Heading into 2012, the bullpen was seen as an area of strength for both the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. Considering the seasons both teams’ relief corps enjoyed in 2011, that was a logical conclusion to draw—at least on the surface.
But bullpens have a funny way of being great one year and awful the next. Sometimes this is a result of player turnover; names and faces coming out of the bullpen tend to change year to year thanks to trades, free agency, and even retirement. Teams are always trying to get better, and if a GM thinks swapping a reliever here or there is what the club needs for a playoff run, he’ll do it.
In other cases it’s the result of a few key pitchers having career years and then regressing. Seeing as how managers tend to rely on the same three or four players in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, it doesn’t take many players breaking out in the same year to have a dramatic effect. Conversely, a handful of players having awful years can be a team’s undoing.
So how does that help us in comparing the Tigers and Indians? Well, it helps us keep things in perspective and stops us from getting carried away making predictions based off fluky performances, sort of like the stock market. So much of what goes on with relievers is mental that a few bad outings can ruin weeks, if not months of a pitcher’s season. Of course, the opposite is also true—a few good games and all of the sudden he becomes unhittable.
A good example of this was the Detroit Tigers’ bullpen in 2011. Not many could have predicted the year they would have as a staff last season on their way to the AL Central crown. Detroit’s relief corps combined for an ERA of 3.93, a WHIP of 1.39, and close to 8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. All of these stats put the Tigers in the middle of the pack in terms of major league bullpens.
But the Tigers excelled in shortening games. In 2011 Jim Leyland could turn to Joaquin Benoit (2.95 ERA, 2.73 SIERA), Daniel Schlereth (3.49 ERA, 4.35 SIERA), and Al Alburquerque (1.87 ERA, 2.75 SIERA) in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. All three are hard throwers who were downright dominant at times.
This was an advantage the Tigers had over a lot of teams. In many cases the goal is to knock the starter out of the game early with the hope of getting to the bullpen, at which point anything can happen. But when teams faced Detroit last year, that strategy proved futile more often than not. Of course, things don’t always go as planned: Alburquerque had offseason elbow surgery and will miss at least half of the season, if not more, and makes life that much more difficult for Jim Leyland.
Accompanying them so far this season have been Octavio Dotel (3.50 ERA, 2.67 SIERA last year), Phil Coke (4.47 ERA, 4.44 SIERA), Collin Balester (4.54 ERA, 3.44 SIERA), and Duane Below (4.34 ERA, 4.16 SIERA). Yes, all four have their weaknesses, but all are serviceable options out of the bullpen. Do you want to rely on them heavily in key situations? Probably not, though they will have to fill the void left by Alburquerque.
Last but not least is the rock of the Detroit bullpen in 2011: closer extraordinaire Jose Valverde. In 2011, Valverde was one of the best closers in all of baseball. He posted an ERA of 3.02 with a WHIP of 1.17 and 49 saves in 49 chances. His DIPS numbers suggest he got lucky, yet by a closer’s standards Valverde had a perfect season. He’s paid to get the last three outs of the game, and he did that better than anyone.
Here’s another impressive feat that often goes unnoticed: Valverde made 75 appearances out of the pen in 2011, 70 of which finished games, most among all MLB relievers. So, Valverde wasn’t just dominant in his closer role—he was also an absolute workhorse.
Can Valverde repeat that performance in 2012? Already the answer to that question is a resounding no, as he blew a save on Opening Day. He was due for some regression, but even so most thought it would take more than one game before he got into trouble. Regardless, big things are expected from Valverde in 2012 and he’ll need to come through if the Tigers want to repeat as AL Central champs.
The Indians’ 2011 bullpen was slightly better than the Tigers. Cleveland’s reliever posted a 3.71 ERA, a 1.29 WHIP, and a 7.19 K/9 rate. Unfortunately, like the Tigers, those numbers put them in the middle of the pack. But that’s not to say they didn’t enjoy dominating performances from a number of different places in 2011, and it’s thanks to those players that the Tribe’s bullpen was regarded as one of the best relief corps in baseball.
