Remembering the Once Hallowed Bullpen Mafia
Sunday saw the quiet end to an era of Indians baseball that, while not one for the record books, was certainly an important one as the 21st century ticks on.
The move that brought about this change? Relief pitcher Frank Herrmann was released.
With that small administrative move, the group formally known as the Bullpen Mafia is no more. Once the most feared relief corps in the league and a wild collection of disparate personalities brought together through the machinations of baseball, attrition and the powers that be conspired to break these men apart. It was a wonderful run in a time of misery for the Tribe. Let’s look back to see how the men of the hurling Omerta came together.
In the wake of that wonderful run to the ALCS in 2007, taking the Boston Red Sox to the brink before falling to the wills of fate, the Tribe fell on hard times. Consecutive Cy Young winners traded away, injury to heartthrob center fielders and an ultimate decision to cash out and look to the future shattered the team. By the dawn of the 2009 season, we had a strange new group masquerading as the Cleveland Indians.
The bullpen was built around Kerry Wood along with familiar names that would be known later – Joe Smith, Tony Sipp, the lanky Raphael Perez all seeing time. There was no passion to this group, it was a listless, meandering hulk devoid of the energy and focus that the best bullpens have. It was a feeling that infected the whole team, and the ‘pen suffered for it.
But, on June 28, 2009, the move that would shape the relievers for years to come was made.
Mark DeRosa was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for a fireballing reliever named Chris Perez. On its face, it looked like a typical deal – utility player in exchange for a random arm. Even at 23 Perez didn’t fit the clean cut, businesslike image the Cardinals had been known for. There was no seismic shift, no crack of thunder or strange formation of birds that signaled what this move would mean, but it was a momentous event.
The season wore on, the Indians doing terribly as they listed under the weight of underperfoming sluggers and a punchless rotation, finishing in the cellar for the second consecutive year or near enough not to matter. The young reliever, Perez, struck a lot of people out, 10.9 per nine innings. But he got hit too, because he challenged hitters, always believing his was the best stuff. In an interview later in his Indians tenure he noted he’d rather give up a hit than walk someone. The spirit of a warrior if ever there was one.
It was a lost season, the Indians in a nadir, caught between eras.
As 2010 dawned, little looked better save for some power arms in the ‘pen, Wood again looking to lead them. But the injury bug bit him as it had so many times prior, and suddenly a new leader as needed.
The Tribe didn’t have far to look.
Perez was the hardest thrower in the bullpen and along with his (at times) wipeout slider, he had the tools to be closer. He was tapped for the role early on, but that wasn’t it. That wasn’t all the team needed. Any great capo needs his underbosses, the men to carry his influence to the rest. So the front office looked to the farm. That’s where Vinnie Pestano comes in.
Where Perez was perhaps the power of the Bullpen Mafia, the emotional center and anchor in games, Pestano was the straw that stirred the drink.
As the season wore on and the Mafia solidified, it was as much Pestano as it was Perez that locked down games for the Indians.
Vinnie, as he would simply become known, came to the team through the 2006 draft, a 20th round pick out of Cal State Fullerton. He was a max effort guy, like Perez, who threw hard and with movement. He finally appeared in 2010 for five innings, striking out eight and allowing four hits. It was the first hint of what could be something great, and the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Though some would argue for his replacing Perez in the closer role over the years, Pestano knew his place, the pecking order, stayed in the setup man role and did it beautifully.
Over the course of 132 innings in 2011 and ’12, Pestano struck out 160 batters and held a 2.45 ERA. He was simply brilliant, and as sure a thing as there was in baseball. If your name wasn’t Rivera, of course. Arm troubles sapped him of power in 2013 and he couldn’t help the team like he wanted as they rose to be playoff contenders once again. But he gave his heart to the team, more than we could have asked for.
However, it wasn’t just these two men that made up the Mafia.
There was the brainiac, the Harvard boy, Frank Herrman. Every boss needs a consigliere and if there was one for Perez it would have to be Herrman. Not only that, his time at Harvard surrounded him with the future movers and shakers of the world. Like the Corleones, the Bullpen Mafia had friends in high places.
Herrmann was never the most amazing pitcher, in fact the only time he had an ERA+ above 100 was in 2012 right before his arm blew out. He was often times relegated to garbage roles and mop ups, but he brought a sense of finality to the team – if he pitched, the game was effectively over. Herrmann came to the Tribe as an undrafted free agent in 2006, and returned to school after the season to finish his degree. And while his time in Cleveland wasn’t the grandest time in the world, he did two hit Yale and one-hit Cornell. In the Ivy League, that’s a sterling success. He likely struck out future CEO’s and perhaps a president or two. It’s good to have connections.
Or Tony Sipp. Lord, I liked Tony Sipp. There was something about him that just made me happy. He had a verve, an energy that wasn’t quite happy, but it was… alive.
