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Swinging for the Fences: Pestano the ultimate x-factor in bullpen

How much difference does a resurgent Vinnie Pestano make in the Tribe bullpen?

Swinging for the Fences: Pestano the ultimate x-factor in bullpen
What would the back of the bullpen look like if Vinnie Pestano returns to form in 2014? (Photo: USATSI)
March 4, 2014
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If I may revisit the Indians' promotional campaign of a couple years ago, I'd like to post the question "What if?"

During spring training, this simple phrase echoes throughout all the camps in Arizona and Florida as it prefaces many questions regarding the players in camp. 2014 is no different.

What if Masahiro Tanaka can get the Yankees back to the playoffs?

What if Robinson Cano can lead the Mariners to a surprise contention run this season?

What if the Tigers end up regretting trading Prince Fielder andDoug Fister?

Okay, that last one was more of a secret hope than a theoretical scenario, but nevertheless, speculation abounds during the weeks of late winter and early spring, which is what makes this one of my favorite times of year.

There are many "What if?" questions in Goodyear, Arizona with the Indians, as well.

I'd like to pose one question, however, where I would like to throw out probability and realistic expectations at least for the sake of discussion.

As things stand now, we have a pretty good picture of what the back of the Tribe bullpen should look like come opening day with John Axford in the closer role and Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw setting him up. Should Axford return to being a consistent and dominant closer, that's not a bad group to have.

But one seemingly-forgotten element in the back of the bullpen, most likely because of his poor performance last season, is former setup man Vinnie Pestano.

In 2013, Pestano was forced out of his role as setup man as inconsistency plaugued him for much of the season. In addition to his ERA jumping to 4.08, he also saw his WHIP increase to 1.64 as well as his H/9 (9.4), HR/9 (1.5) and BB/9 (5.3). Many blame his participation in the World Baseball Classic during last spring, which has been considered a probable cause for several players' performance, or lack thereof, last season.

But whatever the reason, Pestano is coming to camp with the full intent to put 2013 behind him and attempt to win his job back.

Now obviously he'll have to earn his way back to his former role and prove he has returned to his old dominant form on a consistent basis, but he's in camp this spring with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, particularly after losing his arbitration case against the Tribe earlier this offseason where he had to settle for $975,000 as his compensation for 2014 rather than the $1.45 million he originally filed for.

The right-hander made his 2014 Cactus League debut on Monday and pitched a 1-2-3 shutout inning on only seven pitches against the Rangers with a popup and a pair of groundouts. He said after his outing that he felt that the movement on his pitches had returned and that the velocity should come back in time.

So for now, let's assume Pestano looks like his vintage dominant form and has forced his way back into the late-inning relief conversation. How much of a difference would he make in the back of the bullpen?

In 2012, the Indians had to go to their bullpen a lot due to the shortcomings of their starting rotation, but the trio ofJoe Smith, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez was one of the more dominant back-of-the-bullpen combinations in baseball as they managed to hold just about every lead handed to them from the seventh inning on.

Smith and Perez have since departed for free agency with Cody Allen and John Axford taking their places. Bryan Shaw has also worked his way into the equation. Without Pestano in the conversation, the three of them could potentially have a combined ERA of 2.54 as well as a 1.19 WHIP and 10.2 K/9 based on their career best seasons.

Not bad.

Over the course of the 2011 and 2012 seasons, though, when Vinnie Pestano was at his peak, he had a combined 2.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 11 K/9. 

If you add that into the equation, then things become more interesting.

Not to mention Pestano also has the ability to step in and become the everyday closer, if needed, as he did so in the minors with 71 career minor league saves in 85 opportunities from 2007 to 2010. He also has 11 big league saves in 21 opportunities.

Plug all those numbers in and the Tribe could, in theory, have quartet of relievers at the back of their bullpen with an ERA of 2.50, a WHIP of 1.14 and a K/9 of 10.6.

By comparison, the back end of the 2012 Indians bullpen that was regarded as the primary strength of the team and one of the better late-inning relief trios in the league had a combined 3.04 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 8.7 K/9.

