in the AL Central.

Acta has managed the pen as well as he possibly could. The key guys all get work, but are not overtaxed. Pestano, Sipp, and Chris Perez have never pitched in a pennant race before; how they respond could be the key.

photo via MLB.com

  • Believelander

    Love the post. I would just like to make one small complaint – there is no such thing as a rising fastball.

    Fastballs can run, break, sink, drop, cut, or slide, but it is impossible for a fastball to have rising action. I suppose it’s possible for a side armer whose arm slot is so low he’s literally throwing underhand to throw a rising ball, but that would be due to him literally throwing it at an upward angle, not any action on the seams.

    Instead, Pestano’s fastball could be better quantified as something like a “Wormhole Fastball”, because while he throws it at a decent speed (92-95), it’s a pretty ‘normal’ Major League-quality fastball, yet the best hitters in the game strike out looking like little league rejects, with K’s going up backwards and forwards.

    It just doesn’t Rise. That’s what LeBron does when he’s making stupid commercials.

  • mgbode

    great article. our bullpen definitely brings a smile to the face.

    for another example of what a bad bullpen will do to a team, see the Chicago White Sox. ahh, I feel another smile coming on.

  • Painesville

    That picture is pure silliness.

  • jimkanicki

    it’s pretty cool that the black keys can provide jamming music AND strike out MLB hitters.

  • NJ

    Jeans + Baseball Jersey = fashion faux pas

    At least none of them are wearing white shoes.

    Is there a more overhyped position in sport than the closer? What brave soul has the mental toughness to pitch one whole scoreless (or so) inning? Ah, but here’s the catch – it’s at THE END of the game, when the clutch get clutching. Never mind that every MLBer had to perform at his peak every single day just to find a way out of the minors. That’s child player. This is real pressure! Facing the 6,7,8 batters with nobody on base? That’s what separates the men from the boys. Can you ensure that the opposing team scores no (or just a few) runs? Who amongst you has the grit?

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    The bullpen has been, and is, awesome. We just need some better pitching out of Carmona and Talbot, or whoever they want to put in their place, to get us to the 6-7th inning. Some better early inning hitting would help extend the starters as well. Also, I really like how Acta has zero hesitation pulling a starter when he starts to struggle and put in the bullpen. I think thats a huge reflection of his trust in the Mafia.