It seems pretty clear that Vinnie Pestano is the Cleveland Indians’ closer of the future. He broke out in a big way in 2011 when he posted a 2.32 ERA in 68 outings, racking up 84 strikeouts in just 62 innings to establish himself as Chris Perez‘ heir apparent. And after Perez’ Opening Day meltdown, some thought Pestano’s ascension to the closer’s job was nigh.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Manny Acta has continued to express his support for Perez, and his bullpen usage has borne that out. Perez has struggled on multiple occasions since Opening Day, but he’s generally gotten better as the season has worn on. His last appearance was his first multiple-strikeout outing of the offseason, as he got both future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and notorious Tribe killer Torii Hunter to chase strike three.
But while Perez is still Cleveland’s go-to guy in the ninth inning, a closer look at Acta’s bullpen usage reveals that he is already turning to Pestano when the Indians need an out.
For decades, late-game relievers have been judged primarily on their ability to amass large quantities of saves, which generally only one pitcher per team gets the chance to accrue at a time. There are multiple ways to earn a coveted ‘S,’ but the typical save situation involves the closer entering the game in the ninth inning when his team is ahead by less than four runs and getting three outs without losing the lead.
Saves are incredibly overvalued by the mainstream media, and even in some teams’ front offices the stat is still given undue weight. Even so, a save situation is not necessarily the most important in the game; a pitcher has far more margin for error when entering the game with a three-run lead to open the ninth inning than he would with the bases loaded and the score tied, even in the middle innings. This should not be a controversial idea.
Rather than relying on the binary categorizations of save or non-save situations, a more prudent means of managing a bullpen is to go by Leverage Index. LI rates every situation in every game by how much potential it has for affecting the final outcome. An “average” game state has an LI of 1.00, while an LI of 2.00 indicates that the plate appearance is twice as important as a normal one. General sabermetric consensus is that a manager should deploy his best bullpen arm—his “relief ace”—in the highest-leverage situations of the game once the starter is out, whatever the inning.
By that measure, Acta isn’t using Perez when the Indians most need a big out. The average LI when Perez has taken the mound through his first 10 outings of the season is 1.98 (i.e., 98 percent higher than the average plate appearance). But he’s not the team leader. Another member of the bullpen has a gmLI of 2.52 in 11 appearances—that would be Pestano.
Is this intentional, or is it just coincidence? Hard to say. Acta has a (well-deserved) reputation for being one of the most sabermetrically friendly managers in the game, and if nothing else the front office is undoubtedly aware of how arbitrarily “save situations” are defined. But Acta has generally taken a fairly traditionalist approach to managing the bullpen, and this pattern did not hold last year, when Pestano clearly outpitched Perez. Not to mention that one month is a fairly small sample size.
There is little doubt at this point that Pestano is the best pitcher of the bullpen. Regardless of one’s opinions on whether he should supplant Perez as closer, Acta is—intentionally or not—using his most effective weapon as his “relief ace.”