Sipp was the LOOGY that did so much more leaving last year for the Diamondbacks in the trade that brought Trevor Bauer and Brian Shaw and saw Shin-Soo Choo leave as well. Shaw is a great reliever in his own right, a goofy SOB with a nasty cutter, and Bauer could be the ace of the future if he hits his ceiling. Certainly worth it, but that doesn’t mean it has to be nice.
Sipp was great for the Tribe, and when Raffy Perez lost it he was right there to pick up the slack. He’s always struck people out, even this year with the Houston Astros he’s knocking down 11.1 per nine innings. With the Indians he did the same, but with better control. His 2.38 K/BB ratio in 2011 is second only to this year’s with the Astros. His FIP never dropped below 4.20, so he’s been a lucky man, but in baseball, like organized crime, it helps to have a higher power on your side.
Speaking of Raphael Perez. Sometimes he made me wonder if he was just a spider in a human suit, like Lester in Men in Black. Or perhaps a collection of spiders in a human suit. He was all arms and legs, and his fingers were incredible. I swear he could wrap them all the way around the ball without touching his palm. He was of the last vestiges of the 2007 playoff team, part of that Raphel Double Punch along with Betancourt that did a decent job before Joe Borowski made it interesting.
Perez came to the team as a free agent signing out of the Dominican, and was electric from the start. His first two seasons wih the tribe, particularly the 2007 season, were amazing with a 202 ERA+ and over a strikeout per inning. Injuries sapped him of power until 2011, the height of the Mafia’s power, when he had one of his best years. Getting by on guile and trickery, he had a 131 ERA+ over 63 innings. His decline was quite apparent with his velocity dropping before arm issues sidelined him again and again, eventually just disappearing altogether as Sipp took over.
In any great Family, the weak links are phased out and nobody talks about them. That is part of the Omerta. One wonders what Perez is doing now, hopefully he didn’t just take a “vacation” back to the Dominican.
There was the sidewinder, Joe Smith, now departed to the Angels in free agency last fall. Along with Perez, Smith was an elder statesment in the ‘pen after arriving in December of 2008 in an odd trade that also netted Luis Valbuena, at the expense of Franklin Gutierrez. Smith has been brilliant his whole career, a 140 ERA+ attests to that, and from 2011 on he’s been even better at 164. He was always a nice change of pace from the other guys, that motion of his bringing the ball up from the depths of the mound and either thumping right back down as a heavy sinker or a slider running away from righties. He closed games when Chris Perez was tired, he set up when Vinnie was out of it and he could throw more than one inning if need be. About all he didn’t do was start. His 2011 season was mighty, a 196 ERA+ and he added up 2.3 WAR, tough stuff considering he only threw 67 innings. He was brilliant, a key cog in the machine.
There were other names, certainly, but they only played bit parts. Chad Durbin contributed 68.1 innings allowing 86 hits with only 59 strikeouts, all good for a 74 ERA+. Some young guns wandered through, Alex White and Justin Germano and Nick Hagadone and even Corey Kluber for a bit, but none had what it took to join the family. These five men, the two Perezes, Pestano, Smith and Sipp, they were the dread force giving a little peace of mind to fans and the middling starters taking the mound each day.
As quick as they rose, the Bullpen Mafia started cracking. While he was stupendous in 2011, 2012 saw Chris Perez’s strikouts drop and his bad numbers climb. His hegemony was being questioned on the outside even if the Family held strong. He was twice an All Star but that was as much for quota as for performance. He clashed with media and fans on Twitter and the marijuana strangeness in 2013 was all but the nail in the coffin. With the emergence of Cody Allen, both he and Pestano’s jobs were on the line.
Pestano similarly fell off in 2013, not able to blow guys away anymore and he didn’t have the other tools to get it done. Herrmann needed surgery, Sipp was decent as ever,but was a movable commodity as the team looked to get better elsewhere. The Godfather Perez left under storm clouds as his contract ended last fall and now is just another face in a Dodgers bullpen looking for an identity.
The bullpen has some character still, but with a closer like Allen there’s little passion, simply machine-like destruction. John Axford has a brilliant moustache and a unique style, but his stuff doesn’t translate enough to anchor the pen, so his role is mitigated. Shaw is a flat faced oddball, and Scott Achinson, while wise beyond his 200 years, plainly doesn’t have the time for the youthful shenanigans that the Mafia were loved for.
The team is better, and headed in a fun new direction, perhaps it’s all for the best. While the Mafia flourished with ineffective managers at the helm, a small island of relaxation and rebellion in the button down world of Acta and Wedge before him, perhaps it’s not needed as Terry Francona rules the roost. Perhaps a Family isn’t needed because the whole team is happy, a family in its own right. They did their duty/ They gave the rest of the team levity and hope both on the field and off until something better could come into the clubhouse. I know one thing, it was a special time for the Indians and their fans, having something to watch even in those doldrums and a rock to lean on in the late innings.
The Bullpen Mafia may be crushed and the Omerta broken, but by the look of it, their spirit lives on.