The Indians bullpen had its highs and lows in 2012. Collectively, Indians relievers were statistically undistinguished. They logged 528.1 innings, the fift- highest workload among major league bullpens. In doing so, they straddled the American League average in WHIP (Indians relievers: 1.27, AL average: 1.26) and on-base percentage (.309, .309), and they were below average in ERA (3.99, 3.55), slugging percentage (.391, .375), and K/9 (7.9, 8.3). A good starting point in forecasting what 2013 will look like for what is arguably the game’s most volatile component from year to year is to separate what clearly worked from what clearly didn’t.
What clearly worked was a familiar trio of hurlers (and members of the Bullpen Mafia) that have been keeping it together in the later innings for a few years running. In his fourth year as the Tribe’s closer, the outspoken Chris Perez converted 39 of 43 save opportunities. He regained a tick on his fastball after seeing his velocity drop in 2011, but the x factor was probably his slider, which for whatever reason appeared to have more bite than it had in the past. According to FanGraphs, opposing hitters swung at his slider more often this past year than in 2011, yet made contact with it just 66.7% of the time—way down from 80% the year before. Perhaps as a result of the pitch’s increased effectiveness, Perez struck out a commanding 9.2 batters per nine (up from just 5.9 in 2011) and had a career-high groundball percentage of 40.6% (up from just 28.3%). Earlier in the offseason the Tribe was known to be gauging Perez’s trade value, but there is nothing to indicate he can’t put together another solid season this coming year if he sticks around.
If Perez is dealt today, Vinnie Pestano is the closer tomorrow. Last year Pestano solidified his role as one of the best setup men in the game by posting a 2.57 ERA through 70 innings (it was under 2.00 until late August) and by continuing to strand runners at a high rate (85.7%, 12th among major league relievers). Sidearmer Joe Smith rounds out the trio, as he also posted an ERA under 3.00 and continued to rank among the game’s top relievers in groundball percentage (58%, also 12th among major league relievers).
What also worked (less clearly, but in my opinion well enough to deserve a spot on the big league roster) was Cody Allen, who with apologies to Esmil Rogers was the biggest surprise to come out of the 2012 bullpen. The Indians’ 23rd-round pick (698th overall) from the 2011 draft seemed to come out of nowhere. Over the past two seasons, he progressed through Mahoning Valley, Lake County, Kinston, Carolina, Akron, and Columbus—like he was just passing through for a few quick innings before moving on and moving up. Across the various stages of the farm system he put together a 1.74 ERA over 98 innings, averaging 11.8 strikeouts and 2.1 walks per nine.
Allen became just the second player from his draft class to reach the majors when he was called up in July (incidentally, the first player was new teammate Trevor Bauer). The Indians proceeded to go 3-24 in games in which Allen made an appearance. In fact, they lost the first 16 games in which he appeared. But this is misleading; Allen did not allow a run in his first 12 appearances, and he was one of Acta’s go-to guys when the game appeared to be a lost cause. In his 29-inning big league stint, he didn’t replicate his minor league strikeout and walk percentages and he finished with an ERA pushing 4.00. However, opposing hitters had a batting average on balls in play of .329, which is likely higher than he deserved. Allen has good stuff and relies heavily on a fastball that sits in the mid 90′s and a curveball. He’s impressed within the organization and should get another shot in 2013.
One bright spot in the 2012 bullpen that is no longer with the team is Esmil Rogers. Rogers spent the first few years of his career in Colorado. In 184.2 innings over parts of four seasons there, he had an ERA of 6.77, and when he was purchased from the Rockies this past June, his ERA on the season was just north of 8.00. But something clicked when he came to Cleveland; over 44 appearances with the Tribe, Rogers had an ERA of 3.06. He struck out just over a batter an inning with a 4.5/1 strikeout to walk ratio. Part of his success might have come from the fact that his fastball jumped almost two miles per hour from 2011 to 2012 (average of 93.9 in 2011; 95.7 in 2012). Rogers was traded to Toronto in November for Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes, a deal that set up the Tribe’s productive offseason by giving the front office the flexibility it needed to explore trade alternatives involving various pieces.