It would take a good deal of pressure off the starting rotation knowing that the game would still be in good hands if they couldn't pitch past the sixth inning. Heck, even the fifth inning if this scenario fully panned out.

So what exactly changed for Pestano from 2012 to 2013 and can it be corrected?

A decrease in movement on his pitches is partially to blame, as evidenced by the increase line-drive percentage by opposing hitters. His overall opposing line-drive percentage in 2013 jumped to 21% compared to 16.6% in 2012, according to Fangraphs.

More specifically, the line-drive percentages on his four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball and slider in 2012 were 16.9%, 10.0% and 14.3%, respectively. In 2013, those numbers spiked to 19.7%, 36.4% (Ouch!) and 21.7%. So clearly hitters were not having as much trouble squaring up on his pitches as they did in years past.

While I don't know if this played as much of a factor in his regression, Pestano did also see a slight drop in velocity in 2013. The average velocity on his four-seamer decreased from 91.7 mph in 2012 to 91.1 mph in 2013 while his two-seamer dropped from 80.0 mph to 79.5 mph. His slider did see the biggest velocity shift, though, as it went down to 91.6 mph in 2013 from 92.6 mph in 2012.

Decreased velocity may have had some effect on the right-hander's effectiveness, but I personally think it's been overplayed considering that the margin of difference isn't very large and that he didn't usually light up radar guns during his dominant years either. Of course, more velocity helps, but getting the movement back on his pitches on a regular basis will likely make more of a difference.

Realistically, will Vinnie Pestano return to form and lengthen an already-solid back of the bullpen?

That goes right along with the questions about John Axford becoming a dominant closer again and Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw remaining effective as setup men.

Realistically, that does appear to be a lot to ask for in the upcoming season.

But just for a moment, put skepticism aside and imagine if it all panned out.

After all, that's part of the fun of spring training.

Quick Thoughts

Indians acquire Justin Sellers from Dodgers for cash considerations... To me, the most interesting part of this transaction is not that the Indians acquired Sellers, but rather that they designated David Cooper for assignment. After the Tribe signed him to a big league contract early in the offseason, I thought he would get more than a little consideration for the bench and even if not, he did have one remaining minor league option.

The only reason I could come up with for him hitting the waiver wire is health concerns. Either he is still not fully recovered from the back injury that has kept him out of the big leagues since 2012 or some new injury or ailment has cropped up. Whatever the case may be, he is expected to remain in Indians camp as a non-roster invite, should he clear waivers.

As far as Justin Sellers, he's another versatile fielder that will be in the mix for a bench spot, but the way guys likeElliot JohnsonNyjer Morgan and Jeff Francoeur are playing so far in exhibition games, his chances of making the team may be slim, particularly because he doesn't offer much with the bat (career .199 hitter in MLB).

Orioles agree to deal with Johan Santana... Remember that other free-agent pitcher named Santana? Well, Baltimore is looking to continue to add depth to their starting rotation with former Mets left-hander Johan Santana.

According to Roch Kubatko of MASN Sports, Santana was in Orioles camp on Monday and that he was nearing a deal with the team. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports confirmed the deal on Tuesday saying it would be for one year.

Baltimore has been busy as of late adding former Indian Ubaldo Jimenez and outfielder Nelson Cruz into the fold. Santana likely wouldn't be ready until around midseason, though as he is still recovering from a shoulder injury.

Personally, I thought the Indians should've considered taking a flier on Santana, but considering his recovery timetable and the fact that he was reportedly only topping out at 81 mph in an independent bullpen session last week, it may just end up being another situation similar to Daisuke Matsuzaka last season. He'd be there for depth purposes, but as far as him being a reliable option in the starting rotation, that's debatable.

Like most minor league deals, he may be worth taking a chance on, but with his injury history and now recent decline in velocity, his ceiling may not be very high.

Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker to miss first part of regular season... Welp, just when we were wondering if the Mariners were on the verge of building a playoff-contending team, Lloyd McClendon announces that two of his top starters will not be ready for the start of the regular season due to injury. That pretty much leaves Felix Hernandez alone to fend for himself at the top of that rotation.