Thankfully most of the Bullpen Mafia has returned in 2012. Vinnie Pestano (2.32 ERA, 2.23 SIERA), Joe Smith (2.01 ERA, 3.35 SIERA), Tony Sipp (3.03 ERA, 3.80 SIERA) and Rafael Perez (3.00 ERA, 3.71 SIERA) are looking to build on their 2011 successes and are being counted on to preserve leads in the late innings. So far, the results have been mixed. Each has had his moments of weakness already this season, but there’s no reason to be concerned yet.
The real issue will be whether or not they can stay healthy. For all the injuries that the everyday players and starters suffered last year, the bullpen remained relatively healthy throughout. If they can perform as consistently as they did in 2011 while remaining healthy at the same time, the Indians will have a shot at toppling the Tigers in the division.
Of course, they won’t be alone. The Indians did a great job this spring of adding depth to the bullpen. New additions Dan Wheeler and Jairo Ascencio are coming out of the pen right now and will hold key roles moving forward. Top prospect Nick Hagadone started the year in Columbus and, as expected, was the first reliever called up from Triple-A.
The Indians also have Jeremy Accardo, who had an amazing spring after a less than impressive year in Baltimore, and Frank Hermann waiting in the wings in Columbus. Both will probably see action with the big league club sometime this season.
Anchoring the back end of the bullpen once again is Chris Perez. Perez has proven that he can handle the closer’s role over the last couple years. He posted an ERA of 3.32 and WHIP of 1.21 while recording 36 saves in 40 opportunities in 2011. However, there are factors in Perez’s game that have caused concern and have many thinking he should be relieved of his duties.
First off, Perez’s strikeouts per 9 innings dropped to a career low 5.88. Second, he experienced a significant drop off in the peak speed of his fastball—never a good sign for a reliever. Third, he experienced an increase in opponent’s batting average from .182 in 2010 to .215 in 2011. His batting average on balls in play of .240 was in line with his career average, but it’s unlikely he can sustain that with his diminished velocity and strikeout stuff and his 4.27 FIP, 4.65 SIERA, and 5.01 xFIP were all red flags.
It’s a worrisome combination for a 26-year-old power pitcher who had been known for his fastball and ability to strike people out. Combine that with his propensity to overthrow when his pitches aren’t quite working right and watching Perez close out games can be an adventure. Case in point: the Opening Day save opportunity that turned into a 16 inning nightmare for the Indians and had fans screaming for his head on a platter.
Perez has said that he was pitching with a sore arm for most of 2011, which would help to explain all his problems. Reports this spring stated Perez had regained the velocity he had lost, but early signs point to that not being the case. Perez’s fastball has been regularly maxing out at 93-94 mph as opposed to the 97-98 mph he used to hit. Also every pitch seems like a chore, as indicated by his emphatic grunting on almost every pitch he throws.
So which Perez should we expect to see as 2012 unfolds: the dominant closer of 2010 or the second coming of Joe Borowski? Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. He’s 3-for-4 in save opportunities, but they haven’t come easy. Then again, if Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Donald don’t boot potential game ending double play balls his saves may seem more impressive than they do at the moment. (In Jason Donald‘s defense, he had no chance at grabbing the grounder that ricocheted off of his face Tuesday night. There are wicked hops, and then there’s the bad hope he had to deal with.)
The Verdict: This is a close one, so close in fact that I can’t give the edge to either team. This is a push.
Both bullpens are loaded with quality arms, both youthful and experienced, and both teams’ relief corps should be solid once again this year. No one in either bullpen makes you nervous once they’ve entered the game. Fans trust that most members of both bullpens will get the job done when called upon. Not many teams can make such a claim.
The one slight advantage the Indians do have is Vinnie Pestano. Should Chris Perez struggle this season or reinjure his oblique, Pestano has the stuff to be able to step in and fill the void at closer. In fact, some could argue Pestano may be the better candidate for closer given his spectacular 2011 campaign. Do the Tigers have someone who could fill in or be just as good as Jose Valverde? I’m not entirely sure.
However, this isn’t enough of an advantage for me to give any type of edge to the Tribe. This scenario is predicated on events that may never play out and are based on a very small sample size for Pestano (one full year of MLB experience). There’s also a chance that Valverde could get hurt and Octavio Dotel, a very experienced closer, could step in and save 30-some games. You just never know.
When playing either of these teams in 2012 the strategy should be simple: Get out to a lead early, because getting one late may be next to impossible.