Much of what didn’t work for the bullpen in 2012 will no longer affect the team one way or another this coming year. Jairo Asencio was claimed off waivers by the Cubs in June. Jeremy Accardo was released in August and signed with Oakland. Dan Wheeler, who was ineffective over 12 appearances but then pitched well in Columbus, became a free agent at the end of the year and signed with Kansas City. Scott Maine struggled this past season (though he only logged six innings over nine appearances) and was claimed off waivers by Toronto, and subsequently claimed from Toronto by Miami. Josh Tomlin got shelled in relief, but after a couple brutal outings in late July and August, he was shut down and underwent Tommy John surgery after his elbow soreness was linked to a damaged ulnar collateral ligament.
One of the most significant question marks surrounding the 2013 relief corps is who the team will carry as its lefty specialist, if anyone. I’ve projected right-handers Perez, Pestano, Smith, and Allen as taking up four of (presumably) seven bullpen spots; I’d give the fifth spot to Scott Barnes. Tony Sipp (who had a down year but not a terrible one, and who’s given the Indians far more good memories than bad) was traded to Arizona in the Shin-Soo Choo deal. Rafael Perez was designated for assignment and granted free agency in November. These moves have left the team with just Barnes, Nick Hagadone, and David Huff as left-handed options. Somehow Huff is worse against lefties (career .906 OPS) than righties, but even if he wasn’t I prefer him as rotation depth.
That leaves Barnes or Hagadone. The Tribe may well carry both arms, but if it comes down to one, who makes the cut will depend on what the team is looking for. If they want a lefty one-out guy (LOOGY), Hagadone may be the best fit; on his career, lefties have just a .495 OPS against him (though lefties have put up just a .614 OPS against Barnes). But Barnes, who was acquired in the 2009 trade that sent Ryan Garko to San Francisco, has better command and would arguably make a better long reliever. He has a deceptive delivery, and while his fastball sits in the lows 90s he actually works off of his slider.
While I believe in Hagadone’s stuff—his fastball has more zip than anyone else in the bullpen, which can potentially add a new dimension to the pitching staff—I’m scared of his lack of control. He strikes out plenty of batters, but through 36.1 big league innings he’s walked 21 batters (5.2 per nine), which is a large part of why his WHIP this past year was 1.62. This is a recurring problem for Hagadone. In 2010, the year he was converted to a reliever, his walk rate between Kinston and Akron was 6.6 over 85.2 innings. He brought it all the way down to 2.8 in the 71 innings he spent in the minors in 2011, but 2012 shows this is something he still needs to work on.
The trade that sent Sipp to Arizona brought back two right-handed relievers, each of whom put together a solid 2012. The first is sinkerballer Matt Albers. Arizona acquired him from Boston at the trade deadline, and between the two teams he assembled what is probably his best season to date. Combined, he pitched to a 2.39 ERA over 60.1 innings. After he saw his strikeouts per nine rise to 9.5 in 2011, he watched them dip back to 6.6 this past year—more in line with his career norm. But his groundball rate was 55.3%, leading to a groundball-to-flyball ratio of 2.14. Both of these rates would have been second on the Indians this past year to Joe Smith (58%, 2.33).
But the Indians also acquired 25-year-old Bryan Shaw. I concede that I’d heard little about Shaw until this trade, but everything suggests there is reason to be excited about what he can bring to the Tribe bullpen. His cutter and his slider both have great movement, with a 12 to 14 mile per hour speed differential. It’s easy to see why some projected Shaw as Arizona’s future closer. His groundball-inducing tendencies are even more pronounced than Albers’—thus far in his two-year career, he has a groundball rate of 57.5% and a groundball to flyball ratio of 2.73.
However, neither Albers nor Shaw is particularly effective against left-handed hitters. Still, I believe they deserve the last two spots in the bullpen—that is, unless the Indians sign one of the remaining free agent left-handed relievers (such as J.P. Howell, against whom left-handed hitters have a .599 OPS over the past three seasons, or Will Ohman, against whom lefties have OPSed .634). But I don’t recommend this. Whatever resources the team has left after their winter spending spree can be better allocated elsewhere. The Tribe has plenty of depth (Frank Herrmann), intriguing arms that missed time last year to injury (Blake Wood and Chen Lee), and arms that could use a little more seasoning (Trey Haley, who has been raising eyebrows in the Arizona Fall League).
Decisions relating to the bullpen are especially susceptible to being influenced by spring performances; who knows who will step up this year? But with what we know about the options available at the moment, I believe the selected relievers are more than capable of transforming the bullpen into one of the Tribe’s greatest strengths in 2013.