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 a key piece of the Tribe’s “Bullpen Mafia”: Tony Sipp.
Background: The Indians took Sipp, now 28, in the 45th round of the 2004 MLB amateur draft—against the advice of his coach, who infamously told him he’d never make it in the pros. He made a great impression in the minors, posting a 2.80 ERA and striking out batters at an 11.7 K/9 clip in 270 MiLB innings. He made his MLB debut in 2009 and hasn’t looked back.
Last year: It was a successful year out of the bullpen for Sipp, who went 6-3 with a 3.03 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP in 69 appearances. He struck out an impressive 8.2 batters per nine while notching a career-high 2.4 K/BB ratio. His .219 BABIP suggests that random chance played a big part in his success, but it’s important to note that Sipp has allowed hit rates of .250 or lower three years running and high-strikeout hurlers generally tend to induce weak contact.
Baseball Prospectus (0.2 wins above replacement player) and FanGraphs (-0.1 WAR) saw his success as almost entirely due to good fortune and thus saw him as a roughly replacement-level player, while Baseball-Reference took his numbers at face value and awarded him a great-for-a-reliever 1.3 WAR. His real value almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle of that.
Key factor: Figuring out what kind of pitcher he is. With an 8.2 K/9 rate and a 3.5 BB/9 rate Sipp certainly isn’t a pitch-to-contact hurler, but that’s nothing compared to what he used to be. In 2009 he walked or struck out 1.83 batters per inning and 44 percent of batters he faced either walked or struck out; last year, those numbers were down to 1.30 and 32 percent, respectively. The dip in strikeouts isn’t so bad when it’s accompanied by a decrease in his walk rate, but don’t expect his trend of dramatically low BABIPs to continue if his K rate declines further.
2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs.
What were you expecting? There’s some disagreement here, but the general gist is: his strikeouts will rebound a little bit but his walk rate and BABIP will rise, taking his ERA with it. There are some extremities, to be sure—the Indians would much rather Bill James say “I told you so” in a few months than RotoChamp—but what’s interesting is that his projected success or failure isn’t particularly dependent on his BABIP: Steamer has him with a 3.77 ERA despite his hit rate soaring to .302, while RotoChamp has his ERA soaring to 4.20 while his BABIP holds pretty much steady at .236.
Best-case scenario: A repeat of 2011 is probably about as good as we can reasonably hope for from Sipp for 2012. His BABIP is bound to rise at least back to its usual .240-.250 level, but if he can regain some of his strikeout stuff and limit the long ball another ERA around 3.00 is a definite possibility.
Worst-case scenario: Sipp’s downward strikeout rate trend continues—but this time his walk rate goes the wrong way too. His hit rate shoots up to normal-pitcher levels, his ERA approaches 5.00, and he loses his spot in the bullpen midway through the season.
Most likely scenario: Sipp takes a step back from 2011—even if his strikeout rate rebounds, his walk rate would probably rise with it—but he’s still an effective, if ordinary pitcher. I’d probably take the under on his mean projected 3.87 ERA, but 60 innings at something around that level of performance sounds like a good bet.