You would think that I had learned my lesson after the mirage of the Marlins and Blue Jays over the last couple years, yet I still came very close to buying into the Mariners as contenders. These injuries have exposed just how thin the depth is for Seattle, at least as far as starting pitching goes.

If they're going to contend, they can't afford to fall too far off the pace in that stacked AL West division and losing Iwakuma and Walker for any extended period of time may do just that.

Ian Kinsler calls Jon Daniels a "sleazeball", hopes that Rangers go "0-162"... Well, it appears former Rangers All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler wasn't too happy about being dealt to Detroit in a November trade that sent slugger first baseman Prince Fielder down to Arlington, or at least that's what he told ESPN.

"To be honest with you, I hope they go 0-162," Kinsler said about his former team. "I got friends, and I love my friends, but I hope they lose their [expletive],"

Kinsler also spoke about Texas GM Jon Daniels and solely blames him for the trade and other problems the Rangers have had over the last couple seasons.

"Daniels is a sleazeball," he says. "He got in good with the owners and straight pushed [Nolan] Ryan out. He thought all the things he should get credit for, Ryan got credit for. It's just ego. Once we went to the World Series, everybody's ego got huge, except for Nolan's."

Now the question is how much of this is truth and how much is just speaking out of anger? Who knows, but it has me rethinking the internal stability of the Rangers just a little bit. As Kinsler pointed out, they are no longer the same team that went to back-to-back World Series with key contributors like Josh Hamilton, CJ Wilson and Michael Young no longer in the fold.

Will Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo and other new or up-and-coming young players be able to help replicate that type of success? We'll soon find out.

In conclusion...

Other than a couple exhibition game recaps, this will be the last time you'll hear from me until I arrive in beautiful Goodyear, Arizona for a busy, but fun-filled week of Indians spring training coverage.

This will be the first time attending spring training for me and this winter of horrors has helped build up anticipation for this trip like nothing else. The Indians will be playing @ Padres, vs. Brewers, vs. Angels, @ D-Backs, vs. Padres, vs. Royals and @ White Sox during the week that I'm down there.

Also, minor league camps have officially opened this week as pichers and catchers have reported. Full squads will report on Friday with the first full squad workouts on the following Monday. The first minor league exhibition games won't begin until Friday the 14th, which is the last day I'm down there. I'll be sure to check things out at both major and minor league camps and provide updates and observations here on IBI and on Twitter.

Also, I'll be doing a nightly spring training podcast called "Spring Training Invite" to discuss game recaps, news and notes and preseason predictions for the 2014 Indians and MLB season. The show will hopefully feature several different contributers from the site as we will be talking everything baseball.

Hope you can join us for that all next week!

Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.

User Comments

March 8, 2014 - 8:15 AM EST
This column is where ideas go to die. Every Saturday, I peruse this site, and stop here to see what train wreck is happening from week-to-week. If you are a young man learning the ropes, you are climbing up the wrong tree. Liking a team doesn't mean you should write about the team. Boy, I can't wait to see your detailed reports from Goodyear: yes, sarcasm.
March 7, 2014 - 6:59 AM EST
If Pestano comes thru like he did a couple years ago then the Indians bullpen goes from good to elite because you are able to shorten games when necessary to get the win. They key is to not get happy with shortening games because you will wear out the bullpen. Establish early that you will demand innings from your starters and on occasion when you really want a game you go with Shaw, Pestano, Allen, Axford to close them out
March 5, 2014 - 8:59 AM EST
You really wonder what happened to Pestano last year that made him so hittable. His velocity decreases were negligible. For example, his line drive rate on his two-seamer increased from 10% to a whopping 36.5%, but the velocity of that pitch only decreased by 0.5 mph. It wasn't the velocity; it must have been either the location (too much of the plate) or the lack of movement.

Whatever it was, hopefully he can fix it.
March 4, 2014 - 6:20 PM EST
Re things panning out, I second your comment, "that does appear to be a lot to ask for in the upcoming season." I'm not nearly as sanguine on the BP situation as some people around's hoping that CC Lee, Bryan Price and Nick Hagadone come through and fulfill their big-time potential!

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