July 23, 2014

Closer Jeopardy: Who’s the man for the Indians now?

Josmil Pinto, Chris PerezIt’s not like many fans didn’t see this coming, right? Perhaps not the 89-70 record, but maybe the Chris Perez demise?

Here we are. Three games left in the regular season. The Cleveland Indians are on the verge of the playoffs and, it appears that with last night’s performance, Perez might be out of a closer’s job. Heck, he nearly volunteered it up with an “I don’t want to cost us games” statement, per Terry Francona in his post-game press conference.

So what’s next? Playoffs are on the horizon and it’s fairly unprecedented for a contending team to drop their allegiance to their designated **ninth-inning win-or-die guy** suddenly after game 159. Let’s review all of the options available for Francona and the Tribe as we head into this incredibly dramatic final weekend.

The Hot One: Bryan Shaw
Season stats: 7-3 record, 3.24 ERA, 70 games, 75.0 IP, 60 H, 28 BB, 73 K

I dare you to find me any MLB reliever who has been better in September than Shaw. He’s now 5-0 in the month (!!) with a spotless ERA in 15.1 innings pitched. The 25-year-old acquired from Arizona in the Shin-Soo Choo trade last offseason is now having a sensational season, outshining the more high-profile player up next on this list.

In Shaw’s last two full seasons in the minors in 2010 and 2011, he averaged 6.7 and 7.0 K/9. Last year, that mark was 6.2 in the majors. This season? It has sky-rocketed up to 8.8. He’s getting hotter and hotter as the season rolls onward, emerging as one of Francona’s most reliable relievers.

But does that mean he’s the one, as Jon started thinking to himself yesterday? Shaw saved only 22 games in 123 minor league appearances. And he only had faced high-leverage situations in 22.8% of his MLB plate appearances entering last night. He lacks experience, but has some upside.

The Earlier Favorite: Cody Allen
Season stats: 6-1 record, 2.47 ERA, 76 games, 69.1 IP, 62 H, 26 BB, 87 K

Speaking of upside. … Circa July, Allen was nearly universally deemed as the team’s closer of the future. Circa yesterday, fans are now worried about over-working the 24-year-old rookie who blasted through the minors after being a 2011 draft pick.

His 76 relief appearances are the most for an Indians rookie ever. They’re only three behind Bobby Howry’s all-time franchise record of 79 relief outings set back in 2005. That’s quite a lot of work for a pitcher who has yet to throw 200 innings in his professional baseball career.

Compared to Shaw, Allen is more of a strikeout pitcher: He’s struck out 26.9% of all his major league batters faced. He’s also been used slightly more often in high-leverage situations so far this year. He’d be the sexiest current-reliever option.

The De-Facto Set-Up Man: Joe Smith
Season stats: 6-2 record, 2.32 ERA, 69 games, 62.0 IP, 54 H, 23 BB, 53 K

Based on experience and season-long ERA, Smitty is the man for the job. The free-agent-to-be is the veteran option of the pen at 29 years old and he already entered the year with 369 relief appearances under his belt dating back to his MLB debut in 2007.

One of Smith’s main issues: He’s actually more of a situational right-hander, allowing a high career discrepancy between righty batters (.606 OPS) and lefties (.717 OPS). He’s also not much of a strikeout pitcher, although he’s pretty darn effective at groundball outs.

Ever since Vinnie Pestano’s demotion, Smith has been the team’s default set-up man and he earned the opportunity to clean up Perez’s mess last night (the previous two guys listed had already pitched). He’s the safe, experienced and cost-effective choice.

Other Reliever Options: N/A

You won’t see Rich Hill, Matt Albers, Marc Rzepcynski, Carlos Carrasco, Vinnie Pestano, Nick Hagadone or the other youngsters out there closing meaningful regular season or playoff games for the Indians. It’s just not going to happen.

Out of those names, obviously Carrasco is by far the most intriguing. He’s got the stuff and has been very effective out of the bullpen of late: .156/.240/.156 opposing batting line in 50 plate appearances. Perhaps he’s a contender you try out in the offseason? But it’d be darn risky right now.

Hill and Rzepcynski are Francona’s situational lefties. Nothing new there. Albers is the mop-up man, receiving an even smaller amount of high-leverage appearances than Shaw or Allen. And finally, Pestano has been a major disappointment: He hasn’t pitched since Sept. 16. It’s likely that him, Hagadone and the others are left off the postseason roster.

The Wild Cards: Justin Masterson or Danny Salazar
Masterson Season Stats: 14-10 record, 3.50 ERA, 30 games, 190.1 IP, 156 H, 75 BB, 190 K
Salazar Season Stats: 2-3 record, 3.12 ERA, 10 games, 52.0 IP, 44 H, 15 BB, 65 K

So perhaps the All-Star ace or the phenom prospect? Could it be either one of them? Certainly, the “Masterson for closer” campaign began in full force with his mop-up performance on Wednesday night. And the “Salazar to the bullpen” campaign has been sitting on the fringes as long as he’s been in the big leagues.

