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 one of the leading candidates to join the Tribe’s bullpen: Frank Herrmann.
Background: The Indians signed Herrmann, now 27, as an undrafted amateur free agent in 2005 out of some college in Cambridge, Massachusetts whose name I can’t seem to remember right now (my confusion has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I go to Brown). After taking a year to finish his studies, Herrmann threw exactly 26 starts a year from 2006-8 and worked his way up to Triple-A Columbus before being moved to the bullpen in 2009. He made his MLB debut in June 2010.
Last year: Herrmann really struggled in 2011, posting a 5.11 ERA (78 ERA+) in 56.1 innings with the Tribe. As our own Steve Kinsella has pointed out, his numbers took a dramatic turn for the worse as the season wore on. After a bad first few outings and a brief trip back to Columbus, Herrmann returned to twirl 25.2 innings with a 3.16 ERA in his next 15 outings. But it was all downhill from there: Herrmann got lit up for a 6.49 ERA while posting an ugly 1.71 WHIP and a K/BB ratio of just 1.22 the rest of the way.
Herrmann’s .327 BABIP and 67.4 percent strand rate may suggest that he didn’t pitch as poorly as his ERA shows; his 4.29 FIP, 4.63 xFIP, and 4.35 SIERA all corroborate his story, but low-strikeout pitchers like him (5.4 K/9) are generally more likely to underperform their DIPS numbers. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs both pegged Herrmann as a replacement-level player last year, while Baseball-Reference put him at 0.3 wins below replacement.
Key factor: Improvement. Herrmann is almost definitely due for some positive regression after last year, but even if he comes all the way back to his DIPS stats, is that enough to make him a useful part of the Tribe’s bullpen? With so many other promising relievers lurking in the bullpen, an ERA in the mid-4.00’s is probably below Cleveland’s bullpen replacement level.
Herrmann has a leg up for a bullpen job, but he needs to show some significant improvement in order to truly deserve it. He turns 28 in May so he’s not exactly green behind the ears, but if his spring training strikeout and walk numbers mean anything—and some recent research shows that they could—then his nine punchouts against just one free pass in 9.1 preseason innings could be a sign that something has changed.
2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:
Quite a bit of variety here, but at least there’s a clear middle ground. An interesting thing to note: everyone but RotoChamp sees at least one of Herrmann’s strikeout and walk rates rising a new career high, so perhaps his pitch-to-contact style will continue to mellow out a bit. Also worth noting is that everyone sees Herrmann notching a below-average ERA—further fuel for the argument that he should start the season in Triple-A.
Best-case scenario: Herrmann makes the Opening Day roster and we quickly discover that his spring training strides are for real. There’s a noticeable increase in his strikeouts as his K/9 rate rises to something in the neighborhood of 6.5; as his punchouts become more frequent he walks fewer batters and allows fewer home runs. His ERA falls below 4.00 for the first time and he holds the long relief job all season long.
Worst-case scenario: Herrmann wins a bullpen spot, but once the games start to count it becomes apparent that he hasn’t improved at all since the second half of 2011. Another early slump earns him another trip back to Columbus, but this time he permanently loses his bullpen spot to whoever gets promoted in his place (probably Nick Hagadone). He might get a call-up later in the season if an injury strikes, but he permanently loses his place in the relief corps pecking order.
Most likely scenario: Even after the acquisition of Jairo Acensio, Manny Acta’s endorsement and his solid performance probably means Herrmann will win a bullpen spot. His mean projection looks fair to me, though I’d take the over on it. He won’t lose his job immediately, but by midseason it will be clear that a fully healthy Bullpen Mafia is better off with someone else in Herrmann’s place.