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2012 Player Preview: Vinnie Pestano

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As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s No. 1 setup man: Vinnie Pestano.

Background: The Indians took Pestano, now 27, out of California State University Fullerton in the 20th round of the 2012 MLB amateur draft—just four picks after onetime top prospect Domonic Brown. Pestano blew through the minors, posting a 2.55 ERA and 9.6 K/9 in 173 MiLB innings. He made his MLB debut in September 2010.

Last year: Pestano won a spot in the bullpen during spring training and never looked back. He threw 62 innings with a 2.32 ERA as a 26-year-old rookie. Opposing hitters couldn’t touch him—he had a .184 batting average against. Most impressively, he struck out over 12 batters per nine inning, and more than a third of plate appearances against him ended with a K. At first glance his .269 BABIP might make it seem as though he got lucky, but high-strikeout pitchers like Pestano usually have low hit rates; his 2.23 SIERA was actually lower than his ERA.

Baseball Prospectus estimated Pestano’s 2011 performance as being worth 1.0 wins above replacement player—very good for a reliever—while FanGraphs pegged him at 1.5 WAR and Baseball-Reference put him at a ridiculous 2.2 WAR. He didn’t get any Rookie of the Year votes, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve them.

Key factor: Can he close? With apologies to Chris Perez, Pestano is the best reliever the Indians have—the Capone of the Bullpen Mafia. Ordinarily Perez’ incumbency would pretty much preclude the possibility of Pestano getting the ninth inning, but Perez might not be ready for Opening Day and he’s probably in for a regression in 2012 anyway, meaning Pestano could get a chance.

The importance of the closer’s mindset is generally overstated—most MLB players are capable of succeeding under pressure—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a factor. Not every pitcher thrives when he’s given the ball with the game on the line, and some players are better suited to lower-pressure roles. Barring a complete collapse from Perez the odds of Pestano actually usurping his relief ace role are pretty slim, but he has a shot at earning the closer’s job if he shows he can do it.

2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs.

Pestano didn’t give the projection systems a whole lot to go on—a 67-inning career sample size generally isn’t enough for Marcel or ZIPS to take a strong stand on a player. There are some pretty big differences between these numbers, but they all tell the same basic story: Pestano will be a very good reliever and will get a ton of strikeouts.

But the particulars are up for debate. Marcel has Pestano’s K/9 rate falling to just 9.3, while RotoChamp actually has him improving to a 12.3 K/9. Curiously, even though Pestano is a high-strikeout pitcher, the projections don’t see him maintaining a low BABIP: only RotoChamp gives him a projected hit rate under .297, and Bill James, Steamer, and ZIPS all see his BABIP shooting up to .310 or higher.

Note that the general skepticism about Pestano’s save opportunities does not suggest a lack of confidence in his ability to handle the ninth inning; rather, it reflects the fact that Perez was the closer last year and is the presumptive fireman this year too.

Best-case scenario: It’s 2011 all over again—but better. Not only does Pestano’s strikeout rate hold steady, but his walk rate improves and moves towards the lower rates he had in the upper minors. So utterly does he dominate in Perez’ longer-than-anticipated absence that he holds onto the closer’s job all season and earns a reputation as one of the best firemen in the game. He is rewarded with an All-Star nod and a couple bottom-ballot Cy Young votes.

Worst-case scenario: Really, the Steamer projection is about as skeptical as you can get without being unreasonable. Even if he suffers a dramatic Perez-like strikeout reduction he’d still be…well, roughly the same pitcher Perez was before last year. He might not be phenomenal, but it’s hard to see Pestano not pitching very well.

Most likely scenario: Hard as it is to admit, a little bit of regression is probably in order, but something in the range of RotoChamp’s projection is probably a good bet. And while there will be times in 2012 when we’ll wish he was the closer, he won’t wrest the job from Perez—at least, not yet.

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