With Masterson, he reportedly threw a 26-pitch simulated game earlier this week before his 17-pitch return. Is it possible that was by design for a return to a bullpen role after his three-week oblique injury absence? Likely not, conspiracy theorists. The Indians have been adamant since acquiring him in 2009 that he’s a starter-only. I’d doubt that suddenly changes. He’s their ace1. And MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian reported he might not be able to pitch consecutive games, either.

The same no-go decision almost might be the case with the intriguing 23-year-old Salazar. He’s obviously an incredible talent, leading the minors in strikeout rate before tearing apart the Indians’ rookie record books this season. He’s at 145 innings on the season; the team reportedly set a 150 inning goal, despite removing his pitch count limit.

One of the factors behind the idea of moving in Masterson or Salazar would be the exact configurations of Francona’s playoff rotation. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself, so perhaps that’s not on his mind at the moment. But you’d assume Ubaldo Jimenez and Corey Kluber are set. After that? It’d make sense for these two to slot right in, with Zach McAllister looking shaky of late. Scott Kazmir also is a nice other veteran option should one of these guys take the role.

Final Take: I’d prefer a closer by committee2, but I don’t see that as a realistic option for a contending team. There has to be one guy that knows he’s the one the rest of the roster can count on for high-leverage moments and to bring home a victory. Chris Perez has all but resigned that role after a week from hell. At this moment, I’d be a bit surprised if he’s on a possible playoff roster.

For now, I think by default the chosen closer might have to be Joe Smith. I’m not in love with it. I think he was previously miscast as a set-up man, anyway. But he’s having the best season (surprisingly?), and likely has the most trust from the coaching staff and players alike. As a veteran, I think he has the moxie to adjust on the fly. I’m not happy about it, but I think Allen and Shaw are better served as your trusty set-up men for now.

**Let’s end briefly with some final thoughts on the role of the closer position in baseball. It’s silly. It really is. I wish that fans and players didn’t have such strong beliefs about defined bullpen roles; but that’s just not the case in reality.

This fella gets it. That’s the idea. In an ideal world, sure, you’d you situational match-ups all game long after your starter is out. Use your “closer” title to mean your best reliever, giving him the opportunities to survive the highest-leverage situations, a Baseball Prospectus axiom3 that seems preposterously obvious on the surface.

Another crazy concept: Find a Tampa Bay Rays-esque model of not giving young developing relievers an opportunity to close in the first place, anyway. That’s how the Indians got into this mess of paying Chris Perez $8 million in his second-to-last arbitration season. That’s why we’re having a near-existential crisis with three games left in a playoff race.

Heading into 2014, the more efficient and nouveau Moneyball closer decision would be to sign an above-average reliever to be your de-facto guy next season. Think of another Joe Smith kind of guy; the Rays seem to cheaply sign and/or redevelop that talent off the market every year. That’s next-level effective franchise-building. That’s not what the Indians have done in a long, long time.**

(AP Photo/Jim Mone)

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Footnotes:

  1. again, by default, as I’ve written about numerous times. []
  2. or #closerbycommonsense as my buddy Ed Carroll said on Twitter []
  3. note: that chapter was written by Keith Woolner, a sabermetrics innovator who has worked for the Indians since May 2007 []
  • Steve

    You don’t even need to leave this page to see me providing a comment of my own, so that rings quite hollow. I’m sorry that you don’t like being disagreed with.

    And where are the personal attacks? If anything, I’m frequently on the receiving end.

    And I’ve made it clear before that I don’t get the downvoting system. Disagree with what I say? Respond with something to defend your point, don’t just say “well everybody here doesn’t like you” like this is junior high.

  • Esteban Yan Gomes

    I vote Albers. That way we don’t mess up the non-Perez part of the bullpen that is currently working so well, and Albers is better than Perez, so at least that is an upgrade.

  • fliegeroh

    Well it’s hopefully clear that if we do make the playoffs, CP isn’t going to be on the 25 man roster which is addition by subtraction. I am not knocking the guy, but there just isn’t any time left this year for him to get back on track and I think it best that he be left behind. This means that Danny Salazar is certainly going to be on the roster in the playoffs and I think a kid with that kind of stuff will be a difference maker.

  • nj0

    Yeah, but the need to keep arms in reserve is (nearly) gone too. I see your point, but I don’t think it drastically changes anything.

  • Foghorn Leghorn

    Here is what you do.

    Perez closes on the road only.
    Masterson, Salazar, and Shaw platoon at home and on the road.

    You ride Masterson or Salazar for the games where the starter goes out in the 5th or earlier. You put Perez in if we are up a few. Shaw, and the matchup guys who havent been used already in the close games.

    If we get into a “its all on the line” situation, I defer to Tito.

    Win as a goddamn team.

    Oh, and lets make the playoffs before we start planning our ALCS bullpen staff please. Its still too close.